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You Won't Look Forward to It, but Backing Up Is Essential

September 17, 1997|LAWRENCE J. MAGID | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There are certain things in life that we tend to ignore until it's too late. Backing up your computer's hard disk is definitely one of them.

Of all the things you can do with your office computer, backing up is the most boring and least productive--until things go wrong. The same can be said for installing fresh batteries in your smoke detector or checking the pressure of your car's spare tire.

Backing up should be an essential part of what you do. Let's face it, computers are complex systems, and things can and do go wrong.

Sometimes it's our own fault. I've been known to accidentally delete files and even entire directories. I've also made unintended changes to files and wished I had an earlier version.

Sometimes it's beyond our control. A program goes haywire and erases data. The Windows or Macintosh operating system crashes for no apparent reason. I recently wiped out a directory of files because something went wrong while I was trying to install a new piece of hardware.

There are also the disasters that, we hope, will never strike us. But anyone living in California had better worry about earthquakes, fires and break-ins. We can't prevent disasters, but we can protect our data.

Before getting to the nuts and bolts of backup, let's review what has to be backed up and how often. Some people like to back up their entire hard disk drive, but you don't necessarily have to back up your software as long as you keep the original installation discs (usually CD-ROMs) in a safe place away from your computer.

You do, of course, have to back up all the data files you create. You should also keep backups of your computer configuration files, such as any special templates you have created to customize Microsoft Word or other programs. For Windows, you should also back up key files such as autoexec.bat, config.sys, win.ini and system.ini.

How often you back up depends on your comfort level. How bad would it be to lose a day's work? How about a week's work? Some people back up hourly. Others let it ride for days, weeks or even months. I back up my hard drive about once a day, though sometimes, if I create a file that I'd be very upset to lose, I'll back it up right away.

Another important issue is where you store your backup disks or tapes. Storing them in the same office as your PC might not help if a fire, flood, earthquake or burglar strikes. It's important to keep at least one copy of your backup off premises.

It used to be that the only economical way to back up was to copy your files to floppy disks, but now you have plenty of other choices including tape backup systems, zip disks and other high-capacity removable drives. You can even back up over the Internet.

Tape drives are probably the most economical when it comes to the amount of data you can store per dollar. But they are slower and, in some ways, less convenient than removable disk drives. Tape-drive systems use a removable tape cartridge. A number of them are on the market, most conforming to the Travan standards. Tapes created by one Travan-compatible drive can be read by another, though you may not be able to write to that same tape.

Leading tape-drive manufacturers include HP Colorado Memory, Seagate and Iomega. Seagate's TapeStor 800 and Iomega's 800-megabyte Ditto tape drives cost only about $100 and store up to 800 kilobytes of data. Chances are, however, that you'll need more storage than that. For less than $200 you can get a 3.2-gigabyte tape drive, or for about $400 you can get Seagate's TapeStor 8000, which stores up to 8 gigabytes (8,000 megabytes).

Exabyte (http://www.exabyte.com) makes the unique "Eagle Nest" line of tape and disk backup systems that can easily be moved from machine to machine. You install a "nest" (about $70) in each machine in the office and buy one tape backup drive that you move from machine to machine. The Eagle Nest TR-3 ($239), for example, includes a 4.4-gigabyte tape backup drive and one nest. The company also makes larger tape systems and nests for removable hard drives, zip drives and other backup devices.

The biggest problem with tape backup is that it's slow. Actual transfer rates vary but, if you plan to back up an entire hard disk, you are better off doing it overnight.

Removable hard drives are much faster, and there are plenty to choose from. The zip drive from Iomega is the most popular removable mass-storage system. The $149 zip-drive kit uses small 100-megabyte disks that are just a little bigger than floppy disks. The unit comes with one disk, and extra ones cost about $17 each. Once you've installed a zip drive it works like an extra hard disk, except that you can take it out and pop in another one when it fills up. Its 100-megabyte capacity accounts for only a small fraction of most hard disks, but it might be enough if you're only using it to back up data.

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