Backing up user data on a PC

imagesI’ve often observed those living in rural areas have to default to the only existing IT service provider in their vicinity, quite often they have to come from far off and they are always almost semi skilled and having no competition, take liberties with the quality of their work and with timeliness. Dealing with semi skilled IT personnel can be devastating for your data and often people lose their data in the process of getting their computers “fixed”. After being in the IT field from the late 1990’s and having done innumerable Windows 95, 98, ME, XP, Vista, 7, 8 and Linux installations, and hearing quite a few horror stories from my clients, I decide to put up this self help post for users of Desktop Operating systems. This post should arm you with enough data to safeguard yourself by backing up your own data and also provides some guidelines on organizing your data to make this process easier.

I will stick to currently running operating systems such as Windows XP, Vista, 7, 8 and Ubuntu Linux. Linux will not usually allow you to save data out of your home folder, so your data will lie in /home/username/ where username is the username you use to log  in to Linux. All application settings and data will be stored in appropriately named hidden folders with names starting with a dot (.). E.g. /home/username/.thunderbird for Thunderbird email data. You can view them by pressing Ctrl + H in the Nautilus file manager. (If you are using the Gnome desktop). This is more or less the same for the MacOS, so the rest of this post deals with Windows systems.

If you don’t wish to mess with backup yourself, when the service technician arrives, he would need the following inputs from you.

  • Location – where your data is stored. You might have stored some/all of it outside the My Documents folder (bad practice), directly on the C drive or in another partition. Ideally point it out to him/her.
  • If E-mail is setup let them know the application you use. Web mail or IMAP mail is not a problem as you are only seeing a copy of your mail.
  • Apps that store their data elsewhere -If you have applications that save their data onto non standard locations or in databases, such as the now obsolete Ex-Next Generation, or Busy, Tally, Epi info etc. installed, point it out to them.
  • Provide all the software CD’s along with serial numbers to them. (And remember to take it back)
  • Insist that your data be backed up to an external disk  prior to formatting the system and copy it elsewhere as an added protection against data loss as hard disks are pretty unreliable and may suddenly stop working without warning -especially if they are accidentally dropped. Current hard disks may have increased dramatically in their storage capacity, but they are nowhere as robust as their predecessors.

Locating your data in Windows:

  • Unless you’ve been saving your data haphazardly all over the place, user data in Windows can be located using the %userprofile% variable. To view your user data, type %userprofile% in the run box and press enter.

You can access the run dialog on different operating systems as given below:

Windows XP             : Click the Start button > Run

Windows Vista & 7   : Click Start and then type the command in the search box

Windows 8               : Press and hold the Windows key on the keyboard and press X. Click on the run                                     menu from the pop up menu.

  • Inside the folder which opens up, you can find your Desktop data as well as your Documents, Pictures, Music, video and download folders. In Windows XP however, the Pictures, Videos and Music are stored inside the My Documents folder and it doesn’t have a download folder (Firefox does create a download folder inside My Documents) which makes backup easy for Windows XP as all your stuff (except application data) will be stored under My Documents. You can backup these folders wherever you wish and later restore them by copying them back to the same computer or to a different one. The Application data (where your email etc is stored) can be accessed by the same method by typing in %appdata% into the run/search location. If you can’t figure out where your data is, as a precautionary measure copy the whole application data folder.
  • After copying, compare the total folder size (by right clicking the backed up folder and clicking on properties) with the original folders. A slight mismatch is normally OK. Some system files might not copy, it is OK to skip them as they are unique to the system and created by the operating system.
  • If you had written your unchanging data to CD/DVD or USB drives, you can now copy it  back from them. It should have saved you a lot of time and the data itself as some times when file names are too long or there are other errors on a file on your disk or in the disk itself, you might not be able to easily back up your data! (Warning : CD/DVD backups are not reliable if they are not stored/handled optimally)


Some advice for Personal Computer users about storing and backing up their data.

  • Organize and keep all your music, videos, photographs, e-books and other unchanging data backed up on CD’s,  DVD’s or one or more removable drives. You will not therefore need to worry about backing them up whenever your hard disk needs a format or against a precaution against a crash.
  • Unless you are exceptionally organised, avoid making multiple partitions on your hard disk, and keep storing your data in the pre-assigned folders that Windows has created for you such as Desktop, My Documents, My Pictures, My Music, My Videos in Windows XP, and Documents, Pictures, Music, Videos, Downloads in Windows Vista and upwards. This allows your Windows files and your own data to freely expand and contract -limited only by the size of your disk. Although it looks beneficial to have an extra partition to dump your data onto prior to a format, the end  result would be that sooner or later you will have numerous data folders on the other partition -especially if someone else did the backup for you, without a clue as to what data is current. Additionally, logical drives are part of the physical drive, so if your hard drive fails, you will lose data on the logical drive D: as well, unless D: is a separate disk. You will end up with multiple copies of data which you wont have time to sort through and neither would you want to risk deleting it for fear of losing a possibly legitimate backup. Finally, you will end up with an ever growing pile of data on your other partitions (D:E:F: etc)
  • Go through your data regularly and delete or archive obsolete data. The less clutter, the easier it is to work and find stuff. Clutter is distracting. Windows, Yahoo and Google Desktop search applications encourage clutter, so avoid them.
  • Backup your data regularly to a USB disk or purchase an automated data backup solution to backup your data via your Internet connection to a remote ftp server.
  • Don’t install everything that is free. Install only software that you will use and is necessary.
  • It is common to have multiple copies of data which you have “backed up” and forgotten. You can use a software for finding duplicate files on your system and delete the unnecessary or unknown copies of the same file. Dupfinder is a free opensource software for finding duplicate files. Don’t try to delete duplicate system files though.
  • Use either Windows backup or for Linux, “Back in Time” or “Simple Backup for Gnome” . Another option is to use the SyncBack program for backups. SyncBack has a freeware version in addition to paid versions all of which are good.
  • Backups can be done to your folder on the office server, or an Internet or local ftp server or to a USB Hard drive or DVD drive or to a NAS box.

A post on hardening your system to prevent frequent formatting will be posted later

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