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Q & A: The right choice for backing up your data

Thursday - 5/29/2014, 8:59am  ET

harddrive.jpg
Backing up data is important. But what's the best way to do it? (Thinkstock)

Don't make these backup mistakes

Data Doctor Ken Colburn explains common misconceptions about backing up data, and how to do it correctly.

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PHOENIX, Ariz. -- We store everything on our computers and devices these days, but backing up that information is important. Otherwise, if something goes wrong, it's lost.

Q: We've got a new college graduate with lots of stuff to be backed up off her computer. Should we use cloud or an external hard drive?

A: People seem to understand the importance of good backup, but the many different ways to get the job done keep many from getting started.

Your circumstances, type of information, amount of data and the user's level of comfort with technology all play a role in making the best decision.

In general, there's no such thing as too many backups. The ultimate solution usually includes both an external storage device and some form of off-site backup, cloud or otherwise.

There are pros and cons to every form of backup, so make sure you minimize your exposure to data loss.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to backup, so avoiding these common mistakes may be the best advice I can give you:

  1. External hard drives used as primary storage: Far too many people refer to their external hard drive or large USB drive as their backup, when in actuality they are simply saving all their data directly to the drive. This means that only one copy of the data exists, and only on the external device. If you can't locate two copies of your data, you don't have a backup.

  2. Installing backup software but not setting the scheduler: Our service technicians are routinely presented with a backup drive during an emergency that is supposed to have the most current backup stored on it, but often it dates from many months or even years ago. Because there was not a scheduled automatic backup that was being verified on a regular basis, many just assume it's doing its job.

  3. No versioning of files: If your backup process overwrites previous versions of files every time, you don't have much of a window when someone accidentally overwrites an important document, or when a virus that infects data files hits you. Your backup system should allow you to keep several versions of your files stored to protect against these scenarios.

  4. No offsite copy of your data: An external hard drive or USB drive will be faster than a cloud-based solution when you're working with a large amount of data, but a fire, flood or theft could render your backup useless. Laptop theft is common at universities, so the laptop and backup are often stolen or lost together, leaving a student with nowhere to turn for their data.

  5. Fear of the cloud: The most common reason we hear for not having an off-site, Internet-based backup is "I don't trust the cloud." While it can be argued that cloud-based backups are much more secure than an external hard drive plugged into your computer, some alternatives don't store your data on someone else's backup servers. File -syncing utilities or private cloud backup systems can use computers and hard drives that you own in multiple locations (i.e. work, school or home) to effectively provide an off-site backup that you totally control.

For students, colleges may be using cloud-based services such as Google Docs or Office 365 for assignments. The more students live in the cloud, the less they are beholden to any specific computer to get to their critical files.

By the way, it's just as important to install tracking software on your child's mobile devices so you can locate, lock and send a message should they get stolen or go missing. I highly recommend Prey to parents.

A well-designed backup strategy can get fairly complex, so don't take it lightly. If you're not comfortable making decisions on what to use or on how to get things properly set up, ask someone you trust who has technical expertise for help. This one is far too important to assume it's being done.

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