By now computer backup should be a fact of life for anyone who uses a PC, tablet or mobile device. Simply put, it’s your insurance policy if your data is ever lost or damaged due to hardware or software failure, malware or ransomware, natural disaster or user error – or any other scenario you can conjure.
Don’t think it won’t happen. Data loss hits everyone at some point. The median lifespan of a hard drive is only six years, and one in 20 die within the first year. More than 30 percent of PC users have lost all of their files due to events beyond their control.
That’s where backup comes in. Backing up a computer is exactly what it sounds like – making copies of your data in case something happens to it. But while the definition is simple, the varieties of backup and their processes can be somewhat confusing. We’ll walk you through everything so you have a strong understanding of how to back up your computer properly.
Different Kinds of Backup
Backups can be performed on anything that stores data, from your spouse’s smartphone to an IT department’s virtual machines. No matter what you’re protecting, however, there are three main types of backup – full, incremental and differential. Let’s take a look at each.
- Full Backup – This is the first backup of a system and it captures everything, including the operating system and system settings. Due to its breadth, it takes the most time to complete and requires a lot of space.
- Differential Backup – Captures only the changes between a system’s current state and its last full backup. Recovering from a differential backup requires both the last full backup and the differential backup to be valid. While much faster than a full backup, differential backups take up more space than incremental backups and requires at least two backup files for recovery.
- Incremental Backup – Captures only the differences between a system’s current state and its last backup, regardless of whether that was a full backup, a differential backup or another incremental backup. Incremental backups are fast and small. Recovery with an incremental backup requires all the data from the last full backup and every successive incremental backup until the recovery-point objective (RPO).
Backup solutions vary in terms of what they protect. Some solutions back up only certain devices, such as your PC and Mac, but do not protect your mobile devices. More sophisticated solutions can protect all your devices. Furthermore, some backup solutions only back up your files and folders, while others back up everything by taking a snapshot of the entire hard disk. This is called a full-image backup. Pioneered by Acronis, full-image backup lets you recover your operating system, applications, data, preferences, history – everything – to a bare-metal computer: that is, a computer without an operating system installed.
Personal vs. Business Backup
How sophisticated you get with your backup depends on what you need it for. Backup for home users is rather straightforward. Above all else, they’re focused on protecting their personal data – everything from the boring [important documents like tax returns] to the priceless [family photos and vacation videos]. This type of data can’t be replaced, and losing it can cause great mental anguish. Imagine never again seeing those pictures of your son at his first Little League game or watching the video of your daughter at her first piano recital. It’s also a good idea for home users to back up their operating systems, software and applications. While not as precious as personal data, losing the brains of your machine or key programs is still a serious setback and can cost quite a bit of time and money to replace. Businesses, on the other hand, have a whole different set of backup needs – which are short on sentimentality but long on legality. Think about all the data a company needs to stay in business: Customer records, contracts, vendor information, financial and billing info, employee records, payroll information. Losing even a portion of this data can cripple a business, even if it’s just temporary. In one IDC survey, nearly 80 percent of businesses said their downtime costs are at least $20,000 an hour. For some industries, such as healthcare and finance, the stakes are even higher, with strict regulatory and compliance requirements that need to be followed. Failure to do so can result in enormous penalties that come on top of hefty downtime costs.
Ways to Back Up Your Data
The easiest way to back up your data is to copy it to an external drive. Many people simply save key documents and files to a thumb drive they have lying around and think they’re all set. While that may be better than doing nothing, there are a couple of problems with this approach. First off, thumb drives are small, so you’ll probably need more than one to fit all your data. Plus their compact physical size, often a positive, means that they’re also easy to lose or misplace. Finally, let’s face it: remembering to copy all your data onto a bunch of thumb drives on a regular basis is a pain. How long will you really stick with such a regimen? A larger external drive make more sense for this kind of DIY backup. Not only will it be able to handle larger amounts of data, but its bigger physical size means it’s much less likely to go missing. But you still have to remember to perform your backups and invest the time and energy to oversee them. The easiest and most popular way to back up is to send your backups to a remote, cloud-based server for storage. Cloud backup greatly simplifies the backup process and is one of the most cost effective ways of safeguarding your data. Finally, some people use cloud storage services like Dropbox or Google Drive as a kind of ad hoc backup solution. But this is risky. These are file sync and share solutions that are useful if you want to collaborate and share a document for others to view or edit, but they are not reliable for backup. For one thing, any file you store with these services remains there, static, until you remove it. The services don’t update the file as you make changes to it on your PC. So keeping your files up to date requires a lot of hands-on work. Furthermore, these services aren’t designed for large amounts of data, and they don’t offer any of the key features of real, purpose-built backup software. Simply put, they don’t pass the smell test as backup solutions. Ultimately the best backup solutions are comprehensive but easy to use. You want to be able to back up everything you need to back up without a lot of heavy lifting. If your backup is too complicated or it requires a lot of hands-on effort, it becomes a chore – and then your commitment to it is likely to waver, leaving your data vulnerable.
No matter what you need to back up, there’s only one way to back it up right, and that’s by following the 3-2-1 approach.
- Create three copies so no single event can wipe out all the data.
- Save them to two different formats, like an internal drive and external media (disk, USB, cloud, etc.).
- And keep one copy off-site to protect against a physical disasters like theft, fire or flooding.
The 3-2-1 approach is important because it introduces redundancy into your backup strategy. A catastrophic fire might destroy your IT infrastructure and all your paper records, but you still have everything backed up in the cloud. Or the USB drive you used to save that crucial presentation might have gone through the wash in your pants pocket, but there’s still a copy on your external hard drive. Following the 3-2-1 strategy doesn’t mean you need multiple backup solutions. The best solutions provide both local and cloud backup capabilities and should be able to handle whatever you throw at them.
What to Consider when Choosing a Backup Solution
OK, so let’s cut to the chase: What should you look for in a backup solution? There are a host of different features and functionality out there. But what’s truly important? Let’s look at six key elements of a solid backup solution.
- Ease of Use – As mentioned above, complexity is the enemy of a reliable backup strategy. You want an easy backup solution – one that’s simple to install, run and monitor. Look for a clean, intuitive user interface with customizable dashboards.
- Automation – This is closely linked to ease of use. Automation enables you to set it and forget it: you establish your backup processes up front and move on to other pursuits with the peace of mind that your data is being protected. If something crops up, you’re notified through smart alerting procedures that let you respond quickly.
- Speed – Fast backup is important because you don’t want it creating a bottleneck on your day-to-day computing operations. Because of the potentially enormous cost of downtime, quick recovery times are even more important. Getting your systems up and running in a matter of minutes is much better than in a couple of hours, and could save you thousands of dollars.
- Reliability – Backup software needs to be reliable – otherwise, what’s the point? Look for established solutions with proven technologies rather than flashy start-ups with untested, inexpensive products that could increase your risk of data loss.
- Security – If you’re going to follow the 3-2-1 strategy and store some of your backups off-site, as you should, you need to know your data is being protected against theft and unauthorized alteration. That’s true whether the data is stored physically in another location or in the cloud. For the former, look for data centers that feature strong physical security and redundant power and HVAC systems. For the latter, make sure your data gets encrypted before transmission and remains encrypted while being stored. You should also make sure the data center being used to store your data meets the same high standards for physical security.
- Versatility – Business users, especially, have complex environments. So it’s vital that a backup solution be able to adapt to different needs. Strong backup software can back up any kind of data and provide flexible storage options, including local disks, tape, SAN, NAS, the cloud, etc.
- Breadth – Whether talking about home or office, homogenous tech environments are a thing of the past. Even a small family is likely to have numerous devices that use different operating systems. Make sure your backup solution can protect the different platforms you use every day.
Finally, there’s one more thing to think about when choosing a backup solution: whether it can truly protect your data against the growing menace of ransomware. Ransomware is malicious software that infiltrates a system and encrypts the data. The criminals behind the ransomware then demand to be paid to release the kidnapped data. If the payment isn’t delivered in time, the data is lost. While everyone today should be using anti-virus software as part of an overall data protection strategy, even the best anti-virus programs struggle to prevent ransomware, especially zero-day attacks. So you need a backup solution behind the front lines that’s capable of recognizing a ransomware attack and instantly backing up your data before it gets encrypted – and held for ransom. While even the most basic backup solution may be able to help you restore your data after a ransomware attack, only Acronis Active Protection actively fights back against ransomware. Available in Acronis Cyber Backup, our flagship business backup solution, and Acronis True Image 2020, our premium home backup software, Acronis Active Protection quickly detects a ransomware infiltration, stops it in its tracks and instantly backs up and restores any files that are threatened by encryption. The ability to actively stop ransomware is a key part of a strong data protection strategy. But data protection goes far beyond the threat of hackers and malware. As we’ve shown, you also need to safeguard your data from hardware failures, natural disasters, human error and the like. So the cornerstone of any data protection strategy should be a robust backup solution that’s easy to use, reliable and secure. If you’re not already backing up your data, you’re taking a big chance. Data loss happens to everyone eventually. Don’t let it ruin you or your business.