What would you lose if your computer went into meltdown without warning? If it died today, how much data would your contingency plan actually save? As the adage goes, you can never be too prepared. What you need is a comprehensive backup plan that covers all the bases. We explain how to plan for the worst.
When people think about backup they tend to think about Office documents like school assignments, business presentations and finance spreadsheets. It's certainly important to protect these files, especially if you're working to tight deadlines, but if your computer died right now you'd lose a lot of other important data locked away in your apps. It's possible to back this up, if you know where to look.
I've been thinking about backup lately because I'm responsible for protecting the data on my son's ThinkPad. He's in Year 7 and the school insists he brings a Windows machine to class but the teachers have done very little in terms of educating the students about the importance of backups or helping them put systems into place.
If any school is going to force students to use computers or tablets, then I believe the school has an obligation to assist them with data backups – unless it's prepared to accept "the dog deleted my homework" as a valid excuse for not handing in assignments on time.
Some of us are tech-savvy enough to help our families with their computing needs, but I think it's unreasonable for the school to assume that all students and their parents appreciate the importance of backups and know what to do.
The Big Picture
If you've set up a basic backup system on a student computer it might only protect the My Documents folder, backing it up to a USB stick or home network drive (you'll also want to backup these files offsite, perhaps into a cloud storage service). This will let you recover your Office files if your computer is lost or damaged, but it won't restore everything back to the way it was before disaster struck.
At the very least, every school should assist students with backing up their My Documents folder on a Windows machine, but like I said some important user data is stored elsewhere – typically in hidden folders within the User folder such as AppData.
Think about all the desktop applications you use – apart from your Office suite, which should be storing documents in your My Documents folder – and consider what you'd lose if your computer was out of action. This might include a desktop email client and perhaps applications for cataloguing and editing your photo and video libraries which students might use for multimedia assignments.
Also think about design software, for example my son and I have been creating a smartphone game using Stencyl which stores its files deep within the AppData folder. If his computer was lost or damaged and we could only recover the My Documents folder then all our hard work would be lost. The same applies to games like Minecraft – if you've invested a lot of time and effort into building the perfect world then you'll want to back it up.
Every desktop application is slightly different, but as a safety precaution I've decided to backup the entire User folder on my son's User folder every day. With our crappy DSL home broadband it's not practical to back it up online, instead I'm using Handy Backup to copy the folder to our home network drive every morning.
Of course there is a lot of stuff in there that you don't need to backup and you might want to exempt things like temp and cache folders if you're sure they're not important. To speed things up I'm running an incremental backup rather than a full backup, which means that it only copies the files which have changed since the last backup. I'll keep an eye on it to see how I might trim it back further by exempting more sub-folders.
If possible you might want to dial down the backup app's priority so it doesn't chew up too much RAM and processing power while the computer is being used for something else. My son should never even notice it running in the background, but even if there's a slight performance hit for a few minutes each morning it's a small price to pay in order to keep his data safe and sound.
There's more than one way to skin this cat — you might even take a snapshot of the entire volume if you don't think it's overkill. Are you the household IT manager? How do you keep everyone's data safe?