Back ups

I recently viewed a short video developed by David Pogue, Technology Editor of the New York Times. In the video it was mentioned that there are only two kinds of hard drives…those that are dying and those that are dead. Of course, the emphasis of the video was to back up your drives because it’s not a matter of “if” they are going to crash but “when”.

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With that in mind and with the unpleasant thought of trying to reinstall everything eventually, including my VoicePower and DNS, what product (and backup strategy) do you recommend to back up our hard drives and programs so that we can simply get a new hard drive when the time comes and transfer everything back – including the operating system and settings, VoicePower and DNS without the need of physically reinstalling every program we originally had?

Alan,

David Pogue is very technologically savvy. However, sometimes the things that he says tend to do more to provoke paranoia than convey the reliability of the issues surrounding current hardware/software technology.

Yes, from the moment that you install and begin using any type of computer hardware, the progression is always downhill. As my old high school physics teacher used to say, 98% of all failures are caused by friction. So, what David is really trying to convey is that if you take two sticks and rub them together, eventually you're going to produce fire. Does that mean that we should panic because someday our hard drives are going to die and, even with regard to CPUs, motherboards, power supplies, etc., is the cradle to the grave scenario for all hardware necessarily bleak. Not really.

I still have operating hard drives in systems that I built for my family and which have been running continuously 24/7 for nigh onto 10 years now with no problems. Only once have I ever had a CPU fail and I've never had a motherboard fail. In the last 10 years I've had two power supplies fail. Yes, friction and heat will eventually bring down any computer hardware. However, how soon is dependent more upon how well you take care of your hardware vs. the reliability of the technology to last many years. For example, if you don't regularly defrag your hard drives and run CHKDSK /f (f = fix) /r (r = repair) (all drives). If you don't keep your system clean of dust bunnies and periodically loosened and re-tighten connections so that you remove the built-up oxidation that occurs with any electrical or electronic connections and components, make sure that your components are properly cooled and that the airflow through your computer is adequate to maintain the heat generated by electronic components at acceptable levels. What I'm basically getting at is that; sure, if you drop your hard drive off a 10 story building is going to die. However, under normal use and proper care, internally and externally, hard drives can last for 6, 10, or even 15 years. Is it a good idea to bank on that length of service. No. What David is trying to convey is that anything can happen at any time, and eventually hardware will fail. Whether it's the bearings that wear out, drive heads come down on their magnetic platters, heat breaks down computer components and cause short circuits or melt traces on a motherboard, or they just plain that wear out, it's going to happen. Should we all go out and buy gas masks because somebody writes a horrific article on chemical/biological warfare and the likelihood we will have some kind of attempt from terrorists in this arena in the next 10 years? No. What David, I think, is trying to convey is that it is better to be proactive than to simply assume that what you buy tomorrow is going to continue to work trouble-free forever. Nevertheless, here's the bottom line on hard drives.

First, they're designed to run 24/7 reliably for an average minimum of 3 to 5 years and a practical everyday use maximum of 5 to 10 years, sometimes more.

Second, the more fragmented and the more filesystem errors that exist on your hard drives, the shorter the life span. In the case of the former, this simply makes the drive work harder and the drive heads have to move back and forth greater distances in order to get all of a file. This carries with it the potential for head crashes, bearings wearing out, excessive heat, etc., etc., ad infinitum, ad nauseam. For example, if you don't change the oil in your car and you consistently drive it 24/7 at an average speed of 100 miles an hour with poor tires and never doing general maintenance, how long do you think your car is going to last no matter how well it's designed. On the other hand, if you take care of it and do regular maintenance, as well as drive it normally as it was designed, and at the designated highway speeds, a good car will last you for anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 miles. My old Chevrolet Cavalier lasted me two 275,000 miles. Those components that more subject to wear and tear start costing you money after a reasonable amount of mileage is put on such.

Lastly, computer hardware is always stress tested. That is, motherboards, CPUs, hard drives, and related peripherals are run 24/7 under the hardest conditions, during which the rate of failure is noted and an MTBF (Mean Time between Failure) rate is calculated. Are these rates reliable, for the most part. Are they absolute guarantees that any particular piece of hardware is going to run at least up to the MTBF rating, no. Nevertheless, any hardware that you purchase, if it runs reliably for one or two months without giving you any problems, will likely run for at least 3 to 5 years. Most hard drive failures occur because of defects, and those defects rear their ugly heads usually within the first six months. Nevertheless, the failure rate of hardware due to defects is extremely low. If it wasn't, Seagate, Western Digital, Hitachi, etc. ad infinitum would be out of business tomorrow. Nevertheless, there are some hard drive manufacturers who are less reliable than others, Hitachi being one of them. In the last 10 years the only drives that have failed on me were Hitachi's. My Seagate's, Western Digital's, and Maxtor's all came with, or currently are under, a five-year warranties and all of the ones that I currently am still using from five years ago are still running just fine. Nevertheless, I realize that they're on their last legs and that I'm gambling.

Sorry for the long explanation, but I think it's helpful to understand the whole picture.

As you say, "With that in mind...", regularly backing up your hard drives is a good idea. However, it's a good idea and not necessarily for the reasons that David points out. It's a good idea because systems crash (software and operating system) far more frequently and far more perniciously than any hardware failure. So, you should regularly backup your system and all of your secondary hard drives on a regular basis in direct proportion to how frequently you write to and save information on such. Also, you can reinstall software and you can reinstall Windows, but you can reinstall your data. So, data is more important than anything else.

Regardless, there are some caveats and do's and don'ts with regard to backing up your system.

1. Use reliable software and software that automates the process. I have used and will continue to use Acronis TrueImage, the current version of which is Acronis TrueImage Home 2010. Inexpensive, reliable, and the whole line yards. It's also easy to use and allows you to create rescue media on CD that will boot your system and recover from your backup files.

2. Use an automated schedule and backup your system twice a day. Also, never assume the validity of your backups. Always check them. For example, Acronis shows you in a calendar format whether or not your backups are successful (green) or whether or not they appear to not be valid or successful. Even in the latter case, running the validity check usually finds that something else caused the red notification rather than the actual validity and reliability of the backup. Also, Acronis allows you to open and explore your backup files just as if it were another drive (virtual drive) so you can always check to make sure that the backup is re-storable very simply.

3. Acronis also allows you to backup data, such as your documents and e-mail, which is also a good idea.

4. Always use a secondary hard drive or an external hard drive that is dedicated solely to the purpose of holding your backup images. External drives are preferable to internal to drives. The reason for this is simply because internal drives are always running whenever your system is on. External drives can be turned off and/or disconnected when you're not using them. However, if you use an external drive and you do regularly scheduled backups, say twice a day, you need to ensure that they are turned on and accessible at least during those periods. Dedicate one drive (external) solely to backups and not only do an image backup of your hard drive(s) but also backup your critical files (i.e., e-mails, documents, etc.). Generally speaking if you only have one hard drive (C drive) a single 1 TB external hard drive is more than sufficient, even if you have two internal hard drives. Image backups are generally significantly smaller than the full size of your hard drives and a 1 TB external drive can generally hold several hard drive backups from different hard drives. For example, my main system is composed of one 300 GB C drive (Western Digital VelociRaptor or 300 GB 10,000 RPM), but I have five 2 TB hard drives, I can back all of them up to one single 2 TB external hard drive can I do it on a regular basis at noon and at midnight. I also overwrite any previous backups with a completely new one rather than doing incremental backups because incremental backups tend to be less reliable and require that all of the related incremental files be intact and valid. In short, it's easier to always create a brand-new full drive backup image rather than do incremental backups, as well as being more reliable.

Now here are the caveats and don'ts.

1. Don't use compression when creating your backup images because: (1) it takes longer to create a backup image if you use compression, and (2) if you run on-the-fly hard drive defragmentation, such as Diskeeper, which I use and which doesn't interfere with DNS, compressed backup images are destroyed when the files are moved the head defragmentation. Always Use "None" when asked whether or not you want to use compression, always use full backups, not incremental, because incremental backups are more subject to corruption if the drive ends up being defragmented. Further, always periodically check your backup files for integrity and validity. There is nothing more frustrating than having to do a restore from a backup image only to find out that it's corrupted. Acronis gives you many options, the settings for which you can make your backups more reliable or less reliable. So, learn how they work and use the most effective approach.

2. The reason why it's important to use an external storage device for making your backups is that: (1) you can't make backups to the same drive that you're backing up, and (2) you don't want to be storing your backups on drives that you use on a regular basis day in day out. Even if backup software allows you to do this, what happens if you can't access that drive? Basically, you're SOL. The less wear and tear on the drive that you have stored your backups on, the more reliable your backups are going to be and the fewer problems you're going to have accessing them if you have to.

3. Make sure that the recovery media (CD) can access your internal drive after you have created your first backup. That is, boot from that CD and make sure that the software sees it. If the recovery CD can't see your external drive, then you can't restore it (obviously!!!).

4. You can use Microsoft's backup in Windows 7, but generally it's less reliable and efficient than programs like Acronis TrueImage. Just like the defragmentation software that is provided with Windows, the Windows backup is a stripped-down version. Also, you'd better understand how it works before you use it, as well as whether or not and how you can recover if you can't boot into your system. You can try it, but you'd better learn it. Acronis is easier to use an exceedingly reliable.

5. Don't use the drive that you use for backups for storing any other information. If you use smaller external drives, such as the Western Digital passports, keep in mind #3 above and use one for each hard drive that you're backing up. That means, only store one image and/or set of data files per external drive. For the most part it's cheaper to get one large external hard drive and to buy 4 or five smaller ones. It's also less problematic in the long run because drives may be identified differently when booting from the recovery disc media even though you are plugging them into the same port. Also, if you use SATA or eSATA external hard drives make sure that your system can recognize them at boot time not just when you're running Windows. You can always test this with Acronis.

6. If you don't do regular drive maintenance, there is a very good likelihood that you can have problems with drive backups when it comes time to restoring such. Image files only record those portions of a hard drive that are populated with applications and/or data. They don't back up empty sectors or empty clusters. If your drive is badly fragmented, it makes it difficult for the backup software to create a good valid backup image. The more fragmented your hard drives are, the more likely your backups will fail, and the larger your backup image files will end up being under some conditions.

7. Understand that if you backup, for instance as I do, at noon and midnight every day, you will experience some slowdown in terms of access to e-mails, documents, and other applications during the backup process. This is relatively minor, even though noticeable. However, it's not a bad idea to simply close everything down and let the backup finish. Normally on good, fast systems, backups only take between 7 and 10 minutes. Sometimes the first initial backup takes a longer, but generally speaking the maximum amount of time required should be no more than 15 minutes. If it takes longer than that, take a good long look at your system because the problem is likely one that could interfere with making good reliable backups. Your backups will also be faster if you don't use compression. Compressed backups can take twice as long, as can sector by sector backups.

There are probably more things that I could share with you, but the above are the most important.