In an earlier blog, following my computer crashing, I asked What is the best way to backup and secure the data on my computer?
A lot of folks responded and you really should check out the comments associated with that blog. One reader responded to me directly with regard to my mention of Carbonite; his response was as follows:
I share your pain. Last year my Dell XP laptop with all my business data on it had a hard drive failure. Thank God for Carbonite. I requisitioned my wife’s HP Vista laptop, restored all my files from Carbonite onto her machine, and continued on. Dell supplied me with a replacement hard drive for the XP machine since I had an extended warranty with them, I reloaded XP, downloaded all the updates, transferred all the wife’s files to the new hard drive, and kept the Vista laptop for my business use. I am writing you from that machine now. I found Carbonite’s restore process easy to understand and use. I now use it for both computers. Regards, Richard
Well, it's good to hear that Carbonite does work. Anyway, I’ve explored a variety of solutions and made my decisions, and – on the basis that everyone has their own unique requirements – I think some of the alternatives I considered may be of interest to you.
The way I was doing things
Before we leap into the fray, let’s remind ourselves as to the way I was doing things, which was to have a 1 terabyte external USB hard drive sitting on my desk. At the end of each day, I took a backup of my working data files (about 1.2 gigabytes) by simply copying them over to the external drive.
The problem with this strategy became apparent when my computer crashed. At that time I was using a Windows 7 notebook computer and carrying it back and forth between my home and my office. The thing was that I’d been working at home for a few days and I didn’t have my external drive with me so I hadn’t been taking backups. I nearly lost all of my data. It was a close thing. I was not wearing my happy face.
Two (or more) computers
One thing I have to do is to protect myself against a catastrophic loss of my main notepad computer. For example, suppose I left it in my office overnight and there was a fire (which would also take out my backup drive, now that I come to think about it). That would not be good news. The solution here is to keep my notepad for use at home and while I’m on the road, and to get a second system for use in the office.
Since I won’t be carrying it around with me, the system in my office can be an affordable tower computer. You wouldn’t believe the deals that are out there. For only about $350 I ended up ordering something of a beast, which is winging its way to me as I pen these words. This is refurbished Xeon-based machine with 4GB RAM (a friend has a couple of extra memory sticks that match this machine, so I’m going to boost the memory up to 8GB), a 500GB hard drive, all the usual “stuff” like DVD, Sound, Ethernet, etc., along with a mega-powerful dual DVI video card. (Actually, my plan is to end up with three displays in my office – I’ll be writing more about this later – so I also purchased an identical refurbished video card from eBay for around $35.)
The next thing is to secure my data. In addition to backing it up, I also need some way to ensure that everything is synchronized between my home and work computers such that they always have identical copies of my data files.
Just to remind ourselves, in my case we’re talking about my working data – ongoing projects and “stuff” I like to keep around because it’s useful – so we’re only talking about 1.2 gigabytes (my bulk data is backed up on DVDs and I have copies at work and at home).
A rugged external hard drive
My first idea was not particularly elegant, but it was simple (I like simple). The first step was to purchase a rugged external drive. I had thought about a rugged solid state drive (SSD), but these are incredibly expensive. Also I’ve heard from folks in the know that they’ve seen almost as many problems with SSDs as they have with regular hard drives.
One regular hard drive that looked quite tasty was the LaCie Rugged All-Terrain Drive
as shown below, the 320 GB version of which is available from Amazon for around $90 (actually, you can get a USB-only version for around $70 from some stores).
My original plan was at the end of each day to simply copy all of my working data from my office machine to the external drive, to bring the external drive home with me, and to then copy the data from the drive onto my notepad computer. Similarly, if I did any work at home, I would reverse the process.
One problem here is that it actually takes quite a few minutes to copy 1.2GB of data. Another issue is that it involves me doing all of the work … how long would it be before I said “not tonight”
(soon to be followed, undoubtedly, by another system crash).
Zinstall and zPOD
Another very interesting option would be the Zinstall and zPOD applications from Zinstall (www.zinstall.com
). The idea is that you use Zinstall to create a virtual machine (VM) that includes all of your data, along with your operating system and application software, and you use zPOD to install this virtual machine on your external drive (HDD, SSD, or even a large USB memory stick).
This has a number of advantages, including the fact that you can literally “Put your Windows 7 machine in your pocket."
That is, you can connect the external drive containing your virtual machine into any computer and instantly be “at home” with your own files, applications, preferences, settings and so forth.
You can also connect to your office's Exchange Server and work exactly the same way as on your home PC/Office PC – no installations or network settings changes are needed.
Most importantly (for me), zPOD also synchronizes itself with your base computer each and every time you plug it in. The end result is that zPOD is actually backup copy on VM, but not just backup, it’s a live backup, which is "bootable" and "workable" from everywhere.
Returning to my original idea of manually copying all of my working data onto my external drive every day, this would obviously be horribly inefficient, because – in reality – only a relatively small number of files would actually change each day.
Thus, my next thought was to track down some software application that would automatically synchronize the data on my computer with the data on the external drive. Assuming I had this software, what I would like would be that when I first plug the drive into the computer, the software should automatically go through a certain folder or folders (I want to be able to specify which ones) on my computer and corresponding folders on the external drive comparing them.
If the software discovers new folders or files on the computer that don’t exist on the external drive it should replicate them on the external drive, and vice versa. Also, if the software discovers a later version of an existing file on the computer it should copy that version over to the external drive, and vice versa.
Similarly, upon returning home, I would perform an identical synchronization operation between the external drive and my home computer.
While bouncing around the Internet, I ran across a really good product comparison of different Synchronization Software packages
on the Top Ten Review
s website. One problem was that all of the ones I looked at would only run on start up and then when you told them to … that is, they wouldn’t backup any files as you created or modified them.
According to this review, two of the best packages are Syncables 360 (www.syncables.com
) and GoodSync (www.goodsync.com
). Although I eventually decided that they are not for me, I absolutely believe that these synchronization utilities will work really well for some users’ requirements – especially for those who are working with humongous amounts of data. The Syncables 360 application, for example, can even synchronize your email across Windows, MAC, and other systems.
Dropbox is my new best friend
Fortunately, I was introduced to something called Dropbox (www.dropbox.com
). This is absolutely fantastic, and it’s also FREE so long as you have less than 2GB of data to worry about (there’s a small monthly cost for up to 50GB and a larger cost for up to 100GB, but as I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, I’m primarily worried about maintaining the integrity of my working data, which is only around 1.2GB).
So how does this work? Well, first of all you click the Download
button on the Dropbox website and download and install the small Dropbox application. This creates a special Dropbox
folder on your system (I told it to put this folder under my existing My Documents
folder) as illustrated in the screenshot below:
As you can see, the Dropbox
folder icon looks like a regular folder icon except for a small green circle with a tick-mark in the bottom left-hand corner. Next, you drag-and-drop any of your existing files and folders that you wish to backup into your Dropbox
folder. At this point, the green circle on the folder icon turns blue, which indicates that the Dropbox application is copying your files into “The Cloud,” by which I mean extremely secure servers. As part of this, all of your data is encrypted using the AES-256 standard.
This is where things start to get really cool and exciting. Whenever you edit a file and save it, that file is immediately backed up into the cloud. But wait, there’s more, because you can now go to another system and install the Dropbox
application on that machine. This time, instead of saying you are a new user, you say that you are an existing user and give your username and password. What happens now is that Dropbox synchronizes the Dropbox
folder on this new machine with your Dropbox
folder in the cloud, so all of the files you saved from your other machine are now replicated on this new machine. And, of course, if you create any files in the Dropbox
folder on this new machine, a copy is automatically pushed up into the cloud to eventually be synchronized with your other machine(s).
You can do this for as many machines as you wish. The end result is that you have a Dropbox
folder on each of your computers (for me this involves my tower at work [as soon as it arrives] and my notepad at home and also my spare notebook in case of emergencies) – along with a Dropbox
folder in The Cloud – and all of these folders are automatically synchronized together.
You have no idea how easy to use this is until you try it (and there’s much more to this application than I’ve discussed here, such as the ability to right-click on a file in your Dropbox
folder and immediately share the version in the cloud with selected friends and colleagues without having to FTP it or email it or anything).
For me, Dropbox has proved to be a perfect solution. As soon as I create a new file or modify an existing file, that file is immediately backed up into the cloud. And the fact that my data files are automatically synchronized across all of my machines is worth its weight in gold!