Backups: What are they and should you bother?

Should I Back It Up?

A large number of people ask me about backups… unfortunately, some of them could have done with having a suitable routine in place before they asked.

A backup is a copy.  It’s not an external hard drive or USB stick.  It’s not the cloud.  It is a duplicate of your data, your files, your precious photographs or important documents.  It’s what gets you out of the mess when your computer states nonchalantly; “Please insert boot disk” (or something else obviously terminal)

A backup is NOT a RAID system.  RAID is about resilience and ensuring that you can continue to work in case of a hard disk failure.  It won’t rescue you from the accidental deletion of a folder or, (and I have seen it twice) a complete RAID melt down!

As already suggested, a backup can save you from a hard disk failure.  It can also save you from certain viruses (Cryptolocker and it’s variants – although there is a special note with Cryptolocker and external, USB hard disks that I will go into later).  These nasties will encrypt your files with industry standard strong encryption.  YOU WILL NOT GET YOUR DATA BACK WITHOUT THE KEY. YOU WILL NOT GET THE KEY WITHOUT PAYING THE RANSOM.  PLEASE DO NOT PAY THE RANSOM! Instead, put in place a good backup regime.  More about Cryptolocker defence later.

So, what is a good backup regime?

This is quite a long description of the process and background.  If you want to just head off and set things up without any consideration of why you are doing it, I have some more brief instructions here

There are lots of different approaches you can take, but, given that you are a home or small business user, I will describe the 3-2-1 approach.

3-2-1 Safe

3 x Backups
2 x Formats
1 x Offsite

3 x Backups.  You want your files to be stored in their usual location – your computer or laptop – and 2 other places.

2 x Formats.  You don’t want to rely on a single way of backing up.  2 external hard drives will still leave you vulnerable as you are playing into a vulnerability that may exist for hard disks or attached hard disks.  You want to use an external hard disk and something else.

1 x Offsite.  This will mitigate against fire, theft or other disaster.  There are a few  ways of doing this:

  1. Burn to a DVD
    1. Fine if less than 4GB of storage, a right pain in the proverbial if more.
    2. Cheap and can be easily posted to Aunt Immelda for safe storage – although do tell her first
  2. Copy to external hard drive and take to a friends, family member or the office
    1. You could have two drives synchronising, of which one you will swap with one stored elsewhere
  3. Cloud
    1. if less than 15GB of data (at time of writing), this can be a free and automated option.  If you have more data, you could pay for more storage – or limit what you store offsite.

So, into the meat.

First we need to decide what the primary backup media is going to be?  Remember, the backup media should be a completely different unit.  The simplest way is to invest in an external hard disk drive.  This will satisfy the second of the three locations (the first location being your computer).

NB:  Some computers have more than one, physical hard disk drive.  You could use the second hard disk drive as a backup location for your first hard disk drive – and vice versa.  This will not protect you from someone stealing your computer or a power supply going Phutt and killing all of the electronics in your PC!    Beware though; just because you have a C:\ and and D:\ drive, they may not be separate, physical disks.  They may be just one drive split into two partitions.  Have a look in Computer Management | Disk Management to determine the layout of your disks.  If you are unsure what you are looking at, ask a friend or your local IT reseller and maintenance man!

Next, we have to decide how to copy the files from your computer to the new, external hard disk.

One way is to simply find the folder where all of the files live.  Right click on the folder, select copy.  Open up the external hard disk in “My Computer” or “Computer” and paste the folder there.  Each time you do this, you will need to agree to overwrite everything.  It’s a simple process.  You have control.  You have to remember to do it!

Another way, and by far the best way, is to use a program to do the work for you.

The Backup Program

A backup program comes as an installable application that either runs all of the time or is scheduled to run using the Windows Scheduler (or some other scheduling technique).  Some programs will run a complete backup first with subsequent runs copying any changed files.  Some will copy over only the changes of a file.  Others will monitor a folder and copy over any file that has “just” changed.  Some will compress to save space and some will encrypt to reduce the risk of compromise by prying eyes.

Most programs will allow you to specify a series of different folders to backup and at differing schedules.

Note that most free programs do not support backing up open files – an open file is one that is currently being used by it’s program; Word documents, Outlook PST’s etc.  There are one or two free ones, but most programs supporting open document handling are commercial, paid for options.

Programs I have used in the past for myself and clients include:

Alongside my FreeNAS project, I am currently trialling Duplicati.  It supports SSH and 256bit AES encryption and is able to update changes, keeping bandwidth requirements down.  More on Duplicati when I update the NAS project (there is also a quick set of instructions at the “Backups: The shortened version”).

I have seen a number of my clients using Allway Sync.  It is quite a powerful, albeit slightly involved application.  Great for local backups and synchronisation – including to network locations.

Memeo’s Activsync is a neat little program and quite cheap.  It allows you to keep a folder synchronised with an external drive of some sort.  Tends to be attached drive based rather than network.  Memeo do provide a paid for, cloud based service.  I have not used it, but, if you find the application useful, it may be worth a look.

Syncback Free is another powerful, albeit slightly involved program.

My advice is to try each one and see how you get on – try the free ones first.  No point paying if you don’t need to… although do consider donating to the project if you run it full time. £10 -£15 is a good starting point.  As a developer, it’s a great feeling to know that somebody likes your program enough to voluntarily hand over cash!!

And finally…

Get them files off-site

Simplest; backup to an external hard disk and take it to the office.  Always keep one drive offsite while you are backing up to the other.  You would need a minimum of two external hard disks. But what about the two different media rule?  That’s correct, we are using two USB devices and one internal hard disk.  But strictly speaking, they are the same.  However, you could mitigate this by making sure that the two external hard disks you buy are from different manufacturers and, possibly even from two different shops.  Make sure that you know what make of hard disk is inside the enclosure – for instance, Iomega do not make hard disk drives.  They use hard disks from one of the major manufacturers; Seagate, Western Digital, Hitachi etc.  Would be a shame to end up with two western digital drive based units with disks from the same batch that just happen to have the same faulty firmware… unlikely, but why take the risk?

Using the software that you have chosen from above, you would set up the synchronisation process for each drive and then make sure that you never have them both at home.  Swapping every day, week or whatever is appropriate for you.

A favoured route of mine is to use “The Cloud”.

“The Cloud”!  A term made up by over eager marketing types.  “The Cloud” is a bunch of remote storage and services that can be consumed by networked devices.  Your smart phone is a networked device.  It can access your email from “The Cloud” (in the olden days, we would call that an email server). Your PC at home is a networked device.  It can access your files that you have stored in “The Cloud” (In the olden days, we would call that an FTP server)….

“The Cloud” is nothing new. it is purely a collective name that helps to describe the use and interaction between standard technologies.  In its defence, it has helped technologies to converge in a way that makes our lives much easier

I digress…

So, where is The Cloud?  What is Cloud Storage?

The Cloud is The Internet, or at least, it is a bunch of services that are accessed via The Internet.

Cloud Storage is provided by a number of vendors.  You may have heard of OneDrive from Microsoft, iCloud from Apple and Dropbox. These, and many others like them allow you to store files for access later or elsewhere.  Depending upon the amount of storage that you need, these are a great way of getting your data offsite.  Both OneDrive and Dropbox synchronise a local folder on your computer with your account in the cloud.  This process allows us to synchronise our very important files very easily.

I will focus on OneDrive as this gives the most free storage at the moment; 15GB.

When you sign up and install the One Drive application, a folder will be placed in your user profile folder that will contain all files that you have on your OneDrive.  Anything you put into this local OneDrive folder will be synchronised with your online account.  If you need more, you can either sign up for one of the Microsoft incentives or buy more.  Note; if you have bought into the Microsoft Office Leasing scheme; Office 365, your annual subscription will provide you with 1TB of OneDrive storage…

All I would do at this stage is to create a new backup or synchronisation profile and select the most important files you want to save.  Make sure that they are less than your storage allowance and then point the destination of the backup to your local OneDrive folder (usually stored in %userprofile%\onedrive). As this folder is updated by the backup program, the OneDrive service will synchronise you directly with “The Cloud”.  Of course, these files are instantly available from anywhere on the internet.  Just log into

If you are concerned about privacy for any online file storage service (and you should be – Microsoft state that they will scan your files for copyright material, Google don’t state that they won’t!), you should consider using an encryption process.  Check the backup program to see if encryption is a possibility and then use it anywhere that you cannot verify the integrity of the person looking after your data – I would include the backup drives you store at work too!

A quick note on encryption

Encryption technology is good at the moment.  Based on semiprime numbers (I love prime numbers..), if you don’t have access to the private key YOU WILL NOT GET YOUR DATA BACK.

Just in case you didn’t quite understand that last statement, here it is a bit louder:


The technology is designed, rightly so, to be unhackable, nearly.  Unhackable is defined by the amount of computer processing power you will need to crack a code.  It will take some of the super computers at the NSA a VERY LONG TIME of constant processing to be able to open your files.  They will do it, but for the general hacker, janitor, scroat who has just stolen your backup drive, it’s unhackable!

Beware the quantum computer.  The current prototypes have solved semiprime numbers (the basis of current cryptography. See “The Sound of One Nerd Laughing” for a great description) up to 16bits.  A classical computer has managed 768bits – although it did take two years to compute it.  A quantum computer will be able to solve the problem in a miniscule fraction of the time.  Have a look at for more information. The end of Cryptography as we know it is nigh..!

How does Cryptolocker fit into all of this?

Cryptolocker hit the internet towards the end of 2013.  At CAAOS, we have seen four machines that have been hit by the virus.  One was recoverable, the remainder lost ALL DATA.

Cryptolocker will trawl through every file on every available disk drive connected to your machine encrypting files with 256bit AES encryption.  It can take a few days to finish, but, once it has had it’s wicked way with your files, it will change your desktop background and pop up a window stating that you have been encrypted and have 72 or 96 hours to pay the ransom and recover your files.  Instructions are provided about how to pay using the TOR (The Onion Router) network.  If you pay the ransom, chances are that you will get the key and can recover your files, though this is not guaranteed!  If your internet security does anything at all, it will most likely remove the virus after it has encrypted everything.  You will not be able to pay the ransom without reinfecting yourself – but only by following the virus writers instructions!

Please don’t pay the ransom!

I mentioned that the virus will “trawl through every file on every available disk”.  To date, this has not affected network shares via a UNC; ie, \\servername\sharename  If you have a network disk mapped to a local drive letter, you will lose the data on that networked drive!  All of it!  A number of businesses have a Z: or S: drive for instance. It could be any drive letter.

Please, do not use mapped network drives.  If you do, please disconnect them and start using UNC network shares: \\servername\sharename

I have advocated using external hard disk drives for backing up.  Please do not leave these USB drives connected.  If you do, every file will be encrypted.  Connect them when you want to backup.  Once complete, disconnect them.

Another option would be to use a NAS box.  NAS (Network Attached Storage) connects to your router via an ethernet cable.  You will then access the storage as \\NAS\sharename  Some NAS boxes try and map a drive letter to this share, please disable that feature.  You can then set up the first part of your backup routine to \\NAS\sharename\Backup instead of e:\Backup

If you use a program that must use mapped drives to be able to connect to a network share, map the drive, use the program then, disconnect the share (right click on the drive in “Computer” and select Disconnect).

If you notice your computer start to slow down and your hard disk drive working very hard (internal or external) and you are aware that you opened an attachment recently that was a bit weird, or clicked on something on a webpage that seemed a bit strange, you should probably switch off your computer immediately:  PRESS AND HOLD THE POWER BUTTON.  That’ll do it.

Take it over to CAAOS and tell us your suspicions.  We will take the hard disk out and look at it from another computer.  It may just be a failing hard disk – in which case you should certainly have it looked at!

Is that all there is to it?

Yes, I admit, it is a bit of a involved process.  But, once set up, it will pretty much look after itself.

You do have to take responsibility for it and ensure that you are backing up and that you can restore your files – do a practice restore every 6 – 12 months just to make sure.  Schedule it into your calendar.  It is as important as checking the tyres and oil in your car.  When do you run extra malware checks anyway – perhaps you could do that at the same time?

There’s a lot here.  Spend some time rereading parts of it.  Go and have a look at some of the programs and perhaps do your own search for backup solutions.  It may be that there is a better process out there.  I know that, if you run with this routine, you should be safe.

And, if it’s all beyond you, pop into the shop and talk to Gary or Alex.  We should be able to clear some of the fog or for you – or, at the very least, just make it happen!

Have fun!



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