Keeping your data backed up

Backing up data is like flossing – we know we should, we just don’t get around to it as much as we’d like. Nobody will admit it, though ;).

Here are the rules of backup club:

  • Make it automatic
  • Make it easy

You might hear that the full-blown solution is to keep multiple versions of files around so if one got corrupted by a virus 3 months ago, you could restore to a version 3 months + 1 day old. Also, you need to make your backups in triplicate, sending each to geographically dispere locations along with one set of tapes constantly in the mail (re-mail it to yourself once you receive them).

Yeah, right. Just getting a redundant copy would be great for most people — don’t ask for the moon. Realistically, the best backup system is the one you actually use. So here’s the system I actually use.

Backing Up Email

Why would you backup email? Or Web-based email? Lots of reasons. To backup gmail, do the following:

Other providers: Hopefully they provide POP or IMAP access so you can download messages as above. Otherwise, consider forwarding your important messages. It’s a pain, I know, so be thankful if your email provider supports POP or IMAP.

How’d we do?

  • Automatic: Pretty much. Mail is downloaded will “automatically” be downloaded every time you open Thunderbird or Outlook Express. I’ve started using Thunderbird more and more — I still enjoy the desktop mail experience.
  • Easy: It’s middle-of-the-road. The instructions on gmail are a bit long, but only need to be done once. Ask your resident geek for help setting up your accounts.

Backing Up Files

FolderShare is an easy way to keep directories in sync. You can even access files online if one of your computers is up.

I have my photos & personal notes sync’d between a laptop and desktop. If either is online, they start syncing.

Have a friend? (I know you do, somewhere). Agree to have a common foldershare folder with a subdirectory for each of you. Each person drops their non-confidential files (or encrypted confidential files) in the backup folder. Everyone backs each other’s stuff up. Haven’t tried this yet, due to the aforementioned friend requirement.

Syncback is a simple tool that can copy one folder to another, on a schedule. I use this to copy my personal notes to my USB drive (always plugged in) on a schedule. Foldershare wouldn’t work because the USB drive is not actually a computer.

These are both automatic (foldershare more so – it transfers in the background), and fairly easy to setup. Again, this is only a one-time setup.

Backing up Programs

I haven’t found a great way to backup programs and settings. Luckily they are the most replacable of the bunch. Here’s what I use:

  • Portable applications: I have a directory (c:tools) with a bunch of portable applications. You’d be surprised how many apps just work without a proper install. I have a subset of these on a USB drive.
  • Sometimes I’ll take screenshots of my start menu to remind myself what I have installed. For most apps, if you move to a machine and can’t remember an app, you probably didn’t use it that much. Here’s how to make a list of your start menu and program files:
dir /b "C:Documents and SettingsAll UsersStart MenuPrograms" > startmenu.txt
dir /b "C:Program Files" > programfiles.txt
  • I keep a directory for all the various installers (c:download). I periodically back this up to CD (last “backup” was sometime last year) so I can re-install a new machine quickly. Realistically, I don’t mind losing the installers since I want the latest version anyway.
  • You can visit to get older (aka faster, simpler, less annoying) versions of software like Acrobat Reader or AOL Instant Messenger.

These techniques aren’t automatic but are fairly easy.

Backing Up Code and Websites You’ve Made

Now these suckers aren’t replaceable, and if they change often (they do), you really want to use some type of version control. Subversion with the nice TortoiseSVN interface works for me.

I use subversion to backup and update the code, text and images on I have a few other works-in-progress with their own repos.

However, I don’t backup the backup repository. Is it a theoretically problem? Yes. Does it bother me? Not too much – it’s on my list of upgrades.

Using source control is the most difficult backup strategy, but gives you the most power. Trust me, for the amount of time you spent on your code, it’s worth it.

Backing Up Blogs

Ah, blogging – I’m pretty new to this. WordPress has a database backup plugin which, for some reason, isn’t working for me. So I’m going to dump the raw sql periodically:

mysqldump --all-databases -u UserName -pPassword | gzip > db.gz

You can also email yourself a file periodically using PHP. I’ve put both tasks into a script that runs as a cron job, so I get a database backup every day.

Note there is no space between -p and the password. You can turn this into a shell script and have a cron job to email it to yourself every night.

You might also want to consider version-controlling your theme in case it changes. I haven’t done this yet, so this again falls in the theoretical-fixes category. Again, not too hard to remedy, but you need to watch out for setting files and caches that shouldn’t be saved.

Depending on the plugins you have, this can be easy and automatic. For a blog containing your memories, again, it’s worth it.


It’s tough to start a backup program before you really need it (it’s a bit like exercise that way). But try, try, try, and use the easy techniques above. It brings you peace of mind. Take even a small step each week, like backing up your web-based email.

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