Backup & Recovery Strategies
Preparing for Recovery
Backup and recovery are an important part of any strategy for recovering your computer in the case of computer failure or the loss of data.
In today's digital world, you can lose data in any number of ways. You can accidentally delete an important file. Your hard drive can fail, losing all of your business and personal information. Your laptop can get stolen together with your photos, videos, and contacts.
According to a 2022 survey by Backblaze, losing data is more common than you think. The survey showed eye opening stats on how computer owners lost their data:
- 67% report accidentally deleting something
- 54% report having lost data
- 53% were affected by a security incident
- 48% had an external hard drive crash
- 21% of those crashes have happened in the last year
- 44% lost access to their data when a shared drive or synced drive was deleted
- — Macrium
If you don't care about any of the personal information or data on your computer then backups may not be important to you.
However, most of us have irreplaceable data like photos, emails, correspondence, account statements and other documents.
Without a strategy to recover these in the case of a computer meltdown can mean the total loss of your important files.
Plan for Recovery Now
Backups are like insurance. The time and expense seems excessive until something bad happens.
If you aren't prepared before the disaster, it is too late.
You'll want to consider
- how quickly you need to get back up and running; and
- how frequently the important information on your computer changes.
You need protection against equipment and operator failure as well as viruses for fire, theft and other disasters.
A reliable backup is the only recovery you can count on if you are infected with ransomware. Paying off the crooks only encourages future attacks.
While a backup in the cloud can help with a physical disaster, it is vulnerable to being hacked or compromised.
Create Recovery Media
Computers no longer come with a set of installation media (CDs or DVDs).
It is critical that you create recovery media as soon as possible, because you can't create them after a crash.
Be sure to label them clearly, then save them in a safe place.
The 3-2-1 Rule
To ensure the reliability of backups, follow the Acronis 3-2-1 rule:
- Create 3 copies of your data (1 primary copy and 2 backups)
- Store your copies in at least 2 types of storage media (local drive, network share/NAS, tape drive, etc.)
- Store one of these copies offsite (in the Cloud)
- — Acronis
Some users, particularly businesses, can neither afford to be down for long nor to lose any data.
Such critical systems usually have information that is constantly changing and requires a solution that provides timely, ongoing and reliable backups as well as quick recovery.
Creating Images of Your Drive
Any user that requires a quick recovery should purchase software to create routine drive images.
Drive images allow you to recreate a working copy of an operating system including all the programs and data. This is important if you require a quick recovery such as in a business environment, but requires frequent updates to ensure that the data and programs are current.
Many home users have less pressure to get up and running and the sorts of data that are important to them may be different. Backups need to be less frequent (although outdated backups place you at risk of losing important photos and other data).
One interim solution is to use a thumb drive to backup files on the go, then running your backup software at the end of the day.
What to Back Up
Your computer installation includes four main categories that you need to consider when planning for recovery:
- the operating system (Windows, Mac, Linux, etc.);
- any necessary drivers (video, printers, etc.);
- the programs (apps) installed on the computer; and
- the user & program data.
Each requires a different strategy for backup and recovery.
Recovering the Operating System
You will need the operating system installation media to reinstall your operating system as well as the necessary drivers and the ability to activate your installation.
- Most modern operating systems including Windows, macOS and Linux can be downloaded from the Web.
- Some name-brand computers provide a recovery partition with the ability to create recovery media.
Activation of Your Operating System
Activation depends upon your operating system:
- Windows requires a license key (found on a sticker on your computer*) and logging into your Microsoft account to activate the license.
- macOS is licensed with the hardware, but requires an Apple ID for activation.
- Linux is free and requires no activation.
*If your Windows was upgraded from a previous version by a computer vendor, the license key may be on an “upgrade” certificate.
The process for obtaining and installing your operating system (or upgrades) will depend upon the operating system and version you currently have installed and what your hardware will support.
- Windows users see Recovering Windows for more on recovering the Windows installation itself.
- Mac users see Apple's how to upgrade or download the current version of macOS supported by your computer.
- Linux users may need to download a newer version. See the documentation for your distribution for the specifics on updating your version of Linux.
There are other elements like the desktop wallpaper, special fonts and other settings that you wish to save even though registered Windows 10 users can recover much of this by logging into their Microsoft account.
Drivers are software that enables a hardware device to work with a specific operating system.
Most hardware is now recognized natively by modern operating systems, but you may need to download specific drivers for
- printers & scanners;
- display adapters (added video cards);
- mice; and
- other hardware devices.
Most drivers are downloaded from the Web, but if your computer came with drivers on a DVD or if you created a set of recovery disks, keep those in case you cannot identify your hardware.
Recovering your programs may involve more than just reinstalling programs that your operating system doesn't include by default.
Windows Registry Complicates Reinstallation of Programs
If Windows fails, you'll need to reinstall any programs not included with your Windows installation then restore your personal data and settings.
You will need both the installation media and the registration key for each program.
If you can't find your original software installation files (and the licence key) or if is outdated you may have to re-purchase the software. You may be entitled to a reduced upgrade price but will need to have proof of ownership for your earlier version (usually the licence key).
Software Activation Adds a Wrinkle
Some programs, like standard Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop and TurboTax, require activation after installation.
There is often limits to the number of activations available (usually one or two) so you'll need to ensure you de-activate the software before uninstalling or removing the software.
If your computer crashes, you may be able to get the company to extend the activation for reinstallation and sometimes the software recognizes that it is being reinstalled on the same hardware so it doesn't require reactivation.
Keep an external record of your registration numbers to enable you to reinstall and register shareware if necessary. This is true for software that is configured remotely after installation.
Most software that allows you to install copies on both your PC and your laptop won't allow both to be in active use at the same time (it is licensed for a single user).
Data files are irreplaceable and constantly change.
If you delete files by accident or lose them with a computer crash they are permanently lost unless you have backups.
Paper copies may be sufficient backup for some things, but retyping all those documents, or scanning them with OCR software, could take forever (and a disaster would likely destroy those documents as well).
Backups Required for Recovery
Your irreplaceable data can include the information in your Documents, Downloads, Music, Pictures and Videos folders and elsewhere including:
- program settings (licence keys and preferences);
- documents (e-statements, letters, spreadsheets, databases, PDFs and scans);
- email (emails, settings, passwords and address books);
- browser (settings, passwords, addons, extensions, bookmarks or favorites);
- other programs (login settings, account settings, passwords, saved games, templates);
- other data (photos, ebooks, downloaded music, tax files/returns);
- online purchases (ebooks, music, movies, programs & licence keys); and
- other settings and data (game scores, scripts, network settings).
These are just some of the items that you might wish to consider adding to your backups. Not all these items will apply to everyone, nor does it include all the possibilities.
If it is important to you, back it up.
The easiest method of backup is to use either the backup capability built into your operating system (e.g., Windows Backup) or a third-party software like Acronis.
Provided you maintain a regular schedule sufficient to capture all your changing data, these will allow you to recover quickly.
While a drive image can recover everything quite quickly, it reflects the state of your computer when the drive image was created. Any new or changed documents need to then be restored.
Additionally, if a program within a computer restored from an image fails, you'll need that data to recover.
Keep a Separate Backup of Files
I strongly recommend directly copying all your data directly onto a removable drive so that you can recover it later, even if you use additional backups like disk images and regular backup programs.
Keep any critical changing documents on USB thumb drive specifically designated for that purpose so that you have access to your most critical files regardless of how old your other backups are.
These two copies of your files provides quick access to all your data without having to first reinstall the operating system then the backup software (see the installation process).
Saving the Program Settings
Backing up the application data — located in a hidden set of AppData folders — may help to ensure you have everything. Your settings are stored there as well as the data for your email program.
You can't always recover everything from the AppData folders and can even corrupt a newly installed program by overwriting the information from the older installation.
Record the settings for each programs that wasn't installed with the default settings. Knowing the current settings can help restore your “user experience” to a restored installation.
Email server settings captured.
Be sure to capture the hidden settings like those that appear when clicking the Advanced button.
These screen captures can be a lifesaver when it comes to reconstructing program settings.
Email Data Proprietary
Email data is difficult to work with and often is not easily transferred between programs except by using special utilities.
I recommend backing up your email using the facilities built into your email program then including that backup file in your main backup.
Keep a Separate Copy of Important Emails
Most programs will export a single email into a stand-alone file (with the .eml extension in Windows). These files can be opened by any email program.
Save important emails like program registrations and other critical information in this manner so that you have access even if your email program isn't working. You can copy the file to another computer and use whatever email program is installed there to open it.
Traditionally, email was stored on the user's computer (or on a server run by the company you work for).
However, the move to Microsoft 365 (formerly Office 365) and Windows 10 has changed that. Microsoft OneDrive is the default save location mirrored in the local OneDrive folder.
Microsoft retention policies may be insufficient if critical emails or other data is accidentally (or maliciously) deleted, especially if those emails or files are required for legal or auditing compliance.
Only your own backups can ensure retention.
In Office 365, an active license is required to access data. Which sounds like a great benefit because when employees are terminated, you can simply deactivate their O365 account and limit any access they have to company data.
The problem in this scenario is that you will also lose access to any files created by those employees.
Several companies specialize in backing up Microsoft 365 for businesses but personal users want to be sure that they have copies of their archived emails in a safe location.
Locating Data Files
Modern Windows installations store settings and data in multiple locations.
- The Program Files and Program Files (x86) folders store the main program installation.
- ProgramData stores information related to these programs.
- The AppData folders store much of the personal settings and data related to these programs.
- Some programs store information elsewhere (Kindle, OneNote, Scans, etc.).
These settings may not be easy to backup or transfer except when using a drive image to recover the complete Windows installation.
You'll want to check for information in other locations than those mentioned below. Create a “Backups” folder in Documents to store important recovery information so it is easily located when needed.
On a Windows computer most data is stored within the Contacts, Favorites, Documents, Music, Pictures and Video folders located with a folder named after your user account name:
- If there are multiple accounts on the computer, each user will have a similar folder.
- The Public folder may contain data and is often used for program settings shared between users.
- The Default folder seldom has anything useful.
The Time Machine does a good job of backing up critical Mac user files but you can look under Finder's “Go” menu for Documents, Pictures or All My Files to locate files to be stored on a thumb drive or other removable media for sharing or alternative backup strategy.
Linux provides a link to your documents on the desktop in many cases. Copies of these files will ensure you don't lose them in a crash.
Other Critical Windows Information
Windows users might want to consider these items:
- Mozilla Firefox (bookmarks, cookies, and settings): see back up and restore information in Firefox profiles.
- Microsoft Edge (favorites): Menu ⇒ Favorites ⇒ Manage favorites ⇒ Export favorites from the menu.
- Google Chrome (bookmarks): Menu ⇒ Bookmarks ⇒ Bookmark manager ⇒ Export bookmarks from the menu.
- The Bat! (email, address book and settings): run Folder ⇒ Maintenance Centre then Tools ⇒ Backup.
- Mozilla Thunderbird (email, address book and settings): see where Thunderbird stores your messages and other user data.
- Fonts: copy the
C:\WINDOWS\Fontsfolder to ensure you retain all the fonts used to create your documents.
Most browsers and other software use either a horizontal ellipsis (…) or its vertical equivalent for their settings menus.
Windows Hidden Application Data
Email and other programs save settings and other critical information in folders hidden by default in Windows. You'll need to unhide files and folders to be able to back them up.
You'll want to back up all the user files. In most cases the [User] folder is named “Owner” or your name or some variation depending upon the settings chosen when Windows was installed.
When backing up the AppData folder you'll need to be aware that some of these files are currently in use and the copying process may fail. Generally these files aren't useful to you anyhow and can be ignored, but you'll need to resume the backup with the folder from where it stopped.
When restoring information, you want to exercise care when copying information from the previous installation's AppData folder. In most cases you're better importing it via the program that uses it rather than directly.
How to Back Up
Schedule Regular Backups
Make a habit of regularly backing up the critical files on your system. The greatest danger is procrastination — something that only a regularly scheduled backup routine can avoid.
A good rule of thumb: backup when the pain of recreating something is greater than the pain of backing it up.
Not everything can be recreated — easily or otherwise.
For very critical files in constant use, backing them up separately onto a USB thumb drive after every change could be critical in the case of an unexpected crash.
The traditional method is to do a regular weekly full backup, then to copy the changed files at the end of each day (an incremental backup), keeping three generations of backups.
If you don't work daily on your computer a monthly routine with weekly interim backups may suffice.
Keep Multiple Backups
Multiple generations of backups will greatly enhance your ability to recover.
If your backup is corrupt or if there is corrupt data, the more generations of backups you retain the more likely you will have an uncorrupted copy.
Even if a recovered file is missing data, that is better than no data at all.
Critical Systems Need More Attention
The more critical your data, the more frequent and complete your backup routine needs to be to ensure complete recovery.
Off-site Backups for Disasters
Keep backups off-site in case of theft, fire or similar disaster.
A Cloud-based backup provides this protection, but have a hard copy somewhere off-site just in case that fails.
Keeping personal backups at the office and office backups at home works for many small business owners.
Local Backups for Computer Failures
Keep a separate set of backups of current files onsite in case of an immediate problem with your computer, such as a file that is accidentally deleted or corrupted.
You'll need to choose a hardware device that will store the amount of information you have on your computer's hard drives as well as the software needed to perform the backup.
USB External Hard Drives & Devices
The price and capacity of USB external hard drives and thumb drives provide the best and most workable solution for most people.
You'll need to choose a USB hard drive that is suitable for your requirements.
- Be sure the drive capacity is large enough to accommodate future needs.
- USB 3.0 or USB-C is faster.
- A single drive can be shared by several computers if you partition the drive or create unique folders for each user.
With the larger devices, it is easy to copy whole drives or simply the files you need. It is best to stick to copying data unless you're familiar with how your computer stores information and are comfortable using the command line.
Power-off or Remove USB Backup Drives
An always-connected device is bound to be compromised with any infection of the host computer, rendering it useless for recovery.
Depending upon your computer and office situation, you can either remove the USB cable from the computer when not is use or, if the backup drive has an external power supply, turn off the power switch.
New USB drives lack a built-in power switch. If there is no power switch, consider adding a small power bar to cut the power without affecting the computer or other devices.
USB thumb drives provide an excellent option for keeping changed files between backups because they are small and portable.
Larger 64GB, 128GB and 256GB thumb drives may be sufficient for a full backup for some home users such as those without large libraries of music, videos, photos, etc.
Be aware of how easy these drives are to lose. Don't forget that they may contain personal and sensitive information. Attaching a lanyard helps to make them easier to manage.
On-line backups (backing up into the “Cloud”) provides true off-site storage. High speed Internet and cheap storage has lowered costs and this can be an attractive option.
Many recent computers have moved to smaller solid-state drives. While these drives are much faster, they may not contain sufficient storage. You'll need to either use cloud storage (the assumed solution) or carry a portable USB drive with your laptop.
However, consider these factors:
- Canadians suffer terrible upload speeds with Canada ranking 53rd in upload speeds worldwide according to CBC. This will make cloud backups less attractive and potentially more expensive if your account has data caps.
- Encrypt sensitive data before uploading it.
- Once information is “in the Cloud” you lose control of it.
- The storage location can be affected by different international laws. Canadians are not protected by U.S. laws.
- If the service fails or goes out of business, your data is lost forever.
Many of these services don't keep archived copies (they simply overwrite the older data each time). If corruption goes unnoticed for more than one cycle, you may not be able to recover your data.
Be sure to keep a record of the necessary passwords in a secure off-site location to ensure you can access the data in case of a disaster that destroys your computer.
A password manager is recommended. One that can be accessed online (most can) allows you to recover these after a disaster, but unless you are using a very strong master password your passwords could be compromised.
Online Backup Services
Not every service is suitable for everyone. These vary by price, reliability, security and capacity, so check the reviews to see what matches best to your requirements.
Many people have more than one computer in their home or office. You can backup over the network to a central location. The necessary equipment is relatively inexpensive and easy to set up.
Keep in mind that local network backups offer no protection against fire, flood or theft.
A server running RAID is more practical than a single drive hosted somewhere on the network because that provides some redundancy in case of hard drive failure. However, RAID is not in itself a backup system.
Legacy Backup Media
CDs & DVDs
CDs and DVDs provided adequate storage when drives were smaller and the amount of data was more suitable.
- Most people now have more photos, music and videos and other data than can comfortably be stored on this media (particularly CDs).
- Few computers come with these devices any longer.
They may work for legacy systems with little storage capacity (or data to back up).
Dealing with a Disaster
You need to be prepared for both a computer failure (such as a corrupt file or broken program) and a disaster (such as theft or fire or earthquake where everything is lost or destroyed).
Are Your Backups Vulnerable?
Accidental file deletions, hard drive failure or infected files can be resolved with the backups sitting beside your computer.
However, in a disaster the backups themselves are vulnerable unless located somewhere safe.
A backup drive continually plugged into the computer could allow a virus to infect your backups. This would remove the ability to recover, especially from a ransomware attack.
Most current “viruses” are worms, designed to spread themselves anywhere they have access to.
All hard drives (and other storage media) are subject to both mechanical and human failure. Keep a current backup of anything you cannot easily replace.
SSD Drives More Vulnerable
Traditional magnetic drives simply overwrite data (or change a setting that indicates that the sector is “unreadable”).
Newer solid state drives (SSDs) are much faster and lighter but they have a significant drawback: although their lifespan is improving they can completely fail without warning.
SSDs need to erase data blocks before they can write new information in that block and SSDs have a limited number of write cycles (exasperated by TRIM, a process of background garbage collection to consolidate free space for new writes).
[I]f we're looking at SSD reliability vs HDD reliability, solid state drive failure rates -- while not apples to apples -- are not incredibly different from those of HDDs.
- SSD vs. HDD: What's the difference?
- How reliable are SSDs?
- Is your SSD less reliable than a hard drive?
- The SSD endurance experiment: Casualties on the way to a petabyte.
There are advantages to both SSD and regular hard drive (HDD) technologies.
- How to choose between SSD, SSHD, and HDD storage for better laptop performance.
- HDD vs SSD vs SSHD compared.
RAID is a data-storage system that offers protection against the failure of a single hard drive by simultaneously writing data to at least two hard drives on a RAID-equipped system.
- RAID is not a backup system in itself, only a redundancy technology.
- Backups are still necessary in case of fire, flood, theft, etc., but the risk of loss of data during regular use is reduced.
A complete backup is your ONLY defense against ransomware where malicious software encrypts your data and holds it for ransom. The fee demanded is significant and untraceable.
Failure to pay or any attempt to recovery your data results in the data being destroyed permanently.
As long as people pay these criminals, ransomware will continue to be profitable.
Healthcare companies have made themselves a target because they are unprepared and their data is both critical and very sensitive so they have tended to pay to retrieve the locked data.
There is evidence that more recent versions of ransomware simply destroy your data. Whether this is simply malicious actions by state-sponsored hackers or simply ignorance by script-kiddies, the result is the same — your data is gone forever unless you have recent reliable backups that are secured away from online access.
If you suffer a catastrophic disaster that involves more than simply losing files, such as a fire or a flood, the backups themselves could be destroyed unless they are stored off-site.
Alternatively, a thief might take your backups along with any media that is nearby (or destroy them while searching for items of value).
Insurance can replace your computer and software, but your data as well as programs and downloaded content would be gone. You should store important recovery data off-site in a safe location.
- It is unlikely a fire would happen simultaneously in the primary location and another location across town.
- Storing your work backups at home and your home backups at work is often a good solution.
- Choose somewhere that is unlikely to suffer a similar localized risk (e.g., a flood or landslide) as the primary location.
Expert File Recovery Expensive
There are companies that specialize in post-failure data recovery but you may find they are either unable to recover your data or that it is too costly.
Sometimes there is no way to avoid deleting all the files on a drive and reinstalling a “clean” operating system (a clean install) to get your computer up and running again.
The more complete your backups are at this point the more likely you will recover all necessary files and programs.