All computer storage systems have a limited life span. Your only safeguard for data is to have copies of important files elsewhere. If you don't back up, you will permanently lose files.

Files and file systems

All computer systems are the sum of their files. Some files are used to run the operating system (i.e. Windows, Linux, MacOS), while others are programs which run on the system. Finally there are data files which the user has created or downloaded, such as images, music, videos, documents, bookmarks, emails, etc. These are the files which often (but not exclusively) live in the My Documents folder of Microsoft Windows based systems (98, ME, 2000, XP, Vista, etc.).

It is the data files which it is critical to back up elsewhere, because if lost they may be hard to find again or worse, irreplaceable. When the computer dies (and they all do) the system can often be fixed by reinstalling the operating system and the programs (applications), which are usually stored on CD and hence do not require backing up in the same way.

However, depending on the reason the system failed in the first place, the process of reinstalling Windows can often involve loss of these valuable data files from the system. Sometimes it may be possible to retrieve some data, but the process is often long, painful and complicated (read: expensive) and is unlikely to completely retrieve all data. Typically the user goes whining to their local computer expert with tedious excuses about why they didn't make the effort to back up their files and then expects the tech person to work miracles of data retrieval. Much better not to lose the data in the first place.

Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, most people do not back up their data until they lose something important. Even then, no-hopers do not learn from the experience and continue to lose more data on more occasions. The clever user backs up their data files on a regular basis. Extra smart users (including big businesses) keep more than one copy in more than one place.

The Options

The good news is that now more than ever, a large number of easy-to-use and inexpensive options exist for backing up data to other places. There really is no excuse not to back up your data somewhere safe. Of course no system is perfect and even backups can get lost or damaged. Look at what happened to the twin towers. That's why more than one backup needs to be stored in more than one place.

The computer's hard disk. This is the starting point, where most data begins its life. Stuff is created, downloaded from the internet and/or copied from cameras and other devices and ends up on the computer's hard drive. However, hard disks vary in quality and often last only a few years. They are also extremely susceptible to data loss from normal wear-and-tear, strong magnetic fields, accidental deletion, physical damage (dropping), viruses, hack attacks, floods, fire and theft, to name but a few. Think of the vulnerability of the average laptop. Get those important files copied from the hard disk to another location.

Floppy disk. Are you serious? These once-venerable mini disks are way too small to store anything above a few word documents and are notoriously unreliable. Forget them.

Zip disk. Dinosaurs by today's standards; see Floppy disk.

CD-ROM. A much better proposition. Most computers have rewritable drives and CDs are reasonably hardy and certainly safe from magnetic field damage. Keep them put of the sun though and handle with care to avoid scratches. The only thing against using CDs is that they are slower to read than magnetic media and 700MB ain't what it used to be.

DVD. All the benefits of CD, but with a usable capacity of around 4.2GB (almost double more for dual layer disks). Even better now the format wars are over and most drives support all the rewritable DVD+/-R/RW Dual Layer formats. You can burn a DVD full of data in minutes and blank media are cheap. Stick to good quality, name brand blanks which should last many years.

Blu-Ray. The latest form of disc-based optical storage, developed by Sony and named after its ultra-skinny, blue laser beam. A dual layer Blu-ray disc can store around 50GB and the prices for drives and media continue to drop since it won the format wars over its now defunct HD-DVD competitor. Hard to imagine that one day a 50GB storage disc will be considered small, but there's technology for you.

External USB hard disk. Now becoming much more commonplace, as the name suggests this is a hard disk which plugs into your PC for data transfer and can then be removed to safer storage elsewhere. Hard disks come in two physical sizes; 3.5" which is the same size as the hard disk in the PC or 2.5" which is a more petite (and hence slightly more expensive) laptop-sized version which is much lighter and less bulky in the pocket. Capacities are growing all the time while prices continue to drop. Fast and simple data transfer and good value for money, but contain moving parts and are thus vulnerable to data loss for the same reasons as the computer's own hard disk.

USB Drive. Also known as USB stick, thumb drive, etc. and coming in an increasingly wide (and novel) array of shapes, USB drives are small, rectangular and contain a solid state memory chip, making them reliable and much more robust than a hard disk. However they are still vulnerable to data loss from strong magnetic fields (inc. mobile phone) but are otherwise extremely reliable and can take a surprising amount of abuse. Again prices drop as capacities continue to grow, although they tend to lag behind hard disks in terms of value for money when comparing $ per gigabyte, but are catching up and hard to beat in terms of convenience. The 'floppy disks' of the 21st century!

Offsite storage. For a monthly fee your valuable data can be automatically zapped across the internet to a remote storage location every night, where it will be safe from the larger calamities which could befall your property. More of a business option due to the costs involved of shifting large amounts of data which have changed on a daily basis. Encryption before sending helps with the security aspect. Taking a hard disk at home every night would be much cheaper and almost as effective, although slightly less convenient. Relies on automation and a fast internet connection; can be expensive if user is charged high fees for high capacity data transfer.

- AM

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