Technology Tip of the Month
January, 1997: Backing Up
by Deborah Healey
It's time again for New Year's resolutions, and the Number 1 resolution
for most computer users is to do regular backups. We all know we should,
but it's one of those things that's easier said than done.
This month's Tech Tip will look at different ways to do backups in the
hopes that you'll find one or more convenient enough to follow through
with on a regular basis. What you choose will depend on your
situation--whether or not you are on a network, have access to tape
backup, have a lot or little on your hard drive, etc. You may also want
to mix and match from the list below, backing up applications one way and
Note: Prices listed below are as of January 1997 and highly changeable.
- Backup on floppy disks
- This method works well if you have relatively little on your hard
drive or in conjunction with one of the other methods, such as CD-ROM
backup. You can use the brute force method and just drag the files you
want onto a floppy. If you use a program such as CopyDoubler, you can
choose to copy only files that have changed. A backup program (see the
section on software below) will tell you how many disks you'll need and
prompt you to put them in as necessary.
If you have something you really don't want to lose, make sure you back
it up in more than one place: two disks, tape and disk, etc. Also keep in
mind that data on floppy disks deteriorates more rapidly than that on any
of the other media, with a three- to six-month assured lifespan. It will
generally last far longer, but you can't count on it.
- Tape backup
- Backing up on tape is a relatively fast method if you use DAT drives.
These have come down in price enough to be affordable by most
institutions (around $1000), and hold 2-8 gigabytes. This is a more
reliable medium than floppy disks, but you may have problems if you store
data for more than a year. You also need to be careful to avoid magnetic
fields, as with floppy disks. (Don't put the tape cartridge on top of the
hard drive, for example.) The main advantages of tape backup are large
capacity, small size (with 4mm tape), and relatively cheap media--about
$25 for a tape that can store up to 8GB of information.
- Removable drive backup
- A number of options exist now for removable drives. Here the factors
to look at are capacity, speed, size, and cost. Removable drives
generally hold less than tape, but last longer. Popular types of
- Optical drives
Current optical drives hold between 128MB (for about $500) and 2.6GB
(around $2000). Optical disks cost between $15 (128MB) and $70 (2.6GB)
each. The drives and the
disks are fast, small, and very reliable; it is difficult to damage an
optical disk. These disks tend to have shelf lives counted in years.
- Syquest drives
Syquest drives hold between 44MB and 270MB. The smaller capacity drives
are larger in physical size, slow, and quite cheap. Currently popular
models are 100MB (about $200) and 270MB (about $450). Cartridges cost
$70-$80 each. In the past, Syquest cartridges have been very sensitive
and unreliable. Current models are better, so buying an older, used
Syquest is not recommended.
Syquest's newest line consists of the EZ135 (about $130) and EZ230 (about
$300), drives sized and priced to compete with Iomega dries (see below).
These drives are small, fast, and reliable. They are not as fast as hard
drives, but still good enough to use as an external drive.
- Iomega drives
The market for removables changed dramatically with the introduction of
Zip drives from Iomega. At less than $200 for a drive and about $20 per
100MB cartridge, it became the removable for everyone. Like EZ drives
from Syquest, Zip drives are small, fast, and reliable. Iomega also
offers a Jaz drive that holds 1GB for about $500; 1GB cartridges cost about
- Network backup
- If you are on a network, the system administrator can set up remote
backups to a networked tape drive or other networked drive. Backing up
over a network is much slower than most other methods, so it's generally
automated and done late at night when everyone has gone home. If set up
correctly, this can be the most efficient way to protect all the data on
- Mirror/RAID backup
- If you have two or more hard drives, you can create a duplicate of
your hard drive on a second drive. Specialized software does this
automatically, and it's most often used to protect the data on a server
where the consequences of a hard drive crash are greatest. Generally
speaking, it's overkill on a personal machine.
- CD-ROM backup
- The price of CD-ROM recorders has dropped dramatically recently,
comin down well below $1000 for a basic model. Because you can't change
the information on a CD-ROM, this method works best for permanent
information such as applications. Look for multi-session software so that
you can record more tracks later, taking advantage of the 600MB capacity
of the CD-ROM.
Unlike other storage options, CD-ROMs are not affected by magnetic
fields. They can be taken through airport security safely and have a
shelf life measured in decades. Do note, however, that recordable CD-ROMs
are far more fragile than commercial music CDs and care must be taken to
avoid scratching the data side. These should always go into a CD case
when not in use.
Some optical drives now are combination optical and CD-ROM
drives; while more expensive (around $2000), this can be a good option if
you have both short-term and long-term storage needs.
A note about software: many hard drives come with some sort of backup
software. You can also buy a backup program, such as Retrospect. Look for
a program with the following features:
- Incremental backup: This means that the program will copy only the
changed files, reducing backup time considerably.
- Unattended backup: This lets you set a time and series of actions for
the backup so that you do not need to be present. It works well with a
tape or optical drive. You put the tape or optical disk in the drive and
leave the computer on; the backup can then take place at the programmed
time, such as 3am, when you are not using the computer. (Midnight hackers
may want to set the backup for 7am.)
- A variety of media: Make sure you have the option to back up in a
variety of ways, whether to tape, optical drive, floppy disks, etc.
- Archive or disk image: This lets you choose whether to copy files
individually or to copy the disk as a whole. If your backup is just in
case of major disk emergency, such as a crash so severe you need to
format the hard drive, the disk image option is the best. It is the
quickest way to restore a whole drive.
However, if you are thinking
about restoring just one or two files--say earlier versions of a
database--then you need the file-by-file archive option.
Let's hope you never need to use your backups. Still, it's much
be safe than sorry. Think about how much time it would take you to
rewrite/re-install/reconstruct your work, and back up accordingly. The
old saying, "A stitch in time saves nine," applies in triplicate where
backups are concerned.
Have a happy and well backed-up New Year!
If you have questions, comments, or for more information,
contact Deborah Healey, dhealey AT uoregon DOT edu
updated 26 June, 2009