Cornell Local Roads Program

As Simple as ABC: Backing up Your Computer

Recent storms (Sandy, Lee, Irene, Nemo) brought destruction and damage to large areas. During the storm and for a while after, we are properly focused on saving lives, rebuilding infrastructure, and getting the power grids back up and running.

Satellite photo of hurricane Sandy at full force
Hurricane Sandy about 310 miles south-southeast of New York City on
Monday, Oct. 29 at 9:10 a.m. EDT. Source: NASA

While major disasters are something to worry about, we may have computer problems even in places far from any natural disaster. Something as simple as a voltage spike or computer virus can wipe out our computer. We keep our most important printed records in safety deposit boxes or in fireproof cases because we know how hard it would be to replace the information. Imagine losing not just some of your records, but all of them. These days, many, if not all of our critical records are only on the computer.

All computer media are vulnerable to failure, and when they fail they can obliterate a lot of information. Think of how long it will take to reenter all the lost data if your computer crashes. And would you even be able to recreate the data if your computer is lost? We need to back up our data securely.

To protect your data, back up your computer regularly, and store the backup in a safe place. A safe place is off-site in most cases. If the highway barn burns to the ground and the backup is on a shelf in the office, the backup will be destroyed too. Choose a place that is secure and will not be prone to the same disaster. Over the years we have changed how we backup data on computers from floppies, tapes, and CD-ROMS to portable hard drives, thumb drives, DVDs, and even ‘the Cloud.’ There are software programs available which will automatically back up the data for you.

What data should you back up?

A common misconception is that you need to back up the entire hard drive of your computer every single day. This not only takes a long time, but it is very inefficient. Instead, daily backups should consist of only the data, not the programs themselves.

You should be sure to have backups of any installation media stored in a safe location. If there is a problem with a software program on your computer, simply reinstall it.

In many cases, you may be able to only backup the data that changed that day. One word of caution, if you use this method of backing up, you should still back up all your data once every month or so. If a problem occurs you will not have to search several months’ worth of backup files to find an older file.
Because data can change frequently, the organization of the data on the computer is of utmost importance. You don’t put paper documents in a file drawer randomly and expect to find them easily. Instead, you use file folders and labels to organize the information. Do the same with your computer files. If you put data into specific directories on the computer, the task of backing up the data is much easier and faster.

The Cloud

More and more, we use networked resources to store and share information. Facebook, smart phones, and even some newer computer software such as Microsoft Office 365 communicate between computers via networks or the internet. The advantages are the ability to access data everywhere and the flexibility in backing up and sharing data. However, there are some security and cost concerns that need to be included when deciding to use the Cloud. Data such as Social Security Numbers should be kept on secure systems and may not be appropriate to share in the Cloud.

Use a file scheme that is easy to use. For example, let’s assume you are working on your 2013 budget using a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. You could save the file on your hard drive in a folder named:

\My Documents\Excel files\2013\budget

Alternatively, you could save the data in a folder named:

\My Documents\Budgets\2013 and let the file extension define the program being used

Create a filing system that is easy to use. In any case, your daily back up will consist of only the data entered into your budget file, and not the program, Microsoft Excel.

One more step

broken laptop

Backing up your data is only part of the solution to problems. You must also be sure that the data you backed up can be retrieved. A large engineering firm near Albany lost ALL of its accounting records for a year because of their failure to check the data. When their computer crashed they found out the hard way that the data on the backup tapes could not be retrieved. Once you have backed up some data, try to retrieve it. Make sure the entire backup process works. Then, and only then, do you have a complete backup system in place.


Backing up your computer is as simple as ABC.

Follow the ABCs and your computer will be ready for a major disaster (or a minor one).

Winter 2013

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This work by the Cornell Local Roads Program (CLRP) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.