Computer Backups: The Gotcha Factors
by Russell Smith • Region 14 Education Service Center, Abilene, Texas
MultiMedia Schools • September 2002

It happens when you least expect it. Computer failure, or even worse, destruction or loss by viruses, fire, or theft. Immediately you think of your lesson plans, digital photo files, e-mail messages, and address book. If you're a librarian you might have just lost access to Accelerated Reader data and your card catalog. It's the nightmare we hope we never have to face, but it is almost inevitable at some point.

Machines and hard drives can be replaced, but intellectual content is the true value in your computer system. There is only one way to prevent catastrophic loss of computer data, and that involves timely and clean backups. I personally know of three high school fires in the past 3 years in my area (two by student arson and one by electrical failure) where the structures were totally gutted. Only the handful of educators who had offsite backups were back in business within a few hours. Most educators did not fare as well.

The last time I wrote about computer backups was in an article entitled "Sleep Better at Night ... Back Up Your Data," published in 1996. The basic concepts of backup strategies and file recovery have changed dramatically for the year 2002. No longer can we depend on floppies to protect our huge modern systems, and even Jaz and Zip drives are too small for total protection (although all three of these hardware items do still provide data backup of smaller data folders).

Additionally, the rapid deployment of multi-gigabyte hard drives has been accompanied by an equally large growth in file size of programs and data. Reformatting and reinstalling a typical system can take several hours (or days) and may require help from IT professionals in your district. But one thing that falls clearly on your own shoulders is responsibility for your own data and possibly vital school records data.

This article takes a look at the hardware available today to help you save your intellectual content, vital backup strategies to employ, and what you can do when things go wrong and your data is seemingly lost forever.

MMS Online Extra •
More Tips, Hints, and Procedures to Help You Sleep Better!

For quick reference, here are the three most commonly used e-mail program file identifications and backup procedures, plus some extra tips on backing things up.

Outlook Users
For Outlook users, back up your .PST file, as it will contain all the e-mail folders. The .PST file should contain your Address Book also, but to be doubly safe, back up .PAB files for your address book. Microsoft has in its download area a free utility for Outlook 2000 that will automate this procedure. Otherwise just do a search or find for Outlook.PST and back up that file. Microsoft Knowledge Base articles Q196492 and Q287070 explain how to fully back up Outlook 2000 and Outlook 2002 (XP). Go to to find Knowledge Base and plug in the article numbers.

Outlook Express Users
Do a Search/Find for *.dbx files. Back those up. On the new system do a Find for the folder containing the .DBX files and replace them with your backup versions. Newer versions of Outlook Express have an automated method of backing up the mail folders (see Microsoft Knowledge Base links below). For the Outlook Express Address Book, create a .WAB file in the Address Book area and save it. Do this by pulling down the File menu in address book and choose Export, then Address Book (WAB). Save it to a new backup location and give the backup a name. Do the same procedure for restoring, but choose Import under File menu. See Microsoft Knowledge Base articles Q188854, Q270670, and Q270670 for full details on versions 4X to 6.0.

Netscape Users
Back up the entire Users folder, which is typically a subfolder on a PC under C:\Program Files\ Netscape. This will include your Bookmark files also. You may wish to empty your cache folder first to reduce the folder size. Do this in Edit\Preferences\Advanced\Cache.

Additional Steps, Hints, and Backups
Bookmarks for Microsoft Internet Explorer users are typically stored in C:\Windows Directory\Favorites for Windows 9X and Millennium and under the C:\Documents and Settings\Profile Username\Favorites for Windows 2000, Windows NT, and Windows XP users. Back up that entire folder.

Other common items to back up on your computer include some of the following: digital photos (.TIF and .JPG files) and Windows wallpaper files (.BMP); Word files (.DOC); PowerPoint files (.PPT); FrontPagefiles (.HTM); and Excel files (.XLS).

Try to think of all the data files you have saved or created, and find where they reside. You might have Print Shop and Print Artist projects, other graphics programs, and Web programs like WS_FTP. Commonly forgotten in backups are files downloaded from the Internet like software drivers, installation files for plugins, etc.

One technique for backup that I’d like to mention is used by James Coates, nationally syndicated computer columnist for the Chicago Tribune. He keeps an ASCII text document with all his important contact information. Passwords, addresses (snail mail and e-mail), phone numbers, and anything else one might typically need again some day. Since it’s a text file, it is relatively small in size and can fit on a floppy, and he can pull it up on virtually any computer, regardless of platform. As a simple but classic use of sneaker net, this method is one that you should consider.

Drive Imaging Software—A Great Tool!
For the ultimate peace of mind, you should consider drive imaging software to make a full backup of your boot drive. PowerQuest’s DriveImage and Symantec’s Norton Ghost are the two leaders in this field. I prefer Norton myself; it gives me the safeguard of knowing that if my C drive gets messed up, I can restore it in less than 10 minutes to a fully working system. This software is the greatest tool that has been invented for educational technologists in the past three years, in my opinion. Learn how to use it and you will no longer feel worried about spending hours and hours of restoring a single machine. In less than one hour, I can restore 30 machines to a pristine snapshot image in time, a job that formerly would have taken weeks. If your IT people don’t know how to use this software, they need to learn immediately.

One caveat is that snapshot image files created by Ghost require a second partition drive letter for the destination file (power users partition their single drives to accommodate Ghost and also to make data backups easier). But for average users this is easily solved by buying and installing a second hard drive.

The benefits of partitioning a drive or having multiple drives are enormous for data backup regardless of whether you decide to use drive imaging software. Having a second drive means you can keep all your data there by regular drag and drop backups. Also train yourself to save data to the second hard drive (like the things you normally save in the My Documents folder).

The benefits are threefold. Your data is on a separate partition from your C drive so the C drive can be reformatted and reinstalled (or Ghost imaged) without the loss of personal data. You also have all your data located in a common area for easy burning to a CDR or backup by other methods (network folders, tape drives, or Zip drives). And you are protected from e-mail viruses that look for the My Documents folder and send out your confidential documents to everyone in your Address Book, because you save such documents instead to a folder with a different name on the second drive or partition.

— Russell Smith
Types of Backup Methods
The old method of depending on floppies years ago was simple: Pop some floppies in the drive and copy your data. Known by computer aficionados in the early 1990s as "sneaker net," the use of floppies was a common method for moving files between machines prior to the widespread implementation of local area networks. Floppies were a great hardware backup method in the early days of personal computing and still fill an important niche in the backup arsenal.

But of course times have changed. Some machines (Macs mainly) don't even have a floppy drive. Most of us rarely use the floppy drive anymore except for the most basic transfer and backup of small files.

After the introduction of the Iomega Zip drives in 1995, it looked as though most computers would soon adopt the new format as a replacement for floppies. Yet it never happened. The cost of the Zip media disks ($5-10) was a critical impediment. Also the growth of computer data file sizes began to quickly outstrip the ability of Zip disks (even Jaz cartridges) to hold massive file collections.

I have an original external Zip parallel port drive that has now been sitting unused on my shelf since early 1998. (It did get heavy use from 1995-1997.) The rare times I now use an Iomega drive are when I do Norton Ghost mastering at DOS level with an external Jaz drive. (Hint: Buy the $30 Traveler cable adapters and your Jaz drive can work through the printer port on a PC at DOS level, providing a 1 to 2 gigabyte partition with the Iomega guest.exe file on a floppy.)

So what killed Iomega's heyday? The birth of fast and easy-to-use CD recorder drives with inexpensive CD-R blanks effectively spelled the end of the line for Iomega's bid to become the new computer standard for floppy drive replacement. In my opinion CD-RW drives are now essential for users who need to back up large file folders. That means every new system for educators should come with a CD-RW drive factory installed. To buy a system for an educator without a CD-RW drive is as bad as when naive administrators were buying new systems several years ago without a regular CD drive. I saw it happen and those machines were totally obsolete when they were first unpacked. I saw virtually all those machines junked within 2 years.

Another hot technology besides CD-RW drives are the new DVD recorders. Did you know some are now priced below $400? And the DVD-R blanks (which hold 4.7 gigabytes each) are less than $4. This is a great boon for backups, as in early 2000 the only Pioneer drive available cost $5,000, and the blanks were $35 each. By next fall DVD recorders will be as hot as CD-RW drives for people needing large backups. And the growth of digital camcorder use in schools is going to skyrocket in the next couple of years, as will data file sizes.

The new consumer Pioneer DVR drive is designed for general use and cannot copy DVD movies. (This was a copyright decision by Pioneer.) But you can author your own DVD movies or just fill the disk with computer backup data. The life expectancy of the DVD disks you create is 100 years. The drive will also record standard CDR and CD-RW blanks.

Another essential element in the hardware backup equation for savvy users is additional hard drives. Add a huge second hard drive for $100 and you have an easy-to-use backup area that doubles your protection from data loss. Did you know that it would have cost $50,000 only 6 years ago to get the sort of RAM and hard drive you now get on a typical 2002 computer? In 1995 a 1-gigabyte hard drive was $500 and 8 megabytes of RAM was $300. Now a 60-gigabyte drive sells for under $90 and 512 megabytes of RAM cost $30. You're now driving a Lexus computer and don't even realize it! Invest in more RAM and a bigger hard drive for maximum performance. It'll help greatly in the time and ease of backups.

My last suggestion for hardware backups of huge systems like network fileservers and critical systems is the same as it was in 1995: Get big tape backup systems. The technology is tried and proven and offers easy and removable offsite data backups.

Backup Strategies to Utilize
OK, so you have a good system, CD-RW drive, two hard drives, and tape backup drives on your file servers. Now what? How do we use these tools, and more importantly, how do we know what to backup?

First, examine your system. What would you lose if your hard drive died today? Most educators think first of their lifeline to the Internet, their e-mail and browser files. No longer do we consider our machines as computing devices and fancy typewriters. Today's machines are communication devices, and your intellectual content resides in the files you create or receive while using the Internet.

Learn how to identify where those files reside and then back them up on a regular basis—say, weekly or daily depending on how critical you consider your communication files. Consult with your IT people or find out yourself where those files are stored.

[Editor's Note: For a detailed, timely, and invaluable set of strategies, visit the MMS Web site at, for an MMS Online Extra. In it, author Rusty Smith has provided step-by-step guidance for the three most commonly used e-mail program file identifications and backup procedures.]

Another option for data backup is storing important files on the Web. There are free services, but I'm afraid I can't recommend any of them due to the volatility of dot-com companies. But I can recommend buying a domain and Web-hosting service from a reputable company that offers Web space, as these companies are in the business of selling you a service, not depending on fickle advertisers to support them. I created this magazine article online on my commercial Web host [rusty] in a secret unpublished directory and submitted it to my editor just as I have all my magazine articles since 1998. The beauty of this is that if my computer died midstream I could go to any other computer that connects to the Internet and finish my article. My Web-hosting service in Santa Rosa, California, has redundant backups of its hard drives, and I never worry about the server losing my data. But just to hedge my bets I also save offline copies in Microsoft Word. My mother didn't raise a dummy!

So Web storage can be a option, but due to bandwidth constraints and storage limits it is not currently useful for hundreds of megabytes of data. Not yet anyway. Wait until Internet 2 hits and broadband arrives for everyone in America. Then backups to the Internet will be the preferred method of operation for most people.

One final tip for backup strategies is to make printed copies of critical documents. Paper has served mankind well as a permanent backup for thousands of years. If necessary, you can later scan the papers back into digital format as needed.

When Things Go Wrong
It's a certainty that we all make mistakes despite our best backup intentions. Backups get put off and then disaster strikes. Typically it's hard drive failure that strikes fear into the hearts of people who have been lax on their backups. Or maybe they had a backup system, but it failed also.

I knew a librarian who religiously backed up her library data on tape for 5 years. Finally the day came when the restore was needed, and she found out her tape software had never been backing up the system correctly. The moral of her bitter lesson is that a backup system is worthless unless you test it for reliability. For tape systems you should copy a huge expendable dummy folder (100 megabytes of photo or music files) to your tape system and then delete the folder on the hard drive. Then see if you can do a selective restore from the tape for that folder. If you can't, then you know you need to find out what must be done to make the software work correctly.

I also make mistakes, and I made a bad one recently. While copying over a camera compact flash card to my laptop I decided to rename the Nikon folder on the card by right-button clicking on the folder before moving it to the hard drive. Well, Microsoft in its infinite wisdom decided the menu dropdown for that option would include the function Delete as the adjacent entry to Rename. So when I clicked on Delete I was perturbed, but figured I could easily restore it from the Recycle Bin or, if worse came to worst, by using Norton Unerase. Wrong! Neither one could see the deleted files since the files never made it to the hard drive. But since I am rarely one to panic (and these were very important, irreplaceable photos), I proceeded to search on the Internet for a software program that would retrieve my files on the flash card.

After a 20-minute search I found an innovative company in Austin, Texas, named Winternals Software [] that offers a file restore utility for sale (by download, which I appreciated). They also let me download a trial version that would scan the card to see if the files could be seen before I was obligated to buy. (The trial version only views the deleted files and won't recover them.) Sure enough, I saw my deleted files, quickly purchased the program, and saved my precious photos. To me it was a small price to pay for invaluable computer data.

For larger file retrievals things get a bit pricier. If you have a dead hard drive, it typically costs about $1,000 per gigabyte to have a commercial company retrieve your data. In worst-case scenarios, this is a small price to pay for records that can't be duplicated. There are many companies that specialize in hard drive restores and can generally achieve miracles in most cases.

Since 1997, hard drive manufacturers use SMART technology, which stands for Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology. It's supposed to warn you of impending failure so you can back up your data. Unfortunately they should name it STUPID (Supposed To Utilize Program Integrity, Doesn't), because it rarely ever warns anyone before it dies. I have personally witnessed over 50 Quantum and Western Digital drives die quick deaths without any SMART notification to the user. My best advice is to listen for any new unusual sounds emanating from inside the case (especially a thumping or clunking sound). If you hear this, then immediately make full backups before the drive dies, because it is certainly on its last legs.

If the drive suddenly dies having made no sudden noises and is undetectable in the BIOS (your boot Setup screens), then it is quite possible the system board electronics croaked inside the drive, yet the magnetic media and data are still intact. If the drivedata is important enough—but not worth $1,000—you may try the following trick. Get your IT people to do this. Remove the top cover from an identical drive that is expendable. It's vacuum sealed, but fairly easy to remove. From this expendable working drive take out the system board, which looks like a tiny motherboard, and put it in the dead drive. Your moribund drive may come back to life! We did this successfully at our facility on a very important hard drive belonging to an executive secretary. Of course you have voided the warranty on the two drives and you should immediately copy the data to a new drive and scrap both of the hard drives, however, $200 lost is better than $1,000.

Floppy disks can also go corrupt at a high rate. I never recommend that educators rely on them as a primary backup of documents. If you do, then remember this: The floppies cost about a nickel to make in Taiwan. Never trust to your data to a nickel! If you must, then at least use three floppies and triple your chances of retaining your data. Also never buy cheapo floppies. The black floppies at the lowest price are the world's worst for quality. Always pay more and buy disks advertised as premium quality. I prefer Maxell floppies; I don't recommend Imation. (I once bought two 50-count bricks of Imation floppies and found that 70 were defective straight out of the box.)

Let me also pass on a word of caution about the metal shutters on floppies. I now prefer the brands with plastic shutter slides to prevent damage to floppy drives. Students bend the metal shutters and ruin floppy drives by trying to pull out a stuck disk. This disaster is bad enough on a computer floppy drive that costs $15 to replace, but when they ruin the drive in a Sony Mavica camera, it leads to a 6-week repair job and a $200 repair bill.

In Conclusion
Most people continue to have a love/hate relationship with their computers. We love them for what they do, but hate them when they fail and we lose time and data. But by implementing a smart backup strategy and actually sticking to a schedule of using, it we can all sleep easier at night. It's time for you to step up and become the master of your computer instead of the other way around. With a great backup plan you can demonstrate to your peers and students that while computers are clever, humans are much smarter than a metal box filled with wires and plastic.

Russell Smith is a certified educational technologist and award-winning writer in Texas. He welcomes questions and comments at and at his Web site

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