Sunday, May 06, 2007

Annual PC Backup

Eventually, it may occur to us that our Linux home or Windows My Documents folder is getting thick with old files, making it difficult to locate things. Hopefully, this occurs before we realize our computer is getting old, full, or the hard drive is failing. If you have ever heard that sickening 'clunk, clunk, clunk' of a "dead" hard drive when you start your PC, the next thought that comes to mind is, "when did I last do a backup?"

For others, the start of a new calendar year and resolutions to do things right and better may invoke a preventive backup or maybe it's tax time. If you are technically minded, or just avoiding the actual work, you will first consider how to go about it. I've been doing my writing exclusively on a PC for twenty years now and I've learned a thing or two about backing up. To explain what I've learned I need only describe what I've managed to retain.

It turns out that the least effective method of backing up is proprietary backup software. Such software should never be your only means of storing files for future use and never backup to tape. I have managed to retain not one single system backup that is more than about three years old because that's how often I change computers and except for Windows XP, how often I change operating systems. Microsoft always changes the format of their free backup software (now only included in Professional or Premium versions of Windows). That means all your old backups become useless and inaccessible with each new release of Windows. Thanks a lot Bill!

Backup mediums have certainly changed a lot over the past twenty years as well. I remember making the difficult transition from 'real' floppy diskettes to 3 1/2" disks. I still have one computer with a floppy drive, and about a thousand diskettes. I never bothered copying most to CD or DVD because they were usually just outdated software I'll never use unless I'm stranded on an island with a 1995 PC or start a museum. Soon DVD (even dual layer) will become obsolete so the RIAA and movie industry can force us into new DRM copyright restriction standards and limit Blue Ray/HD DVD use to MS Vista.

I did copy my letters to family onto my hard drives and migrated my LTRS folder with each new drive and PC so I still have a LTRS directory in My Documents (even after 2 drive failures) with some very old letters to my mother in the following formats both zipped and unzipped: .ws (WordStar 3.3), .wp and .wp5 (WordPerfect 4.1, 4.2, and 4.5 DOS, wp6 Windows). Thereafter, I was forced to use MS Word but knew enough to store my documents in a generic format like Rich Text (.rtf) or briefly .htm. Office used to have add-ins to read old formats, but I doubt that Ofc 2003 would be able to open them. I should make an effort to convert these old files to a newer format if I still can.

I still haven't used so called Open Document formats (.swf, .odf) because these standards are so rare, fleeting, and require specific software to access. What is open about that? XML doesn't really apply well to text documents. So, for the past twelve years or so, I've been storing all my documents in Rich Text Format. All Linux and MS editors support it. It took up a bit more space than the various Word formats, but was not subject to macro viruses and if all else failed, it could be read with any editor. Of course, plain ASCII text (.txt) is relatively consistent varying only in end of line characters but compared to 16-bit Unicode, it lacks the use of language marks, Euro symbol and other items I might need, not to mention bold, underline, point size and typeface I can't do without. For me, RTF has been the only adequate constant in a sea of changing hardware and software. I recommend it highly for any documents you write. I save everything, so why not save it in the most accessible format?

The best method of preserving data is the simplest. Copy your documents to another hard drive and migrate old files and folders to each new drive or PC. Storage is cheap enough and constantly expanding so compression is optional and simply trades your time for storage space, if you use a standard compression format. Zip and .tar have been around forever and don't appear to be going away anytime soon. But why complicate matters if your data will fit on a drive uncompressed? Today, you can buy a huge USB external hard drive or 8GB flash memory drive for under $100 and a spare internal disk drive for under $50 (even SATA). There is little excuse for not having spare drives for every PC. Optical media changes more often and is more limiting but I may buy a cheap SATA dual layer DVD burner and media for under $50 when they are being phased out, just to augment my various hard drives.

Once you have a spare drive (internal or external) you still need to segregate your old files before backing up. 1. Change the View in your documents folder to show details and sort files by ascending date (click the date heading until the tiny arrow points up) . 2. Make a new sub-folder for the previous year, 200x. 3. Scroll past sub-folders to the oldest file and click to highlight it. 4. Scroll down to the newest file from the previous year and holding down the Shift key, highlight it to select the entire list. 5. Drag your selection into the year sub-folder moving your old files. 6. Open the year sub-folder in a second window on your desktop so you can see both (in Windows right-click the taskbar and choose Tile). 7. Recreate your sub-folders as needed inside the year sub-folder and repeat the above process for each to move old files into the year hierarchy. If you do this in January, just append the year to folder names or move them all.

8. Now to backup... Move the year window scope up (big arrow) to show your spare drive then open it. 9. Move up one level in the My Documents window then drag (copy) My Documents to the spare drive window. If you already have done so, say 'Yes' to overwriting. Remember, in both Windows and Linux dragging files on the same volume moves them by default, dragging to a new volume copies by default. If you aren't sure, always Right-button drag in Windows to get a choice menu. I copy any significant new document or spreadsheet to my spare drive immediately upon finishing it, just to be safe. Someday I'll write a Perl or Java program to automate daily copying all files in my home folder with the archive bit not set. Computers have always flagged a new file or one that is changed with a single archive bit property so it can be easily identified for backup and then marked as having been backed up. It is still the key strategy used by most proprietary backup software.