Backing up your data Part 3 - Backup strategies

Making backups of your data is vital. In the last articles in this series we looked at hard drive failure, how it can happen and what to do should your hard drive fail. We did not mention some other reasons for data loss though and these should also be kept in mind to scare you into performing backups and also to make sure that your backup strategy covers all eventualities.

Several freelancers we have spoken to keep all of their data on laptops or on a single PC in their homes. A thought that we often push to the back of our minds is theft of office equipment. With laptops this is the single most obvious route for data loss, laptops are very easy to steal, leave in a cab or mislay for one reason or another - careless we know but it does happen. Likewise with desktop PCs, should your house or office ever be broken into with the low cost of DVDs and other electronic gadgetry the PC can be one of the main targets for burglars. Imagine coming home to find not only has your house been broken into but all of your data held on your trusty PC has vanished and make sure your backup system is robust!

As well as theft of PCs bear in mind that computers are not fire resistant. PCs are electrical items and malfunction, lightening strikes and electrical surges can cause fires which will destroy all of the data on your PC.

With the thoughts of theft and fire in mind we need to make sure that in either of these events we are protected and can call on a regular backup system that will allow us to recover from these events with minimum data loss.

Firstly let's look at what files should be backed up and where to find them. There is a setting in Windows that you may need to change to be able to view 'file extensions', file extensions are the part of a filename that lets Windows know what type of program to use to open the file. If you do not currently have file extension viewing turned on you will simply see files as their file name and the file type is indicated by the type of icon used to represent the file, so a Word document will simply be a blue W on a sheet of paper. If you have file extensions turned on you will see the file ends with a .doc extension, this is the file extension for Microsoft Word documents. When you have file extensions turned on you will need to make sure that when you rename files you do not delete this extension, if you do Windows will not know which program to use to open the file, this will not corrupt the file though, simply re-adding it if you make a mistake will allow you to open the file again.

File extensions are a dot usually followed by three letters, some more examples are PDF files - .pdf, Excel spreadsheets - .xls, JPEG image files - .jpg, executable (program installation) files - .exe. As stated if you cannot see these then click the Start button on your desktop and click on My Computer. When the window opens from the Tools menu choose Folder Options. Click the View tab. Look for the option 'Hide extensions for known file types' and take the tick out of the box if present. While we are there make sure that the option 'Display the full path in the address bar' is also checked and the option 'Show hidden files and folders' is also checked. Click OK and now you will be able to understand more about what we talk about below.

With the option 'Display the full path in the address bar' turned on when you open My Computer you will see an address bar like the one in Internet Explorer which will show you the location of the folder you are currently in. When locating your files for back up below open up a Word or Text file and copy and paste the location of your files into this document and save it on your computer for later use.

Email messages:

Outlook - Outlook email messages and all other information (Tasks, Address book and Calendar) are all stored in .pst files, also known as Outlook data files. By default Windows stores the PST file that is created when the program is installed in the folder:

C:\Documents and Settings\YOURNAME\Local Settings\Application Data\Microsoft\Outlook

Where YOURNAME is the name of the Windows profile set up on your PC. So open Windows My Computer from your start menu again and browse to this location, here you will see a file called Outlook.pst, this is the file that contains all of your email and Outlook information so we need to make sure that this file is backed up.

Outlook Express - If you use Outlook Express as your mail client then your emails are stored in .dbx files. These files are found in the folder:

C:\Documents and Settings\YOURNAME\Local Settings\Application Data\Identities\{UNIQUEIDENTIFIER}\Microsoft\Outlook Express

Where UNIQUEIDENTIFIER is a long string of letters and numbers. Find this folder and inside you will see various files, Folders.dbx, Inbox.dbx and more besides, we need to back up all of these files.

Webmail - If you use Webmail to send and view your messages - i.e. Hotmail, Gmail or any other service where you use Internet Explorer or another web browser to visit a site to check your mail then you will not need to back up any information.

Internet Bookmarks:

The two main browsers in use today are Internet Explorer and Firefox, these two browsers have different ways of storing your favourite web sites.

Internet Explorer - the favourites for IE are stored in the folder:

C:\Documents and Settings\YOURNAME\Favorites

Note the American spelling of favourites! If you use IE browse to this folder and copy and paste its location into your backup file.

Firefox - Firefox does not store favourites in file format, they are all contained within the program. However you can backup the favourites (or bookmarks as they are called in Firefox) to a HTML file which you can then include in your backups. In Firefox click on the Bookmarks menu and then choose 'Manage Bookmarks', a new window will open (the 'Bookmarks Manager', in this window click the File menu and choose 'Export'. A new window will open and it will ask you where you want to save the file and what you want to call it, when you are happy with these options click Save and your bookmarks will be written out to a file. If you should ever need to add your bookmarks to a new computer or if Windows is re-installed then you simply follow the same procedure but choose 'Import' instead of 'Export', browse to your backed up HTML file, select it and all your bookmarks will be back in place.

Program specific files:

Some programs you install will have their own settings and data that will be modified and stored as you use the program. These files are usually stored in the location:

C:\Program Files

It is a good idea to back up this whole directory to make sure no information is lost in the event of a hard drive failure.

Other files

In your day-to-day work you will no doubt make and collect many files of many types, invoices and expense sheets spreadsheet, word processor or PDF formats, quotes, guides, e-books and your work files.

You may have digital photographs from your digital camera or mobile phone, you may have invested many hours converting your CD collection to MP3s or purchased music from online stores, you may even have home videos or other video files stored on your PC. With this myriad of files the most important part of a backup strategy is to have a good filing strategy in place to make sure that your files can be located quickly and also to make your task of backing up that much easier.

Windows will usually prompt you to save files in the folder 'My Documents' although you may wish to save files in a folder of your own making elsewhere on your PC. Whatever folder you use it is a good idea to just use one main folder and then create sub folders in this folder and organise your data in this one location to make the backup procedure more likely to catch all the files you need.

The My Documents folder is in the location:

C:\Documents and Settings\YOURNAME\My Documents

If you have created a different folder then go to this location and copy the address into your backup location file.

Some people also save lots of documents to their Desktop, this folder is located at:

C:\Documents and Settings\YOURNAME\Desktop

Backing Up

With all of these locations saved in your text file you are ready to look at backing up all of this information to make sure that you never suffer data loss.

Backing up strategies will depend on the amount of data that you are backing up, navigate to each of the folders you want to back up, right click on the folder you want backed up and choose 'Propeties', this will tell you the size of all the files in the directories you wish to back up. If the total amount of data is less than 700MB then you can back up to a CD, if the total amount of data is less than 4.5GB (4,500MB) then you can back up to a DVD, if you have more than 4.5GB of data then backing up to an external hard drive may be an easier option than splitting your backups across several DVD disks.

Backup to CD or DVD

Bear in mind that CDs and DVD can easily become corrupted, when backing up to CD or DVD it is a good idea to back up twice to two different brands of CD or DVD. Do not buy the cheapest media that you can as these are more likely to degrade quickly over time. If backing up to CD or DVD check your most recent back ups before making a new one to make sure that the data on them is intact.

Using your CD / DVD writing program locate all of the files and folders in your backup locations text file and flag the folders into the writing area of the program to be written. Once the media has finished being written to re-insert the disk and test that all data can be copied back to your machine - this is very important!

Another good idea is on your first backup session if you have another computer restore all of the data and make sure that emails, favourites and important data can be read on the new computer. Sometimes folders are made as 'Shortcuts', these are simply links to the actual location of files so when restored to the original PC it may show the data as being present but on a different PC this data will not be present and will show up the flaw in your backup procedure.

We talked about fire and theft earlier in this article, with multiple backups burnt to disk you can burn an extra copy and take this to a friend or relatives house or even keep in a security deposit box to make absolutely sure that another set of data is available should hard ware failure occur.

Make sure you place a date stamp on the disk to enable you to select the most recent backup in the event of failure.

Backup to external drive

The cost of hard drives is reducing at an astounding rate and hard drives that connect to computers via USB are almost as cheap as buying a new internal hard drive.

Have a look at the above link to see the cost of a drive that can attach to your PC via USB. Our recommendation is to buy two drives, one can be kept with your PC and another in another location in case of fire or theft. If you have lots of data then the chances are that much of it will not change from week to week, in this case you can make a separate list of regularly changing data (emails, invoices and quotes etc) and burn this information to DVD weekly or more often and use your external hard drives for a monthly full backup.

If you have a very large amount of data you can look to use an incremental backup, this backup will look at the original data source (the folders on your PC) and will compare them with the information on your backup disk and will only copy over the files that have been added or changed. The one problem with this is it will also delete any files from the backup that have been removed from the PC so if you have deleted files in error then these will also be removed from your backup.

Some third party software will help with this, showing you what files have been deleted or even moving them to a different location so that you can manually check and delete files. One such example is

Microsoft have also recently launched a new graphical interface for their command line backup tool which is worth investigating -


The above guide explains what backing up means and how to manually back up your files, this will give you a greater understanding of how your PC works and what to look for in a backup strategy.

More information on backing up your files can be found below: - XP Backup Tool (NT Backup) - Backing up your Mac - backing up your Linux PC

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