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Using the Backup and Restore Center (part 1) - Planning for Backups

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3/24/2011 10:03:05 PM

Planning for Backups

Before you learn about the technical details of working with backup-related functionality in Windows Vista, it is helpful to identify some of the requirements for performing backups. In this section, you’ll learn about several important concepts to keep in mind when helping customers plan for backups.

Reasons for Performing Backups

As mentioned earlier, users often fail to recognize the importance of performing backups until a problem occurs. There are several different reasons for performing backups, and all focus on protecting against data loss. Common sources of problems include the failure of hardware components such as a disk controller or hard disk drive. Because hard disk drives have moving components, they’re often one of the most vulnerable aspects of the computer itself.

Although hardware failures can and do occur, they are often relatively rare compared to another data-related danger: user error. For home and small-business consumers, it’s likely that they’ll accidentally delete or overwrite important information at some time. When this happens, they’ll want to recover the file or revert it to an earlier version.

Finally, the threat of viruses and other types of malware can put users’ information at significant risk. Some types of malicious software can directly access files and make changes to their contents or delete them altogether. In the worst cases, it might become necessary to recover the files from a backup. 

Selecting Files to Back Up

When planning for backup operations, it’s important to identify which types of files and information must be protected. Computers contain a wide variety of important data that is often stored in different locations on the computer. With Windows Vista, some important types of data to back up include the following:

  • Data files (documents, photos, video, music, and so on)

  • Operating system settings

  • Application settings

In the case of data loss, all of this information is difficult to re-create, if it is possible at all. In addition to settings and data, there are other types of files that are required for proper operations of the computer. For example, the Windows Vista operating system itself includes thousands of different files necessary for proper operation. Additionally, applications such as those included with Microsoft Office can contain large numbers of files.

Although all files are important, in the case of complete data loss, it is usually possible to reinstall programs or the operating system from installation media. In some cases, you might want to advise users to perform a complete backup of all data and files on their computer. In other cases, technical limitations (such as the amount of available disk space) will make this impossible.

Scheduling Backups

Another important consideration related to planning for backups is determining how often the data should be copied. The optimal answer varies based on the ways in which customers use their computers. For example, if a home user primarily uses the computer for accessing Web sites and Web-based e-mail, a weekly backup might be suitable. On the other hand, a small-business owner who relies on an accounting system and customer project files might want to back up files daily or even several times per day.

Backups can be performed manually, but users should set up a scheduled backup process. This helps ensure that users do not forget to perform regular backup operations based on their requirements. Ideally, backups should be performed when the user is not actively using the computer. It is possible to perform various tasks while backups are running, but the process can reduce performance. A typical schedule is to run a backup operation in the evening or night, when users are less likely to be using their desktops and notebooks.

There is one additional scheduling consideration: for backup operations to be performed, the computer must be on. Home and small-business users who rely on desktop computers might choose to keep computers running when they are finished using them. You can use the standard power management options in Control Panel to ensure that systems use minimal energy when not in use. Users of portable computers must also ensure that their computers are connected to a power source for backups to be performed. The reason for this is that the backup process itself can place a significant load on the hard disk and other components of the system. This can lead to the battery draining very quickly, often, before the backup process is complete.

Real World

Anil Desai

For many technical professionals, there’s a tendency to focus on technology solutions before the problem is properly defined. The process of implementing backups is no exception. I sometimes find myself implementing a variety of backup operations on users’ computers without first taking the time to determine what is actually needed. First and foremost, it’s important to recognize that the goal of performing backups is to provide the ability to restore data.

So how can you determine the restore requirements? As a Consumer Support Technician, perhaps the most important aspect of the process is to listen to your customers when they tell you how they use their computers. Some questions you should be thinking of include the following:

  • What types of information would be difficult to replace in the case of a complete data loss? Usually, this includes users’ important data and media-related files. In some cases, databases or other types of applications might include additional information that must be protected.

  • How often does data change on the computer, and how important are the changes? For users who do most of their work online or those that rarely modify system settings and applications, less frequent backups might make more sense.

  • What are the technical constraints within which you must work? Often, disk space limitations and the amount of time it takes to perform a backup will be important factors.

  • How quickly does the user need to restore the system, assuming a complete loss of all data? In some cases, it might be acceptable for the user to reinstall the operating system and applications manually. Other types of users, such as small-business owners, might find that downtime is extremely costly.

  • What is the total amount of acceptable data loss? In a worst-case scenario, users should be able to determine how much information they can stand to lose. Occasional computer users might find that the loss of a week’s worth of information is not a significant concern. Others might see a high cost related to losing even a few hours’ worth of information.

Only after you’ve determined customers’ requirements should you start working on the technical details of implementing, scheduling, and testing the backup process.

Choosing Backup Destinations

When planning to perform backups, consider your customers’ hardware resources. It’s important to determine where backups can be stored. Common examples of backup destinations include the following:

  • Hard disks The backup utilities of Windows Vista enable storing backups on the hard disk. The backups themselves can be stored to any local hard disk volume, but it is highly recommended that they be stored on a separate physical disk drive from the primary copy. This helps prevent the loss of the original data and the backup in the case of hardware failure.

  • Removable media One of the most common methods for storing backups is the use of writable CD- or DVD-based media. The primary advantage of this approach is that blank discs are inexpensive and can be easily stored in a secure location. Ideally, an entire backup will fit on a single piece of media. If multiple discs are required, a user needs to change them manually during the backup process. To perform a restore operation, all of the discs that are part of a backup set are required. If one or more discs are missing, however, it is usually possible to restore some data from the remaining media.

  • Network devices It is possible to store backup information over the network. This is most useful when an environment contains multiple computers that are connected to the same network or when a network-based storage device is available. The speed of the network connection can affect backup performance, and it is important to ensure that the network connection is reliable. Also, keep in mind that the destination device or computer must be online and available for the backup process to occur.

  • Removable memory devices Memory devices typically plug in to a computer’s universal serial bus (USB) port. In general, they provide a quick and easy method for storing backup information. Often, however, the capacity of the device is smaller than that of other backup media options. This makes them more suitable for backups of smaller sets of files.

  • External hard disk drives These devices contain a hard disk or other storage device that generally attaches to the computer through a USB or FireWire connection. Because the drives are external, they can be removed and stored in a safe location after the backup completes.

Note: Protecting backup data

It’s common for users to store sensitive personal or financial information on their computers. Keep in mind that when you make a backup, you’re creating a copy of all of this information. For this reason, you should protect backups by storing them in a secure location that is accessible only to authorized individuals. Home users might choose to store them in a locked safe or filing cabinet or another location (such as at their workplace). Small-business owners might consider investing in an off-site backup service that automatically stores media in another location.

Note: Backups using the Internet

There are numerous online services that allow users to store backup copies on remote servers by using the Internet. The benefit is that the backups are automatically and securely stored on a remote server. Although this is not a feature that is specifically supported by Windows Vista, it can be a helpful option for home and small-business consumers.

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