A quick one-two:
1. Portable memory has never been so cheap. We recommend that you get yourself a USB flash drive without delay and copy any of your vital data onto it (or an eqivalent device). If you don't know how to copy files then you should learn how to do this as a priority. If you only have a floppy on which to back-up your files then so be it but be told now that data is simply not safe on these notoriously capricious diskettes.
2. When working on open documents (at least on ones which don't automatically back themselves up) then get into a routine of hitting CTRL+S to save the current content of most such files to disk. How long does it take to simultaneously hit those two keys compared to rewriting a document that you have been constructing all morning? Power cuts and accidents happen - often at the least convenient time.
These two points may not be appropriate for all people all of the time but if nothing else is learned from these pages these two simple actions will save most people from an awful lot of grief. Really - an awful lot of grief.
Make sure you have a strategy and then make sure you stick to it. The world is absolutely littered with people who have lost terribly because their data had not been backed-up. Their unique photographs, emails, contact lists, client accounts and hours or weeks of work typing or programming all gone - possibly for ever - or only recoverable at a very great cost; a cost that can easily run into thousands of bucks. Just keeping such data on your hard drive is not clever. Hard drives can and indeed will eventually fail.
It is your own personal data that is likely to be invaluable or irreplaceable. Computer hardware does fail and data can easily be lost by accidental deletion or by viruses and so on. Lightning and fires do happen and PCs do get stolen. We are sure you get the idea. Systems and their software can be replaced but your own data probably cannot. So if you have such data then back it up on whatever schedule is needed to prevent you or your business from being unduly compromised. If having your computer go down is mission critical for you or your business then read about imaging and RAID in these pages or elsewhere.
Four areas for consideration
- Open documents. A lot of Windows programs do not prompt you or even try to save the file you are working on until you formally go to shut the program. Typically things like e-mails and word processor or spreadsheet documents only exist in the computer's volatile (temporary) RAM memory until the program or the user makes a decision to save the file. The first time this is done for that file you will almost certainly be prompted to give the file a name and a location on your system. An equivalent sequence applies to existing files that have been opened and edited. If there is a power cut or your computer crashes for some reason then all changes since the last save are lost. Poof - gone up in smoke because RAM only holds its contents temporarily - it cannot store data once power to it is lost.
- Hard drive data. Data that has been saved onto the hard drive is relatively safe and unless overwritten it can be surprisingly difficult to make it completely irrecoverable. Having said that, copies of important or valuable data should always be kept in at least one other location. Basically this involves file-copying and pasting operations which can be done manually or automated with certain software.
- Program customisation and updates. As time goes by it is common for programs and their own associated files to be upgraded or updated and for new programs to be added and customised. Windows updates may have been downloaded and the operating system tweaked to one's own personal liking. To have to redo all of this can be both time-consuming and may well be costly if software has to be repurchased or technicians paid to reintall programs or the operating system. There are things that can be done to make such restoration easier or more likely to be successful and one cornerstone of this approach is to make restorable "images" or clones or snapshots of your system.
- Functional operating system. Just as in the above section, the inability to use one's system at all can be the cause of considerable costs and annoyance. However, it should eventually be possible to get going again - even if this means purchasing new hardware and software. If one has a PC that one cannot even get into, the implications and cures are going to be similar to those in section 3. but just more severe and acute than with a 'merely' malfunctioning system. Not being able to use the PC will often just exaccerbate one's problems if one normally needs the PC or the internet to get help or download files. The use of imaging and of RAID will both be discussed as the principal ways of minimising such downtime.
Three methodologies for consideration
If you have a store of important data then, unless you are particularly methodical, we would urge you to consider using some form of automation or assisted back-up. It is the bedrock of our own system because we know that if we do not automate we may well forget to perform these vital functions. For the PC-savvy there should be no problem copying files but for those less versed in file management we will give a few hints on how to go about this most basic of all tasks. One should know or learn to copy files in the same way that a driver should learn where the brake is before they are taught about the accelerator.
- Manual copying of files (or file archives). How to copy files and whether to create collections of files inside other specialist files known as archive files. Typical compressed archive files are often known as zip or rar files.
- Automated or assisted copying of files (or file archives). Two main things worth thinking about are (a) the use of backup software programs that can easily be started or which will run in the background and (b) the use of RAID. Raid involves using additional hard drives, which can be configured to either constantly maintain a mirror (RAID 1) of one's system or be capable of recovering from drive failure using parity-checking (RAID 5, 6, etc).
- The maintenance of more than one version of backed-up material. There are two main considerations. Firstly whether to keep more than one version of a backed-up file and whether to keep all the changes made to a file or just to the parts that have changed in any interim period (differential and incremental backups).
We have been fairly busy of late but hope to cover all the main areas above in more detail in the coming days and weeks. There is much help out there on the internet should you ever need it. The PCGuide and similar PC forums and Google being two obvious ones. We hope, for now, to at least have given you some pause for thought and a glimpse of the possibilities.