Build an ironclad Windows backup without breaking the bank

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 non-geek 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.

I also believe strongly that backups shouldn’t get in the way of productive work, which is why I decided against CDP (continuous data protection) and similarly automated tools.

I’ve tried some of those applications and have concluded that the finer recovery granularity they offer doesn’t compensate for how much they slow my system down. Besides, Laura had made it clear that daily backups were acceptable.

Laura already had recovery disks for both machines from the manufacturers, so I only had to make sure she created updated images of her boot drives should either one ever fail.

To do that, I set her machines to run a scheduled DriveImage XML session every month, targeting the Rev drive, which is connected to the desktop and shared with the laptop. I suggested that she keep only the last two images of each drive; older copies would probably not prove useful.

To meet the requirements of forgiveness and ease of use, I scheduled two daily backups.

The first backup runs on the laptop with Microsoft SyncToy, a great, little-known tool with powerful options to keep two directories in sync. The target of that SyncToy run is a symmetrical shared folder on the desktop, which, if something goes wrong with the laptop, will give Laura a working machine, missing at worst only one day of data.

Laura can live with that, but occasionally, when there are critical documents that can’t be left as a single copy until the next backup, she can make ad hoc copies to the desktop share.

The third prong of my backup strategy for Laura is Windows Live OneCare, (yes, another Microsoft tool, but we are in Microsoft land, after all). OneCare does more than just backups, and it includes, for example, a firewall plus virus and spyware protection. Tune-up, a OneCare feature, can be set to automatically check for updates and run defrags.

I have scheduled OneCare to run daily backups on the laptop only, close to the wee hours of the morning, again targeting the same Rev drive used by DriveImage. OneCare will manage updates on both machines and defrag the drives once a week.

It may seem odd to run a backup to the Rev drive over the network, but OneCare treats the Rev drive as a local device, and “to protect the user,” it refuses to consider that drive as a backup target.

However, OneCare will blindly accept any network share as a backup device. To work around that bug, I left the Rev drive connected to the desktop and created a shared folder for consumption by the laptop and the OneCare backups.

So there you have it. Laura spent about $800 to purchase the Rev drive and cartridges, plus $50 for the annual subscription to OneCare.

In my estimate, this setup should serve her well for at least three years, making her data protection cost less than $30 per month. Three years from now, who knows? Windows OneCare may have learned that the Iomega Rev is an “external” drive.

I explained to Laura that she should leave her machines on at night so that the scheduled backups — spaced across the night to avoid conflicts — can run. She also has two daily chores: Swap the latest Rev cartridge with the oldest copy in her bank vault, and check the OneCare status report for errors.

Does my backup strategy have weak points? Of course; any backup strategy does. The human factor is always a weak point.

For example, if Laura forgets to rotate the cartridges, her data protection shield will weaken sensibly. Still she will have at least two up-to-date copies of her data, plus a relatively old one at the bank, to fall back on.

If you feel strongly about your backup strategy, send a description my way, and I will be glad to review it and make suggestions, or just congratulate you, as the case may be.

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