Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Backup to your USB Drive with SyncBack

Exec Summary

I don't like to depend on backup programs that create one big file and hope it works when I need it. My alternative is to use this method combined with a tool that backs up all your files to the destination with the same layout, easy, simple, more reliable. That program is SyncBack.

You really need to backup somehow, some way...
Well it looks like I'm stuck on backup tools this week. Part of that is because I'm snapshotting all my data to a external drive that I keep off-site. The other reason is I'm usually the first person my friends and neighbors call when their stuff goes missing because of a disk crash or something else. My last post, "Backup your PC to the Net" covered a review of a couple of tools used backup your PC to a network service provider. For a small cost, you can backup your data to an off-site location that protects your data against fire and theft, PC crashes and more, and it eliminates managing backups to other devices yourself (a job that is no fun at all). Many people don't want to pay for a service like this or just have too much data to backup. One of the solutions is to backup your PC to a USB drive or to your home media server or network attached storage (NAS) device. This is probably the most popular way to backup PCs by the people that are even bothering to do that.

Some of you might be showing your age by asking "What about backups to tape?". First, that's major old-school, second, our data backup needs have outgrown that very expensive and puny hardware by a huge margin. The days of changing tapes are gone baby (and DVDs for that matter). If you like changing tapes or only have a few files to backup, burn a DVD or CD and call it a day but if you are like most home users, you have tons of music and photos and other stuff you don't want to lose you have to do something.

I backup to a NAS device and an external USB drive. OK, I'm a geek, but I also want to keep my data a little more permanent. I do some professional photography when I have time (Advertising: See the CameraNinja for all your portrait needs) which creates a lot of data. I have several PCs in the house, one of which contains a lot of data that supports my professional student in her quest to earn her PHD. I have some automated backups that keep a copy of photos and my wife's computer uses NT backup to the NAS device. Every so often I back my NAS unit up to a USB drive (cheep terabyte drive) and put it off-site in case there is a fire (we've been known to have those around here) or theft. This is a simple two tier system that I suggest everyone use. You really don't want to depend on just one thing to bring back all your precious content. The day you depend solely on that one unit or system, it will fail. With the cost of a terabyte USB drive at under a hundred dollars, it's cheep insurance.
Making sure my photos get copied to the NAS is pretty easy since all I do is just run a quick batch command after I post-process my work. For complete system backups, I use the Windows NT backup program. I found though that most people don't even do a backup. If that's you, and you really don't want to be bothered with USB drives, NAS or anything else, read my review on automated backups hosted by someone else here. It's a great way to go for home users, business and students. One is better than none!

I have issues with just relying on the NT backup or other backup programs that put the entire backup set into one giant file. Sometimes those files become corrupt when you most need them. I'm a professional geek (I get paid to geek out) and I've seen it happen often. It happens and I can't tell you why but the more you need a backup, the more likely it will fail. If you keep your backups on just one device you are just asking for that thing to fail when you most need it. I've used full system backups created by NT backup to restore systems onto a new hard disks but it only works about three-quarters of the time. The other thing I hate about these backups is that restoring just one file is a pain in the butt. If the backup is really big, then you have to wait for a while for the file to load then find the file you want to restore. Also, the media that you are sending the backup to has to be able to hold the whole thing (some backup programs out there will split it up for you, and oh what a pain that can be not to mention the probability of failure skyrockets).

The nice thing about these complete system backups by things like NT backup is that when you go to restore onto a new disk (say your old one just crashes) you are back in business quick. What I mean is, you are back up and running faster with all your programs installed, settings they way they were etc. You don't even know you lost your drive. It's great! I swapped out my wifes hard drive and she never saw so much as a color change on her desktop.
The way that I mitigate the issues with the NT Backup in the past has been to write a batch file that takes advantage of extended functionality of "Take Command", a windows console replacement. This backup script basically creates a mirror image of the source directory tree to my destination disk drive (USB drive or NAS). This is nice because it's very intuitive and simple to find stuff. It makes perfect sense to my wife if she is looking on our NAS unit for a backed up file. This is OK for small jobs but checking the logs and making sure it's working on a large set of data is a pain. In addition doing incremental backups can work, it's not guaranteed to make things take less time. Long file names or directory names don't copy sometimes and I don't get the worm fuzzy feeling inside when it's done.

SyncBackI've been looking for a program that does what I do with script files but in a more robust way. Enter stage right, SyncBack. SyncBack copies stuff just they way I want it, using actual files and mimics your directory structure on the destination drive. Here are some of the key features that I like and use:
  • Mirror mode. This feature is nice because if you delete files on your PC or re-organize your directory structure you normally want that to happen on your external drive. If it didn't you are stuck with cleaning up the junk on your backup drive or just watching it fill up with trash or tons of duplicates. Mirror mode will delete everything on the target destination directory that doesn't exist on the source. A destination is any drive and directory that you designate so you don't have to worry about accidental nuking of stuff outside of your destination directory.
  • Std. Backup Mode. This is the classic backup for when you don't want it deleting anything on the destination.
  • Exclusion lists (automated and manual). If you don't want the backups to contain worthless stuff like swapfile.sys and other, very large files that you should never backup, you can set these in the automated exclusion lists. The auto-exclusion comes pre-populated and you can remove or add to this list. Also, if there are some files in a particular directory that you don't want backed up, you can easily un-check them and they will never get backed up. This is handy for cases where an application builds a large temp file but it's not really needed in the backup.
  • Backup of Open Files. Just what it says. Not all backup programs will do this.
  • Excellent logging. You can quickly check the summary of a backup log and find out if everything went OK. If it didn't, you can quickly see exactly what didn't copy and why as well as a detail log of what went correctly.
  • Scheduled backups. The software makes it easy to automate your backup to a remote device.
  • Have it send you e-mail on failure. Since I'm the network admin at my house, no news is good news but it's nice to know I don't have to check each PC to make sure it's getting backed up.
  • Backup sets. You can create different backup jobs to do different things and scheduling them differently if you so desire.
  • Configuration Review. SyncBack is complex, with tons of switches that you can set but they give you a nice review screen that allows you to review how you setup your job in plain english. It's a nice way to verify that what you configured is indeed what you really want. Setting up a backup task takes a wizard approach so it's not too daunting.
  • SyncBack Pro has a lot of other nice features, like versioning, but the above items capture the top ones in my book. Go here to see them all.
I use SyncBack to not only copy from the PCs to the backup device but I also use it to mirror the backup device to my cheap external USB drive that I keep off-site. I don't use the mirror feature on Jeanette's data directory because I'm deathly afraid that I will nuke something she's expecting to stick around on the NAS device.

If you use something like SyncBack and a NT Backup like application together, you can get the best of both worlds. I only use NT backup on our computers once per month to make sure we can restore all of our programs and settings and then the data is backed up daily using other methods so bringing a system back from complete death is easily doable.

With all of this said, it's a lot of work if you really want to keep your stuff. Companies are making it easier and easier to digitize life but if you want to keep that stuff around for very long it's not simple. With the advent of digital movie and still cameras, the amount of disk space that we use is skyrocketing and making sure you don't lose all your stuff because of a disk crash, mistake, PC theft or fire means you have to have a plan. With the advent of network backup and my experience with iDrive, I may drop the hassles of backing up to a USB drive but I will always keep the two copy system.

Again, if you don't do anything, please back your stuff up some how. I've seen people in tears after losing all their pictures, movies and other stuff. At a minimum, use iDrive. I'm still evaluating it but it may be the way to go. See my review here.
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-- C -- - Chris Claborne

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