Tech Toys: Being honest about backups

We all know how useful it is to have backup copies of important files. Hours, days, or even weeks of work can go down the tube when there is a major hardware crash. We know it, but we don’t act.

Most of us live with a single electronic copy of important documents. For years, my solution was to put everything on floppy disks. But files started to get bigger, and bigger, and bigger.

It’s reasonable to put a 20KB file on a 1.4MB floppy disk. It still works with a 200 KB file, but load time goes up alarmingly. And (compressed) files larger than 1.4 MB just don’t fit, regardless of how long you take.

I decided on a different solution. I installed a second hard drive on my system. This second drive contains the backup copy of my important files. This column is about the logic behind this choice, and the problems I encountered.

Having a backup means that I can recover when there are major system problems. It doesn’t mean that I can recover everything, or that the recovery will be painless, but it does mean that I will not lose a large hunk of work.

Adequate protection means that I have at least two copies of important files. The two copies must be on different devices, where there is not much chance that both devices will fail at the same time.

Attractive backup protection is inexpensive and is not very demanding of my time. A second hard drive provides adequate protection in a pleasing package. A second 3GB hard drive cost me only $200.

I have designated directories on my primary drive that contain volatile information. Here is where I keep all active documents and data files. I copy these directories, en masse, to my backup hard drive. It’s quick and painless.

This approach does require that I be somewhat organized about where I store information. But if I’m not somewhat organized about where files go, stuff gets lost. The discipline is good for me.

Hard disks do fail, but the time to fail is measured in thousands of hours. The chance that two hard disks will fail simultaneously is very small. That’s an acceptable risk.

Physically installing the hard drive was relatively simple. Most people who are “comfortable” inside their PC can do it. Clever me, I changed the BIOS to recognize the presence of the second drive.

Windows 98 didn’t “see” the new hardware. I tried everything. In desperation, I set the BIOS back to ignore the new drive. That’s what I should have done in the first place – just plug it in and reboot the system.

A bolt of lighting could fry both hard drives, or a thief could walk away with the entire system. I bought myself backup protection from a single hard disk failure. It’s not perfect, but it is much better backup than I had before. It’s enough.

Fabian is a Toronto-based management and systems consultant. He can be found at