External Back-Up Strategies; Protect Your Precious Images, Now!

Just about every one of us has suffered through at least one data disaster, where we’ve lost a significant number of photos or other important files. Few of us have the time (or memory) to back everything up manually every night, so in this article, I’ll be taking a look at various methods for automating the process.

External Disk Drives
One of the most important factors in choosing an external back-up strategy is deciding what type of external disk drive to use. Here’s a look at the options:
USB 2.0: External USB 2.0 ports are available on all PCs and Macs sold in the last few years. USB 2.0 transmits data at a maximum speed of 480Mbits/sec.

A USB cable being connected to a USB laptop port.

Firewire: External Firewire ports are also available on all PCs and Macs sold in the last few years. Firewire transmits data at a maximum speed of 400Mbits/sec. Although its maximum speed is slightly slower than USB 2.0, Firewire often maintains better throughput than USB 2.0, meaning that it can be better at sustaining higher speeds for longer periods of time.

An external Firewire drive with standard Firewire cable (clear, on left).

Firewire 800: Firewire 800 ports are available on 2007 MacBook Pros, iMacs, and Mac Pros, but not on Mac Minis and MacBooks. Firewire 800 ports are generally not available on PCs, but can be installed via an expansion card. As its name implies, Firewire 800 has a maximum speed of 800Mbits/sec, twice that of traditional Firewire.

Firewire 400 (left) versus Firewire 800 (right) external hard drive cables.

eSATA: External SATA uses the same type of high speed drive commonly used internally in most PCs and Macs. eSATA ports are not available on any Mac, but are available on some higher end PCs. Ports can be installed via an expansion card to the Mac Pro and to PCs. eSATA has a maximum speed of 3000Megabits, 3GB/sec.

A high speed eSATA expansion card.

Note that it’s also possible to backup to optical (CD/DVD) disks, but this isn’t the most practical method, due to the size limitations of such disks. That aside, carefully stored optical disks can still provide reliable data backup.

Other back-up devices, such as Zip drives, Jaz drives, and Tape drives, have fallen out of favor, not only due to size limitations, but also due to slow speed and questionable reliability.

Back-Up Strategies
The choice of a back-up strategy is determined mainly by how much free space you have available on your back-up hard drive, as explained below.

Selective Back-Up (File And Folder Back-Up): In this scenario, you use back-up software to choose the folders or types of files that you want to backup. For example, you can choose to backup all of your photos, e-mails, and office documents. This is a faster process, and uses the least amount of space on your back-up drive.

Drive Cloning (Full System Back-Up):
This process, also referred to as Drive Imaging, makes an exact duplicate copy of your hard drive. Everything, including the operating system, installed programs, configuration settings, and all of your files are backed up. Drive cloning obviously takes up a lot more space than a Selective Back-up, but if you have the space available, it’s by far the better option.

Back-Up Software
Regardless of the type of drive and strategy you choose, you’ll want software to help automate the back-up process. Recent versions of both Windows and Mac OS X ship with back-up software either installed or available on the installation CD, but most users find the additional bells and whistles in 3rd party back-up software to be well worth the investment.

Time Machine: Time Machine, a new feature exclusive to Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, has a good chance of becoming the first exception to the “avoid built-in back-up software” rule. Although there have been many reports of difficult upgrades to Leopard, Time Machine itself seems to be a more straightforward process. If you’re already running OS X Leopard, before buying 3rd party software, I suggest running Software Update from the Apple Menu, and then checking out Leopard’s Time Machine.

NTI Back-Up Solutions: NTI makes 4 back-up products, each which a broader range of tools. NTI Shadow is designed only for Selective Backup and is available for Windows 2000—Vista and Mac OS X for $29.99-$39.99 (depending on options). NTI Drive Backup is designed for Drive Cloning and is available for Windows 98—XP for $39.99. NTI Back-up Now Standard is designed for both Selective Backup and Drive Cloning, and is available for Windows 2000—Vista for $49.99. NTI Back-up Now Advanced, which includes the ability to backup all of your networked computers, plus data encryption, and version control (the ability to back-up multiple versions of the same file) sells for $99.99, www.ntius.com/backup_solutions.asp.