Ironclad Windows backup on a budget

Creating an effective backup for Windows is a challenge -- largely because the OS lacks a powerful, simple tool like Linux's dd, for example. However, there are many options for establishing a worthwhile backup system for Windows, some of which are free or rather inexpensive.

I mention this because a friend -- I'll call her Laura -- recently asked for help setting up a backup system for her two Windows XP machines. A freelance writer by trade, Laura uses a desktop and a laptop, both of which are connected to a LAN and, via router, to the Internet.

Laura had been backing up her laptop data to a large USB drive -- an unreliable approach at best. Busy, distracted, or on deadline, she often forgot to perform her manual backup, and she was well aware that, should a major disaster hit, her single-copy backup strategy left her valuable data vulnerable. When I asked how often she ran a defrag, Laura answered, "Yeah, that's another thing I forget to do. Can that be automated?"

Laura, like many nongeek computer users, knew exactly what she wanted to achieve but didn't know what tools to use. She also knew how much she wanted to spend: $1,000 or less.

Together, Laura and I came up with the following recovery objectives:

  • 1. Copies of all personal files and directories should be available on both machines
  • 2. New files should be backed up at least once a day
  • 3. Backup should be automated to avoid human error and forgetfulness
  • 4. Copies of all files should be stored regularly to a separate location
  • 5. Routine maintenance tasks should be simplified and automated where possible

Our next step was to discuss how to reach those objectives. Laura turned down my suggestion of an online backup service because she gets Internet access via satellite, and her provider sets a monthly cap on the amount of data downloaded and uploaded. With that option off the table, we focused on tools for local backups.

The temptation to use tape reels was strong, but I resisted. Instead I suggested an Iomega Rev drive, which combines the safe transport of a tape cartridge with the random access of a disk drive.

Here, I use the term cartridge loosely, because there is no tape reel in the Rev, just a 2.5-inch drive that has been stripped of read/write heads, motor, and other components, leaving only the platters in a 3-inch-square medium that is a mere 3/8 inch thick.

Iomega recently announced a new 120GB cartridge and drive, which fits Laura's budget and capacity requirements perfectly. In addition to an external USB Rev drive, we bought four additional cartridges to create a five-day outside rotation. It turned out that Laura already had a security box with enough room for the cartridges at her bank. Problem solved.

With that settled, we looked into backup applications. Why plural? Although I don't wear both a belt and suspenders to keep my trousers from falling, when it comes to backups, I like to have more than one layer of protection. Also I don't believe in complicated backup tools because you end up paying more attention to their intricacies than to your data. It's a distraction nobody can afford.

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