Mobile users face large obstacles in keeping up with reasonable backups. There are several solutions available, each with a common denominator that requires us to remember to perform backups in the first place.
In some cases, Windows 7 BitLocker aids your capacity to encrypt removable and backup media, depending on the media involved.
Portable Hard Drives
Ranging in size from small to huge, portable hard drives are a fairly easy way to keep backups in order—especially backups consisting of just data. Windows 7, as in prior Windows editions, contains the infamous
Backup.exe software in Professional+ editions. Backup.EXE allows compressed and regularly scheduled backups (so long as you remember to plug in the drive); drives can also be BitLocker-managed and encrypted. You can do a quick backup of just data files (example, your
/user directory), or mixtures of the whole enchilada and all the data, or just those files that have changed, in your favorite backup combo.
The pressure is on time: a full backup takes a while, so people are tempted to just back up data. That’s okay, but with patches coming every Tuesday, capturing a mobile PC’s entire state weekly is recommended. Otherwise, patch-catch-up becomes a huge problem when restoring data to a fresh computer.
The downside to portable hard drives can be formidable. If you lose the notebook or leave it to be found on the next flight to somewhere, it’s likely that your backup portable hard drive is in the same location. Both copies are now buh-bye. Sometimes portable hard drives are lost independently, as they’re not only small (that makes them handy) but they’re also part of the daily use “kit” people associate with their notebook or netbook. To summarize, portable hard drives are an inexpensive method of replicating information, but are vulnerable to the same disaster that befalls a notebook/netbook — and are often lost in the same way.
Burning Your Own
If your notebook/netbook has an internal DVD drive, it’s easy to take advantage of the DVD’s large storage capacity and burn your own data to disk. You generally have two choices, DVD-RW or DVD-R/DVD+R media. The RW media can be reused numerous times, although disks tend to get smudged or dirty easily and must be handled very carefully. Small scratches may kill the entire dataset on them in a way that cannot be recovered from. (Note that BitLocker doesn’t cover DVD writables, only DVD re-writeables.)
The same goes for DVDs that are used for single-burns, like DVD-R/DVD+R media. The upshot is that these are far less expensive, and are easily mailed to someone far away from you, so that a loss of your computer won’t kill both the original and backup of the data. Backup.EXE lets you burn to a DVD easily, and with up to 5.4GB of data, it’s not tough to get a significant amount of documents and data onto a DVD quickly. People who think in advance have a mailer to send the items (encrypted and compressed, of course) to themselves at home (organizational policies and legal rights permitting) or to another spot, so as to separate the data stores physically.
The items that need storage aren’t quite obvious, but usually the
/user directory for each individual needs to be stored (after all applications are closed so that no data files are open). Some applications keep data in other places, and need to be included as well.
Portable Flash Drives
Flash drives represent an increasingly favorite mechanism to store data, and their capacity has climbed to as high as 64GB. Although not an especially fast data storage medium, the flash drive (or USB drive) has become popular for its ability to be rapidly erased and its small size makes it handy to carry elsewhere — again, separately from the system whose data it backs up.
Drag and drop is the rule for backup on a USB drive. To perform a backup, bits or all of the
/user directory (and related data stores where applicable) are simply copied onto the flash drive periodically. Some users rotate the drives; others over-write drive data so that only the freshest datasets are stored. Some people add personal content like music, videos, and other media to the mix, not just work product.
The upside to flash drives is their ease of re-use. We’ve tested large capacity drives to past 12,000 rewrites without error. They’re impervious to temperature (except extremes), and their expense has been dropping significantly and steadily.
The downsides to flash drives are similar to those of portable hard drives. Easy to lose, flash drives also run slowly — especially on USB 1.1 jacks. You also need to use your own archiving arrangement unless you use the same group of removable drives with
Backup.exe. Worse, they’re easily stolen. But if they are, at least BitLocker usually works well with removable flash drives.
There are specific sites for multimedia storage, like Flikr, Picassa, Fotki, and others. Some of them allow up to a gig or two per month of file storage, and they don’t necessarily have to be movies, photos, or audio. In fact, one fellow we know renames all of his doc files to jpg so that he can upload them. They look strange in a photo viewer.
These services don’t encrypt files, and their user agreements may restrict how things are done, in terms of whom gets to view what, the availability of the site, and so on.
Other sites, like Mozy.com, have a teaser of a free 2GB of storage essentially forever. Unlimited data storage, encrypted, at Mozy.com costs $4.95 for all you can upload. Mozy, like competitor Carbonite, use a downloadable application that you can use to set what gets backed up, and when. This presumes that you’ll be online at the appropriate backup time, although ad hoc, unscheduled backups are available, too—as is access to the stored encrypted data.
Mozy’s personal application also knows the “normal” location for most user data files, although an administrator can (and probably should) ignore Mozy’s default settings and create a list as to what ought to actually be backed up. Then you get one system, fixed or mobile, for as much data as you can upload.
Therein lays a catch: Some connections simply are vastly slower at uploading data than downloading it. Some WiFi connections, like those typically found via AT&T at Starbucks, are quite slow at uploads. Hotel/Motel WiFi networks vary widely in their upload capabilities. My own recent tests with Mozy showed that one Marriott location near the St Louis Airport was blazing fast, while another location in Indiana was so slow as to be essentially useless. They all depend on whatever the backhaul speed behind the WiFi system is capable of.
While Mozy.Com is good for basic users, I’ve also found that it does a good job of getting the whole enchilada. There is no limit to your storage at $4.95 per month. They also have strategies for online server backups in business plans that are much stiffer in cost, usually because speed and dataset sizes on servers can be far more demanding than today’s end-user systems—where personal storage above a terabyte is unusual.
The Good, Better, Best
In an ideal world, we’d have tiny flash drives with capacity as large as the fattest notebook hard drive, and with backup speeds of just a few seconds. It’s not an ideal world.
Incrementally, you can use personal external hard drives, or handfuls of DVDs. Personal flash drives are also incredibly convenient—if really easy to lose. But if you have persistent or decent occasional online connections, online services like Mozy can be incredibly convenient, encrypted (albeit not with BitLocker) for a toll charge. But don’t wait for the disaster. Use something, and make sure it’s working.
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