Backup, backup, backups!
If there's one thing I've learned in 20 years and 12,000 data recoveries, it's that everybody doesn't back up their data sometimes. Computers may be dumb, but they know when you don't have your data backed up - because THAT's when they break. Don't let your computer fool you - back up new data daily.
It's important that you keep two alternating backups, and an additional spare piece of media. This means to have one disk (or tape, or thumb drive) labeled “EVEN" (for even-numbered days, one labeled “ODD" and one spare. Eventually, something will go wrong with a backup. For example, if an error occurs on an “EVEN" day, and you put in your “ODD" backup, you may ruin both. Instead, put in the spare. If there is a problem, you've saved your extra backup (from the day before yesterday) and have not wasted all your hard work. If there is no problem, and it was only a temporary glitch, then put your spare back on the shelf, reformat the “EVEN", and carry on with your backup.
What's the best thing to make a backup on?
There are a lot of ways to back up your data . Most new computers come with CD-R, or CD-RW drives. Most PCs still come with floppy disk drives (and you can get one for a Mac). There are Zip drives, tape drives, USB “thumb" drives, and more. My current favorites are External FireWire or USB 2 drives, and CD-R for full backups, and USB thumb drives for smaller amounts of data.
There are quite a few external drives on the market today and if you have a computer that's less than three years old, you probably have the ports for hooking these up. They usually come with backup software as well. As of this writing, the drives are mostly under $200. Once installed, it's a good idea to leave these drives off except when backing up. That way, a power spike or other environmental event that may destroy data on your hard disk will be unlikely to damage the external hard disk.
For CD-RW drives, I recommend using CD-R media only, as it's too easy to overwrite a previous backup using a CD-RW disk. This is a good form of backup for large amounts of data (they hold more than 650 MB), and each disk is inexpensive. But it leaves you with a lot of plastic disks sitting around. That's why I typically use them only for large backups. Heat, bending, and scratching are the enemies of CD disks. Incidentally, while it's hard to do CD-ROM recovery, it is possible to recover CDs that are damaged.
Zip drives come in sizes from 100 MB to 750 MB and cost from $60 to $200, while additional disks cost around $10 each. These are sensitive to dust, shock, too much heat, and big magnets. Remember to alternate backups with Zip disks as a damaged Zip drive can damage a Zip disk. Zip disk recovery is possible, but tends to be less successful than recovering other media.
Floppy diskettes don't hold very much (1.4 MB), but cost a few cents, and are easy to carry around. Almost all PCs have them, and quite a few Macs do. Floppies are sensitive to heat, magnetic fields, dust, bending and other rough handling.
Tape drives should only be used for very large amounts of data. They are relatively expensive and slow. They're great on large networks for after-hours backups, but they're easily damaged. Tape recovery is difficult and expensive.
I am an unabashed fan of USB thumb drives! These are actually memory sticks with a USB plug on the end that act like portable hard disks. They are sturdy - I accidentally let one go through the wash in my shirt pocket. After it dried out, it still had my data on it (don't try this at home)! While we've been successful performing USB data recovery, in this case, it wasn't even necessary! They come in sizes from 64 MB to more than 2 GB. They can be shared and used on PCs and Macs without reformatting. You can buy one at a local computer or electronics store for $35-$150.
What's the alternative to backing up your data? Well, as every drive eventually fails, it's pricey data recovery or data loss, which can be devastating
Be safe. Back up your data.
Steve Burgess is the president of data recovery worldwide. As a founder of the data recover industry in 1984, Mr. Burgess has trained leading recovery companies and performed recovery work on more than 15,000 hard drives and other media. Burgess also writes and is a highly regarded computer forensics expert.
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