Data Backup Guide: What You Need to Know and How to Get Started with Backing Up Your Computer

What is data backup? It can mean different things. Most commonly, data backup is a copy of all the files on a computer or laptop saved to another location. Having these files elsewhere provides a safe place to store files in case the original files are lost.

data backup

Anything can cause data loss. Technology sometimes breaks. Hardware failures can wipe out the data with no chance of saving it. Data can disappear because of tornadoes, fires, floods, and theft.

Then there are the viruses, trojans, malware, ransomware, and all those bad guys that can corrupt a computer. Like humans, the performance of a computer or hard drive can degrade as it grows older. And finally, sometimes accidental deletion happens. It’s easy to see why data backup is critical.

Why Do I Want to Back up Data?

Data loss could have far-reaching consequences. Businesses can lose valuable and irreplaceable customer data, financial records, and employee work products. Personal computers hold family photos, music, volunteer work, financial reports, and other important documents that cannot be recreated.

When data disappears, backups come to the rescue. Having a backup process in place will ensure you don’t lose your data. You’ll gain a peace of mind knowing that all your files are safe somewhere else.

What Is the Difference Between Full, Incremental, and Differential Backups?

You have different options for backing up your data. A full backup saves all the files to a designated backup source. An incremental backup saves files that have changed since the last full or incremental backup job. A differential backup saves all files that have changed since the last full backup.

Here’s a scenario. Over a three-day period, a person runs three backups as follows:

  • Monday: Full backup
  • Tuesday: Incremental backup
  • Wednesday: Differential backup

It’s Thursday. Here’s what happens if you run any of the following backups on Thursday:

  • If you run an incremental backup on Thursday, it backs up all files that have changed on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.
  • If you run a differential backup on Thursday, it backs up all the files that have changed since Monday’s full backup. This includes Tuesday’s changed files because that’s the last differential backup.
  • If you run a full backup on Thursday, it completely backs up all files regardless if they have changed or not.

Why run an incremental when a differential backup does the same thing? It’s a storage space issue. The more differential backups you do, the more storage space it will require. It’ll fill up your storage faster. Moreover, some backup plans charge by the amount of storage space offered.

A full backup saves all the files in a single file. This creates a giant file. The advantage of a full backup is that it simplifies file restoration. When you restore from a full backup, you’ll get all your files exactly as they were before the data loss. The restoration process tends to take less time than the other backup options. However, a full backup takes the longest and uses system resources.

A differential backup is a cumulative backup, so it takes less time to run backups than a full backup. All the changed and new files and folders since the last full backup are backed up to a single file. When it comes time for restoring, the system will restore from the last full backup and the last differential backup. Differential uses less storage than a full and more than an incremental.

And finally, incremental backups are the quickest for backing up. But the restoration process is slowest because it requires restoring the last full backup file and all the incremental data backup files. Incremental uses the least amount of storage.

Here’s a chart showing the differences between incremental, differential, and full backups.

Backup typeData backed upBackup timeRestore timeStorage space
IncrementalNew and changed files and folders since last incremental or full backupFastSlowLow
DifferentialNew and changed files and folders since last full backupMediumMediumMedium

Which option is the best for backing up? Ideally, it would be a full backup. But it takes a long time. If you’re using the computer undergoing a full backup, it could potentially slow down the computer’s performance. Plus, it swallows up storage space.

The best backup option depends on the needs of the user or business, the storage space available, and the frequency of file updates. Most use a hybrid solution with full backups once a week and daily differential or incremental backups.

What Data Should I Backup?

Primarily, there are two approaches people take to backing up their computer data. One is the entire system. That includes all the files, folders, programs, and system files. The other consists of the files and folders created by the user. Most people take the latter approach, especially for personal computers.

Businesses tend to have a standard image backup of the operating system, programs, and system files. Whenever someone gets a new computer, they download the entire system from the cloud. Then, the user’s work products are backed up to a separate place.

Say the user’s computer crashes and everything is gone. The company will follow the same process as they do with new computers. They’ll download the entire operating system, programs, and system files to the replacement computer. Once the system is ready to go, the user’s documents, spreadsheets, images, and other files created or shared are restored from elsewhere. They’re usually restored from the cloud, network, or network-attached storage (NAS).

The disadvantage of backing up an entire system is that it will require huge amounts of storage. And if the system has a corrupt file, it could end up in the backup. And the corrupt file will go back on the system after a restore. Most people tend to back up their important files and folders. If the entire computer crashes, they’ll reinstall the system and software. Then, restore the files and folders.

How Often Should I Backup?

The frequency of backups depends on the needs and the frequency of data changes. A business with regularly updated data may need a daily or a twice-daily backup. A personal computer with only a few changes to files each week may do fine with a weekly full backup.

However, if file storage space is an issue, then perhaps, run a full backup every other week with a weekly differential or incremental backup. Some personal computers with occasional use may make do with a monthly backup. Systems with heavy use most likely need daily backups. The more valuable the data is, the greater the need to back it up frequently.

Where Should I Backup My Data?

You have multiple options of where store all your backup files. Again, the right one depends on your requirements and the amount of storage space you need. In a perfect world, you’d have backups in multiple locations. For instance, you may have one on an external hard drive in your location, a USB drive (also known as a jump drive, flash drive, and thumb drives), and another in the cloud. The reality is that it will be too expensive to do every possible option. And it’s unlikely a USB drive can handle a large job.

If the building is flooded, it could destroy the computer and external hard drive. This is where the cloud can come in handy. A cloud backup keeps your data safe in another location. Cloud services have their own backup systems in place. They’re less likely to lose any data.

Some people aren’t comfortable storing personal data in the cloud. External hard drives aren’t always feasible in terms of affordability. The more storage it has, the higher the price. USB drives don’t have enough space to store all the files from a computer backup. Besides, it’s a manual process that requires your involvement and it’s easy to misplace the small gadget.

To help you decide, consider location, amount of storage space, cost, speed, security, and ease of setting up the backup process. The most important thing about a computer backup is that the copy lives somewhere else. You can make multiple copies of a file on your computer. But if the hard drive crashes, you lose all of them.

Be aware that a full restore from the cloud can take days or weeks for a business. The amount of time to restore data can harm the business. A cloud backup is convenient for when a single file is accidentally deleted. You can restore it from a cloud backup quickly and easily. An offsite or cloud backup is also needed in case the local backups are destroyed in a flood, fire, or some other way.

How Should I Backup My Data?  

You have multiple options for backing up your files or computer data. If you have only a few files you want to backup, a simple USB drive can do the job. The downside of this approach is that it’s manual. Doing things manually means you have to remember to do it on a regular basis. Again, it’s easy to lose the small drive.

In terms of backing up your important data, you have three options: external drive, cloud, and bootable. With an external drive, you backup all your new and changed files. Rather than backing up an entire system, an external drive is ideal for saving irreplaceable files. These typically consist of photos, videos, documents, spreadsheets, school work, and finance documents.

The advantage of an external drive backup is speed, convenience, and cost. Because the external drive is onsite, you won’t have to rely on an internet connection during the backup and restore processes. Buying an external drive can be cost-prohibitive for some. It’s a one-time fee.

People opt for the cloud because it’s offsite and the cloud service provider backs up everything. In essence, the backup in the cloud has a backup. The chances of losing the cloud backup is small.

The problem with cloud backup is that some users aren’t comfortable with storing data outside of their computer. It also requires an internet connection for backing up and restoring data. The restoration process takes the longest with the cloud. Unlike an external drive where you pay once and you’re done, a cloud backup has a recurring monthly or yearly fee.

Often, a yearly fee comes with a discount. For instance, a service may charge $10 per month for a total of $120 per year. They may offer a yearly option at $100 per year, which saves $20 on the monthly cost. It means paying more upfront, however.

And finally, there’s a bootable backup also known as a clone. This is a full copy of a computer’s hard drive with all the apps and programs as well as the files from the last backup.

A clone is usually an external drive. If the hard drive fails, you connect the clone and you’re back in business. There is no restoration process. You’re simply switching from the computer’s hard drive to the external hard drive with the clone. The downside is that the clone only has the files from the last backup. It would require regular backups to keep it current. And this is a slow process. The other downside of switching to a clone’s external drive is that its performance will most likely be slower than the hard drive.

What’s the Best Data Backup Solution?

It’s the same refrain as before. It depends on your requirements. Some people don’t want to store their important files in the cloud. Though cloud storage services have put security safeguards in place, it’s not always good enough for some users or businesses.

A local external hard drive keeps your data with you and off the internet. But if something destroys the building, it’ll affect the computer and the external hard drive. An ideal solution is a hybrid one that backs up files to an external drive and offsite, so it’s not in the same location as the computer.

How Many Backups Do I Need?

The number of backups depends on the location of the backups and what you store on the computer. For example, a self-employed person may have two backups of all work products. One backup is a mirror backup. That means the backup source files look exactly like the ones on the computer.

The second backup is a full backup. The backup source backs up everything and doesn’t delete anything. Sometimes people delete files from the computer only to need the file again later. The full backup will have those deleted files.

A user who saves backups to the cloud and an external hard drive may want one of each in both places. The external hard drive makes it possible to do a restore without an internet connection. It also allows the user to quickly locate deleted files. Finding deleted files in a cloud backup may not be as quick and effortless.

As for how many backups you need, one popular approach is the 3-2-1 backup strategy. This refers to three copies of your data including the original and two backups. Two copies should be onsite but on different storage devices. And one offsite like on a cloud drive, NAS, or network.

How Do I Restore My Data?

Everyone has to restore data at some point. It could be a new computer, a hard drive failure, or something that destroys a computer. Here’s a tip that many don’t think about. After running a full backup, test the restore process before data loss.

During this process, you’ll find out if you forgot to backup something important. You’ll also learn how long a restore takes and whether this delay is acceptable. It’s better to learn the restore process in a non-emergency situation.

How Do I Get Started with Data Backup?

The place to start is to run a backup soon. Most operating systems have a built-in backup app. Or save your most critical files to an external drive, Google Drive, Dropbox, Microsoft OneDrive, Box, Apple iCloud, or another online file storage solution. Once you have something backed up, do a cloud storage comparison and check cloud storage pricing. Whether or not you opt for cloud storage, the important thing is to find a permanent solution that allows you to set it and forget it.

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