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Windows at Work /
Lou Grinzo

Smart Backups Made Easy
You don't need to back up your entire hard drive. Just back up what's hardest to replace: your documents.

In just the past six months, the hard drive on my production system has crashed three times. Have I been thinking about disaster recovery? You bet your mousepad I have-and it's led me to some nontraditional conclusions.

I'm now convinced that most of us are too obsessed with the pennies-per-megabyte numbers that we apply to backup technology. When you're backing up gigabytes, such numbers are important. However, we don't always need to back up an entire hard drive. Therefore, we should distinguish between system files, which are usually replaced easily, and our work product, which can have a frightfully high replacement cost.

If my C: drive were to crash-again-I could reinstall and reconfigure Windows 95 and all my apps in about two hours (thanks to all the practice). And I could restore all my documents, which include source code for several programming projects, in another 20 minutes. I no longer back up my entire hard drive, but I keep three backups of my documents, including one off-site, because that's where the real value is.

Simplicity is bliss

In real terms, the value of my system files, even my beloved Windows Registry, is in the neighborhood of only a few dollars per meg, at most, because they can be reconstructed so easily. But my documents are easily worth thousands of dollars per meg. (A 300-page novel will easily fit on a single floppy disk, for example.) That means my documents are too valuable to trust to any backup technique more complicated or less portable than my current favorite: the XCOPY command and a removable-media disk drive.

Thanks to a new command-line option added to XCOPY in Windows 95, it's easy to back up all the documents in a directory tree to another disk volume via a single command. I have a directory on my system full of batch files, with names like "MSDEV PROJECTS TO F.BAT." This entire batch file reads:

XCOPY C:\MSDEV\PROJECTS\ *.* F:\MSDEV\PROJECTS\ /S /D

It tells XCOPY to copy all files in C:\MSDEV\PROJECTS\ and all subdirectories beneath it to the same pathnames on the F: drive, but only if the files are new or changed. (Before Win95, XCOPY's /D option required you to provide a date. Now the lack of a date tells it to copy only new and changed files.)

The best aspect of this minimalist approach is that whatever removable media you choose-Iomega Zip, SyQuest EZFlyer, CD-Rewritable or even Stone Age floppy disks-you can easily regain access to your most precious files without first installing Windows and a tape drive and the backup software; your entire recovery process is a drag-and-drop operation in Explorer or just a DOS COPY command. If you use a parallel port-attached drive, you can use another system to retrieve your documents in less than 5 minutes. In today's business world of ubiquitous PCs, that's as good as it gets.

Trust, but verify

Consider backing up your documents this way even if they're supposed to be protected as part of routine network maintenance. Often your files won't be saved because someone forgot to do the backup, or the tape failed, or you created the document on your local hard drive (or on your laptop while away from the office) and you never copied it to a network drive. Removable-media drives and disks are so absurdly cheap today that they (and good old XCOPY) can provide the next best thing to free insurance-but only if you take charge of your data's security.

And believe me, just when you get complacent, bad things can and do happen to good data. Those three hard drive failures were my first in 18 years of using desktop computers.

Contributing editor Lou Grinzo is president of Lou Grinzo Technologies, a computer consulting and contract programming firm, and author of Zen of Windows 95 Programming (Coriolis Group, 1995). Contact Lou at WINDOWS Magazine's areas on America Online and CompuServe, or care of the editor at the addresses on page 20.


Windows Magazine, September 1997, page 47.

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