Backing up your data

Posted: March 26, 2012 in Uncategorized
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You don’t want to lose all your European vacation photos by accidental deletion or hard drive failure.

You could copy them yourself – but, you have to remember to do this, and this takes time out of your life, so it tends not to get done, and if you want to make sure you don’t miss anything, you have to copy EVERYTHING, and this takes out more time from your life the more data you accumulate.

What you want is something that operates invisibly in the background, that always makes sure your most important files are copied to a backup location – an external hard drive that not only serves as redundancy if something happens to either drive, but something you can quickly grab in the event of a fire.

Both software reviewed here behaves like that, you set some folders to watch, and it makes sure changes are copied across to a location you specify.

Quick overview

Hitachi Backup is so simple it can be used by computer illiterates, but suffers from the ham-fisted approach of just “copying changed/new files”, so the simple act of renaming a folder will cause it to see a “new” folder and copy it into the backup – without removing the old folder name or it’s contents. Over time your backup will become a huge mess if you’re changing the folder structure. Also it doesn’t keep previous versions – so you can only revert back to the very last change. For these reasons, it’s only useful for the simple backup situation of backing up photos or music, where you’re only ever adding new files and folders, and not making any changes to the existing files or their folder structure.

FileHamster – I recommend this if you are even a slightly proficient computer user. This has version control, so you can go back to any version of a file. It applies compression to its backup repositories, the entire repository, with its multiple file versions, can end up SMALLER than the folder its backing up! It even has a feature you can enable which culls older backups so that you still have really old backups – just fewer of them.

Both these programs have these important abilities;

  • automatically back up your specified folders
  • only copies new changes (much faster than copying everything every time)
  • they have a restore function to recreate all your files if you lose them
  • if you have to re-install windows, you can re-install your backup software, go through the backup setup process, point it to your existing backup repository, and it will continue where it left off. Very important.

But either way, you need a decent location to back up. And that will be an external hard drive. Just forget DVDs. Forget about them. DVDs are okay for giving files to people, but not for backing up. Firstly, they are more expensive per megabyte. And because they come 4gb at a time, the process is entirely different – you have to make one-shot backups to a DVD, and only fit a handful of photo sessions before you have to span over to another DVD, which means you have to invent some sort of cataloguing system. And they are less reliable – after about 3 years the dye used to store the data starts to fade and you can lose everything. By contrast, having all your photos on one massive hard drive means you’re more likely to view them and search them all at once, instead of swapping DVDs in and out. And if there is a fire, or even just for convenience, you can always grab this external hard drive and have your files with you in seconds.

What follows is a detailed examination of how these two programs behave.

Hitachi Backup – free, and 3 gig online

This is so simple, and I highly recommend it if you just want to back up your photos, no fuss. I won’t duplicate the tutorials here but it’s as simple as choosing a backup folder (eg. a location on an external hard drive, and then adding all the folders you want to back up.

You can set the backup check to be daily, or “automatic” which turns out is actually every 30 minutes, and not instantly there is a change. So if you make a change then shut your computer down, you won’t have your backup till next time your computer is on. Most of the time this is going to be fine though.

Also keep in mind the way it backs up. It’s okay for just adding new photos all the time, but if you’re constantly renaming folders/files and moving stuff around, it’s going to be bad. It only copies new changes – it never deletes. That means if you rename “Folder A” to “Folder B”, the software just sees the addition of “Folder B” and copies it into the backup. “Folder A” still exists in the backup… so you now have twice as many files in the backup for no reason. And when you use the restore feature, it’s going to copy both Folder A and Folder B to your hard drive. Over time, this is going to be a mess, as things that were supposed to be renamed are going to have a copy, things that were supposed to be moved or deleted will still be there, and there is no way to manage this. It will get cluttered and bloated. If you’re just adding photos, you won’t have this problem. Just don’t be using this for a folder where you’re renaming/moving/deleting stuff all the time.

Worth mentioning this has an online backup feature, with free 3 gigabytes of storage, which is fantastic. Not so great for photos and music, but for everything else, why not? I reckon I’ll use this in conjunction with FileHamster below, to also make an online backup of my software development projects. Maybe not my video projects though 🙂 Although if you want to go crazy with it you can pay $50 US a year for 250gigabytes. The online storage also appears to have a version control (which I haven’t tried) which means you can return your folders to the way they were at a specific point in time.

Um, the local backup mode has a setting called “keep backup revisions” which does nothing. I tested it – I made several changes to my files, but when I used the “restore” feature, no option was given to select from one of these revisions that supposedly exist. Indeed, when I examined the backup repository, nothing about the file structure indicated it was doing anything else but just backing up the latest files. So I don’t know what they were smoking, but this feature does nothing. Just ignore it.

This is by far the simplest program of the two – if you simply want to automate the copying of your new files to a different location, this is for you. It’s simplicity is of course its short comings – it literally is just doing a straight copy of new files, so as long as you’re ONLY adding files to the folder that is being backed up, (and not making massive directory structure changes), you’re fine.

FileHamster – free with basic features, $30 US for full version

The functionality I’m about to talk about is available in the free version.

If you have used version control software, this is pretty much like that – except that it automatically commits changes to the backup repository as soon as a file is changed -while giving you the option to add a comment via a subtle popup window at the bottom corner of the screen. Of course, people who are used to version control at work, know that this would be a disaster in a software development situation, but that’s why this is marketed as “Version control for the masses.” The main aim here is to make simple backups of your files without you thinking about it. I’m a developer, but at home I just want my photos and documents backed up. I’m not at work anymore, I don’t need to “merge changes” with anyone else, or justify my revisions to anyone. And I’m really digging this. It’s so painless.

One major advantage this has over Hitachi Backup, is as soon as a change happens to a file, it’s backed up. If you copy a bunch of files, then turn your computer off shortly after, your changes are saved. And if you do interrupt it while it’s copying, it’ll pick up where it left off next time the computer is on.

The other advantage of course, is that every change is kept in a history, including deleting or renaming files, so you can return any folder EXACTLY back to a previous state. Technically your backup repository would grow over time, but compression is applied, and dynamic revision history (explained below) keeps the size down to what’s needed. I’ve been using it for several months, and currently my backup repository is SMALLER than the folder being backed up! Eg. My Photos folder is 168gb, and my backup repository is 161gb, even though my Photos folder has ~40,000 files and my backup repository had ~50,000 files.

Make sure you enable “Dynamic Revision History”. This saves space by cleverly purging (every 3 days by default) the revision history so that the history looks like this – every revision in the last 72 hours, every latest revision for each day up till 1 week ago, every latest revision for each week up till one month ago, every latest revision for one month ago up till one year ago, and then the latest revision for every year till the start of the repository. This is is less preferable in a software development situation but more relevant in a disaster recovery situation for personal use, where space can be more of a consideration.

And if you’re still concerned about the space the repository is taking up, you can always manually purge old revisions, or specify a revision limit (on a per-folder or per-file basis) so that it will discard older revisions automatically. But Dynamic Revision History will achieve your goal of keeping the size down in a much more efficient and useful manner.

The free version works as the full version for about 2 weeks, then it cuts out a few things, but you may not notice. Personally I’m willing to sink a mere $30 in just to make sure this sort of thing works. Here’s a list of things that happen after the trial period expires.

  • Drag & drop abilities.
  • Disabling bubbles.
  • Changing the properties of a subfolder within a watch.
  • Resetting properties back to default.
  • Interacting with non-revisioned items within a subfolder of a watch.
  • Ignoring specific file names or file types within a subfolder of a watch.
  • Choosing a specific application to open a file with.
  • Hot swappable drives.
  • Automatic remounting of a removal drive.
  • Startup reminder the evaluation has expired.
  • Delete old revisions to the Window Recycle Bin.
  • Reminder dialog the evaluation has expired when restoring files.
  • Delete revisions for missing files options.
  • Still tracking file changed events for files whenever the library drive is offline.
  • Update Revisions on startup.
  • Finally, the expired evaluation/trial has ad bubbles.

Tips for FileHamster:

  • Right click on your backup repository in the main FileHamster window, go to options, under the Bubbles section, change “Show Bubble” to false or you’ll be driven crazy with all the popups. Also, under the Events section, change the two “delete” settings to 1 minute, instead of the default 1 second. No need to create so many versions of a file being changed frequently.
  • I strongly recommend also enabling “Dynamic revision history” under “Document”. (as described earlier)
  • When installing again and pointing to an existing backup repository, this already includes the watches. So if a “choose watch folder” dialogue appears, close it. It’s from the first-run setup wizard.

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