More and more of our lives are becoming digitized on a daily basis. We store and access our most precious memories, our budgets, music, movies, and so much more on our computers these days. Have you ever wondered what you would do if your computer were to suddenly not start up tomorrow? Or if, God forbid, you started it up and found out that the book you had spent months writing was gone? This is a problem we face every day. Even the best hardware has a chance of failing. It might age badly, suffer from a power spike, overheat and melt down or a malware infection could wipe you out. These are only a few examples that could cause you to lose whatever may be on your computer.

Luckily, these days, storage is cheaper than it’s ever been, and there are myriad ways to back up your data. There is absolutely no excuse for not having a copy of your data stored somewhere other than on the computer that you use every day. In this post, I’ll take you through some methods of backing up your computer and keeping your data safe, and hopefully get you on your way to having the peace of mind that a data backup gives you.

Currently, I use a combination of all of the methods outlined below. The level of backup I choose depends on how catastrophic a loss of the particular data would be. As a first line of defense, all of my data is stored separate and apart from my operating system and programs, on a hard drive installed for just that purpose. That entire drive is then backed up nightly to an external hard drive that is connected via USB. Then, my most important files are backed up to Mozy, a cloud solution. Sound like a bit much? It really isn’t once you get it set up. Let’s step through it.

Method 1: Separate Physical Hard Drives Within the Computer

This isn’t necessarily a backup solution in and of itself. It is more of a precautionary measure, and one that I feel very strongly about. Every computer that I hand build for myself or for a customer gets set up this way. Computers that I buy that don’t have room for additional drives such as laptops, are arranged in the same way using drive partitions instead of multiple physical drives.

My main computer has two physical hard disk drives installed. One is my C drive and is used exclusively for the Windows operating system and program files (Word, Photoshop, Firefox, etc…). The other is my D drive which is used exclusively for data (my photos, my music, business documents, etc…).

When I first install Windows and the programs to my C drive. I use the Windows file explorer to re-direct the personal folders (My Documents, My Music, and so forth) to the data drive. I then create a copy of this set up using Windows’ built in system backup utility, and I store that image on my external hard drive.

This set up allows for peace of mind and ease of external backup. If I were to get a virus or malware infection that corrupts my operating system, I can just wipe out that drive (or partition) and reinstall the malware free image that I created earlier and be back on my way in a matter of 20 minutes or so. I would then immediately perform a virus and malware scan on my data drive just to be sure that it was ok, and life goes on as usual.

So, now let’s talk about actually backing that data up.

Method 2: An External Hard Drive

Now my data is protected from the event of an operating system loss, but I’m left hurting if my data drive decides that it’s outlived its usefulness and just doesn’t want to do what I ask of it anymore. So, my next step is to back that data drive up nightly onto an external hard drive. I use a free program called FBackup. There are many backup programs out there and some may indeed be better, but FBackup has never given me an ounce of trouble, so I stick with what works. FBackup creates a mirror of my data drive onto an external hard drive that is attached to my computer via USB port. Now, if my data drive were to fail, I would be able to replace it with a new drive, and restore my data to the new drive from the external hard drive. Also, if I were to suffer a more catastrophic event, such as GOD FORBID a fire, I could (hopefully) make it to that drive, yank it off of the shelf that it’s sitting on and run out the door with it. Speaking of catastrophic loss:

Method 3: Off-site “Cloud” Backups

In the event that I wasn’t able to make it to that hard drive, I would still have my most important documents available to me thanks to Mozy. Mozy is one of many cloud backup services that connects to your computer through a simple interface and securely uploads your files to their servers. The benefit of this is that my most important data is securely tucked away, far from here. Due to the price, I have only chosen to back up my most important files, but I can rest easy knowing that my family photos, business data, and other important documents are secure.

Mozy has plans that start at $5.99 per month for 50 GB of storage. There are other cloud backup services available such as Carbonite, CrashPlan, Norton Online Backup, and many others. This PC Magazine article has some reviews on a bunch of the available services. Do a little bit of research, read the comments sections of the reviews, and choose the service that suits you best.

If you only have a handful of files you would like to keep safe, and don’t want to fork over $72 a year, Microsoft offers Skydrive. Skydrive isn’t necessarily meant to be a backup solution per-Se, but they do offer 7 GB of online storage for free. The amount of storage is expandable for a price.

Simplifying With A Home Server/Network Attached Storage (NAS) Device

This is really a topic suited for another post, but I’ll touch on it lightly here, because it does offer an interesting option for a single point of backup, and allows for some nice, easy file sharing as well.

If you have multiple devices throughout your home and share files among your devices, a home server or a NAS may be the way to go. You only need a moderately powered machine (that old Windows XP box that you have tucked away in a closet somewhere collecting dust would work beautifully) a network accessible external hard drive, or a router that offers the option of sharing a normal external hard drive on your network.

Other options would be to run a full-fledged (and FREE) Linux server such as Ubuntu’s server distro, which will give you many more options that you may or may not need, or to go as far as a full-blown Windows server, which is most likely overkill for a simple home environment.

Having a home server simplifies your backup process because it offers storage that is off of your daily driver PC. It allows multiple users and devices access to files, and it provides a single point of backup for your offsite needs. You only have to worry about backing up the server to the cloud regularly, and not worry about backing up each device to the cloud individually.

A quick example scenario would be a family of four. Dad has his desktop computer, Mom has her new Surface, and the kids each have a laptop. Instead of configuring each machine to back up to a cloud service or its own external hard drive, you could back up each machine to the server, then back the server up to the cloud. The server will also allow a decent fail-safe environment by allowing you to configure multiple drives in different RAID arrays. For example, a RAID 1 array consists of two physical drives of equal capacity. One drive is visible to the users and the operating system as the storage medium, and the other drive is a mirror of the main drive. If one drive were to fail, the failed drive could be removed, replaced with the mirrored drive, and the mirror could be recreated to a new hard drive.

These are just a few methods of backing up your data. You can be as basic as you feel safe with, or as advanced as you like. Go with what suits your individual needs. The takeaway here is to make sure that your data exists in more than one place.

So, now that you’re a little more educated about backup methods… Get to it and protect your data!