How to Backup Your Computer Files and Why You Must

If you've ever been a victim of a mild case of computer fever, a client file that you couldn't open, or an itinerary record that you or someone else accidentally deleted, consider yourself lucky. Glitches like that pale in comparison to the ultimate computer disaster—a hard disk crash or a virus that wipes out all of your agency's business records. Michael Leibrandt

Think it can't happen to you? Think again. Abington, PA-based computer consultant Michael Leibrandt says that almost every computer in service over a period of several years will suffer a major catastrophe, such as a hard disk crash. Imagine what that would mean to your business.

Computer failures aren't the only danger, though. "Many business owners tend to think of a computer malfunction as the only risk to their records," says Jack Shea, president of Solutions by Computer in Springfield, MA. "It's easy to forget about the possibility of fire or flood."

Fortunately, modern technology has made protection from that kind of disaster simple and inexpensive. Still, whether you use dedicated travel software or an off-the-shelf package, you must take the steps necessary to give yourself the peace of mind that comes from knowing that your business records are safe. A hard disk crash is one of the most stressful things that can happen; often the information you lose is irretrievable and irreplaceable

Remember, you can replace a computer that fails; however, the information it contains, in many cases, is irreplaceable.

A Brief History of Backups

In the early days of desktop computers, backing up was a simple procedure. All you had to do was pop a floppy disk in a drive and copy your data. Today, most files are much too large to fit on floppies. That's why manufacturers no longer include floppy drives as standard equipment or offer them as options.

In 1995, Iomega introduced its innovative Zip drive, a format that many regarded as the logical successor to the floppy; however, it hasn't caught on. One disadvantage is the cost of Zip disks, originally ranging from $5 to $10 per disk. Even with newer Zip disks able to hold up to 750 megabytes (MB) at about $15 each, the ever-increasing size of data files has caused many users to look to emerging technology as a better solution to the backup problem. Options For Online Data Storage

While some users still rely on Zip disks for their backup chores, Leibrandt recommends looking to newer technology as a better long-term choice for protecting business data.

Another early format that seems to be losing favor is the tape drive. "Tape backups are less reliable than other methods," says Robert Meyhoefer, director of information systems for The Cardiology Group in Mt. Laurel, NJ. "Tapes can break, making them unusable; backups and restores are slower than other methods; and tape drives capable of handling large amounts of data are quite expensive."

Here are four backup methods that Leibrandt and Meyhoefer say are most suitable for providing the peace of mind that comes from knowing that your business records are protected from loss:

CDs and DVDs

Compared to early floppies that held a maximum of 1.4 MB of data, CDs can hold as much as 800 MB. DVDs can hold upwards of 4.7 gigabytes (GB). A GB is 1,000 megabytes. There are few sets of travel agency records that cannot be accommodated by CDs or especially DVDs.

A single DVD with its massive storage capacity can be bought for around $1.25; CDs cost only pennies each. Most new computers now come with CD/DVD drives built in. As recently as six years ago, a DVD drive went for as much as $500 and a single DVD disk for $35. CD and DVD disks are the least expensive method of backing up computer data

"While we use tape backups for our Unix-based systems," says Shea, "our Windows-based systems use DVD disks.

According to Leibrandt, you should keep in mind that disks have their own set of disadvantages. Some users have reported disks that became unreadable after a few uses, others readable only in the drives in which they were created. He recommends a second set of backups when DVDs are used.

"However, as far as cost is concerned," says Leibrandt, "CD and DVD disks can't be beat. For most users, they should be adequate and would certainly be the least expensive."

Jump, Flash, USB Drives

So-called jump drives are tiny plug-and-play portable storage devices that use flash memory for data storage. As small as one-half inch by two inches, they can be toted around in a purse or shirt pocket.

Jump drives will work with any newer PC or Mac with an existing USB 1.1 or USB 2.0 port. When you plug a jump drive into a USB port, your computer automatically assigns it to the next available drive letter. Just use the drag and drop method to transfer files and folders.

Retail prices for jump drives range from about $30 for a 512 MB unit to about $60 for two GB of capacity. Some manufacturers offer jump drives with up to 16 GB of memory.

"The primary advantage of jump drives," says Leibrandt, "is compactness and portability. They were originally designed to transfer files from one computer to another with a minimum of bulk, and they do that job superbly well."

Meyhoefer agrees. "If you are backing up less than two GB of data, I recommend using inexpensive USB jump drives. They're a great way of backing up and transporting data quickly and easily.You can never make too many backups. Just make sure you organize multiple backups so you can find what you need easily in case of an emergency."

In Leibrandt's opinion, jump drives have one major disadvantage. "They're so small," he says, "that they're easy to misplace or lose. I've managed to lose a couple of them myself."

External Hard Drives

The "permanent" storage device on your computer is its hard drive. This is where all of your applications and data files reside. The use of a second hard drive for backing up data is arguably the most popular of all systems. Robert Meyhoefer

"The method of choice for backups is the addition of an external hard drive," says Leibrandt. "Plug the device into a USB port and copy your entire library of data files. For the ultimate in protection, unplug the drive and take it to a completely separate location for safe off-site storage. Because they come with huge storage capacity, one drive can do it all."

The latest external hard drives have also benefited from technological downsizing. Drives of up to a whopping 250 GB of capacity selling for about $100 are smaller than your favorite novel. Even smaller drives with a capacity of 20 GB are no larger than a deck of cards.

For the ultimate in compactness, Leibrandt likes the FireLite brand. "I've had very good luck with them," he says. "However, you won't go wrong with any of the major manufacturers such as Maxtor and Iomega." Maxtor drives, bundled with Dantz Retrospect software, include a one-touch backup button. Just press the button and do other work while your computer handles the backup procedure automatically.

Online Data Storage

Home-based travel agents who prefer not to invest in backup hardware and the bother of toting physical backups to an off-site location have an alternative method that helps solve both of those issues.

Online data storage allows you to log on to a secured web site where you may upload your files for storage and recovery, if necessary. All companies encrypt their stored data so that it cannot be accessed by unauthorized persons.

Many commercial software packages offer an online storage option for an additional fee.

"One of our clients in Ohio recently had a devastating fire," says Shea, "but we were able to get him up and running quickly with our online backups."

"There's one caution with online data storage that you should keep in mind," says Leibrandt. "If the provider's server goes down, you won't be able to backup or have access to your files until the problem is fixed. That's why I consider online data storage a supplement to traditional backups, not a replacement."

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