Back The F:\ Up!
Written by Erik Neff   
Monday, 27 February 2006
This is Part 1 of my quest to find the "ULTIMATE" backup solution.  In this part, I explain how to best go about setting your computer to easily be backed up, and talk about my discoveries that have lead me realize the fundamental problem for users wanting to back up their data:  You can't backup files that are in use.  Part 2 will put the various products on the market to the test.

First off, by "ULTIMATE", I mean a solution that can automatically back up your computer's data regardless of whether you're using it or not, and creates a that backup is a restore-able image that can be used to create an exact replica of the system you used to have before things went totally wrong.

The problem is no back-up program I've found has been capable of intelligently backing up system files that are in use.  Thus, if your computer is on, everything can't be backed up.  Admittedly, there are many problems with backing up open files, not the least of which include the possibility for files to be modified while they're being copied, resulting in unusable back-ups - not good.  That being said, hard drive partitions used to by thought of being just as hard, if not impossible until a company called PowerQuest came along and showed everyone how it could be done safely. 

Regardless, for the time being it doesn't exist, so we'll just have to make due with what's out there until something better comes along.  In my benchmarks so far, none of the leading software backup titles have been capable of backing up the boot disk while it was running, including Acronis True Image, Symantec LiveState Recovery, or Dantz RetroSpect.  Even when I closed every process from the Task Manager that the Task Manager would allow, I couldn't make any of them work without failing due to file access problems.   Aside from this minor problem, most of those programs were otherwise well-rounded, but that will be covered in Part 2.

So, the bottom line is, nobody can reliably make an "image" of an active boot drive.  Pretty much everyone can make images of non-active boot drives though, but that requires manually booting off an included floppy or CD.  I wanted an automated system that would create a restoration image that could be restored in one fell swoop, but it just doesn't seem to exist.  So what is the next best thing?

Well, the next best thing is moving everything that changes regularly off the c drive, and backing that up regularly.  Thus, the c:\ drive should only hold essential system and program files.  These for the most part don't change a whole lot for the average user.  A second drive or partition, say, the d:\ drive, should be used to store all the user data.   Microsoft's PowerToys software allows you to change where important system user folders are mapped to, like the desktop and my documents directory.  Using that software to map those important folders to the d:\ drive will allow them to be easily and regularly backed up.  The place the d:\ drive is backed up to should be a separate (ideally removable/external) drive, which can be physically moved away from the computer and put in a fire-proof safe to prevent loss of data as a result of fire or theft.  Finally, since the c:\ drive doesn't change as often, it's not a big deal to have manually backed up by booting off the included boot floppy or CD to cover you in the case of a primary disk failure.  For the average user, the c:\ drive might only need to be backed up once every 6 months or even year, but for those of us who love trying new software, it should be monthly at least.

That concludes Part 1 of the Back The F:\ Up.  Coming soon is the comparison guide for the latest product offerings.  Until then, enjoy your stay at Neff.ca.
Last Updated ( Monday, 27 February 2006 )
 
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