Updated: Nov 9, 2022
Decades ago, the task of preserving your computer data files, databases, and other data on a tape backup could turn into an expensive endeavor. Typically people used different kinds of media: dvds, floppy drives, and a variety of tape drives to get the job done. Much of the equipment - uninterruptible power supplies, tape backups, offsite storage services - was always a serious investment even for small business owners. While these technologies still exist, the job of backing up and securing your data has become a little easier, more reliable, and less expensive these days. In this article, I will explore user-friendly computer data backup solutions. While some of the following may be obvious, it is my aim to bring some extra detail to your understanding of backup options for your business and home office by focusing on (1) cloud based backup services such as Google Drive, (2) using additional external drives to store your data with redundancy, and (3) using network attached storage (NAS) as a solution for more control and security of your data.
When I consider computer data backup solutions, I think about them in terms of the following priorities: time and effort needed to implement, what storage capacity they offer, time and effort of recovery of lost data, how secure the solution is, and finally, the cost. In the following sections, I will be evaluating based on this criteria, and some of these topics will blend together based on the solution and cost.
Cloud Based Options
There are many cloud based computer backup solutions, such as Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive and Carbonite. In this article, I will mainly focus on Google Drive.
Google Drive debuted in 2012, and its desktop application has evolved since inception, but the basic mechanism has not changed. Google Drive syncs data between your computer and Google’s data centers using your internet connection. It is a relatively simple setup on the desktop, and Google also offers mobile versions of the app, which will give you access to your data wherever you go.
Google Drive Setup
Accessing Google Drive starts simply with having a Google account which will provide you with a default amount of storage space, 15 GB for free, which is shared among all Google services (Google Drive, Gmail, and Google Photos). Once you have your account setup, you can then download the Google Drive for Desktop app and install it on your PC. The app will create a virtual drive in Windows Explorer (you will see a new drive letter appear which points to Google Drive). In the Google Drive for Desktop app, you are able to specify which folder, or folders, you wish to back up and sync (I will walk you through this below). Lastly, you will need to specify how you want Google Drive to operate.
There are two modes: Streaming and Mirror. To access these settings you will click on the Google Drive icon at the right of your Windows Taskbar (near the clock) and then click the cogwheel to go into Preferences. A window will pop up and you’ll have two tabs on the left. The first is My Computer where you specify which folders and or files you wish to sync with Google Drive. Select the “Add folder” button to choose folders on your computer to sync with Google Drive.
In the second tab, you will select which mode you want Google Drive to operate in.
Streaming mode will create a new Google virtual drive connection on your computer, which you will find in Windows Explorer. Anything you put in this Google virtual drive connection will be stored (not copied) in Google Drive. In stream, your files will no longer be stored on your computer, unless you select them to be available offline by right clicking and making “always available”.
You select which files or folders you want to store on Google Drive by creating them there, or manually moving the files into this Google virtual drive on your computer.
The upside of stream mode is that it frees up space on your computer, and you can rely on Google's data center’s redundancy for backing up your data.
The downside to this method is if your internet connection is down, you will not be able to access your files except for the ones you have designated to be offline.
Just to add, you are 100% relying on Google in this method for the integrity of your files. In a sense this method is really a space saver, but you are not creating a backup copy of your files unless you also keep them in a separate folder on your computer and manually move copies to Google Drive.
Mirroring mode is the other mode, which will keep a copy of your files on your computer and sync them to a folder(s) in Google Drive so that you always have a copy offline (on your computer).
Everything you do with the copy of the files you sync on your computer will be synced to the copy of the files in your Google Drive folder.
The upside is that you will always, regardless of your internet connection, have access to these files. If you sign into your Google account on a different computer, make a change to one of your files that are syncing with your home computer, both the copy on Google Drive and the copy on your computer designated to sync will be updated when the Google service syncs again. The downside is that you do have to continue to maintain space on your local computer drive for your data.
Once you have these settings set, that's about it. Google will begin syncing your files up to its data centers. You can watch progress by single clicking on that same icon by the clock as it will show the files uploading in progress.
Restoring files from Google Drive is fairly simple. If you accidentally delete files or folders from your local machine that have synced to Google Drive, they will be deleted from your Drive as well. But your files will be in the Drive recycle bin for up to 30 days so you are able to restore them, if needed.
After 30 days in the recycle bin, your files will be deleted from Google Drive. This ability is the same regardless of which mode you have your Google Drive set up.
If your computer hard drive crashes and you lose all your data on your PC, your synced data is still in Google Drive and can be synced back down to your computer for recovery.
In addition, with Google Docs and Sheets files stored in the Drive, Google will save previous versions of these files to be restored if needed.
Google Security and Safety of Data
According to Google’s page on data security, Google stores its customer’s data across multiple locations, has 24x7 uptime with backup generators, and follows extensive security protocols. This means with either backup mode you select, Streaming or Mirror, your data in Google Drive will be as safe as it can be for any cloud based backup solution. It also means that if your home or office is damaged or broken into, your data will be safe and offsite.
Just to add: I would advise you to further protect your data on Google by making sure you have 2 step authentication set up with your Google Account.
Google Drive Capacity and Cost
As mentioned above, Google Drive starts you with a complimentary 15 GB of space which is shared among all of your Google services (Gmail, Photos, Drive). If you need more space you can purchase more storage. As of this writing, Google charges $19.99 per year for 100GB of storage and their pricing scales up from there - up to $149 per month for 30 TB. You may need to take some time to estimate your data needs based on your business and/or type of files you will be backing up. The beauty of Google Drive and other services like it, is it handles the backup and the offsite storage in one service.
Other Cloud Data Backup Solutions
While I focused on Google in this article, there are many cloud storage players out there. Microsoft’s OneDrive also provides a great cloud based data backup solution for your home or office data. You receive 1TB of space when you subscribe to Office365 Personal to use Excel, Word, etc. This amount of space is far more than Google provides by default.
OneDrive also has the capability to restore previous versions of Office documents (separate from Office’s own built in capability) as well as a recycle bin that will hold on to your deleted files for 30 days.
Carbonite is another cloud based storage solution which offers a backup software to install on your PC, and then automatically backs up your PC with no space limit to its data centers. Carbonite is more expensive - as of this writing, it’s around $50 per year for its most basic service. However, I again point out that it does not really cap its storage space. The downside of Carbonite is it’s only a backup service. It does not provide syncing with the ease and effect of Google Drive or OneDrive.
Another computer data backup solutions you can always fall back on is using additional external hard drives to make redundant (backup) copies of your files. While this is not the most efficient method to back up your data, many people like to operate this way. There is a comfort in knowing exactly where your data is, and being in control of exactly where you are putting it.
The key to using external drives effectively is to make sure you have a safe and secure location to store them, a plan to deal with them should they mechanically fail on their own or get damaged, and finally that they are secured with encryption so that if they are lost, your data remains safe.
External Drives Setup
With external USB drives, you are literally just plugging them into the USB port on your computer and copying the data over. It does not get simpler than that. You can then detach the drive and store it in a safe location.
As part of the setup, I strongly recommend that you encrypt the external drives with a password. Should those drives fall into the wrong hands or become lost, you will want that data to be protected. This can be done with a third-party program or Windows Bitlocker. The steps for configuring Windows Bitlocker go beyond the scope of this article, but they can be found here under the section “HOW TO ENABLE BITLOCKER TO GO ON REMOVABLE DRIVES”. Once the drive is encrypted, even if they are stolen or lost, the data on them will become unreadable without the key.
Storage Cost and Performance
USB external drives have been progressively getting better and faster in quality over the last 10 years. They have a wide range of storage capacities anywhere from 1 TB to 12 TB and well beyond.
The cost of external hard drives is typically dependent on performance and capacity. If you are looking for a high capacity drive, and speed is not much of a concern, the WD 12TB Elements Desktop External Hard Drive is a good choice. However if performance (speed) is highest on the list, you may consider an SSD (solid state drive) drive such as WD_BLACK 2TB P40 Game Drive SSD which has an incredible read time of 2000 MB/s over USB 3.2.
External Drives Data Security
As mentioned in the beginning, one of the primary concerns you will be faced with is where you will be storing your external drives. If you store them at your business or your home, they will be at risk of accidental damage, theft, or other physical harm.
If you store them offsite, you will want that location to be secure and accessible when you feel you may need to get to them. There are services which provide off site storage, you may use a home or office, or even a safety deposit box. The point is to determine a safe place that works for you, and minimizes risk..
Finally, just keep in mind that when storing your data on an external USB drive, it is important to realize that these drives (as well as any external storage drives) are still vulnerable to being corrupted by strong electric magnetic fields. As it's easy to carry these around from time to time, I have seen cases where people have laid their external hard drives down on a stereo speaker for a day, and came back later only to find some files on the drive to be corrupted. Microwaves, strong magnets, and other appliances with high voltage power supplies / transformers will give off levels of EMF, so be conscious of where they are placed.
Network Attached Storage (NAS)
The last of the computer data backup solutions I want to touch on is network attached storage or NAS. Network attached storage devices are essentially computers with multiple hard drives acting redundantly to store and make your data available to you on your local network. Set up properly, you connect to the NAS as another drive on your computer, and can back up to it quickly as the connection is much faster than an internet upload.
The difference between NAS and an external drive is that the data stored on a NAS device is more secure and more easily recovered in the event of disk failure as I will explain later.
I have worked with and highly recommend the Synology 6 bay NAS DiskStation as it provides great storage capacity and expandability. There are smaller Synology models that are 2 disk and 4 disk models which are just as efficient, so it comes down to your home or business needs.
While setting up a NAS like Synology (shown above) is not too difficult, it does require familiarity with some general technical concepts in the event you need to troubleshoot some connections. Following the instructions to install the software and configure it on your PC is relatively straightforward, but there may be points at which you need to manually connect to the drive without the software or run into issues finding your NAS on your network.
If you feel you are computer challenged, I would recommend working with a service or someone who has experience in setting up NAS units to avoid frustration should you run into problems.
For the equipment you will normally purchase the NAS device by itself, and then purchase a number of compatible hard drives you will be installing into it depending on your storage needs. You will follow the setup directions, connect the NAS to your network and power it on. You’ll then install the software on your computer and it will help configure the connection to the NAS.
The Synology NAS devices have a number of different settings you can configure to give you a lot of control over how the device operates. First and foremost, you can set up folders on the NAS to be accessed only by certain user accounts or allocate a certain amount of space to those users.
You can schedule the NAS to update automatically when new software versions come out, and also schedule it to power on and power off at certain times per day. The NAS will also send you monthly health reports and can be configured to alert you if a drive fails.
Security and Recovery
Recovering your data from an accidental deletion or crashed computer from your NAS simply requires you to get back running again and reconnect to the NAS drive to recover your files. The beauty of NAS is, while it's not only backing up and securing your files, it's also providing redundancy to itself through the configuration of its internal drives.
The NAS device uses an established technology called RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks) where multiple drives are configured to either mirror each other automatically, or if 3 or more drives are installed, the NAS will create an array from them where if any one drive fails, the others would be able to maintain the data.
While you do not need to understand the details of how this works to use the NAS, it's comforting to know that a drive could fail in your NAS storage and your data would still be fine. You would simply follow the procedure to replace that failed drive with a new one, and the NAS would rebuild the array automatically. All of this information will be in the PDF user guide for your NAS device.
I would say that the one aspect of NAS that is still potentially a risk, is that your NAS device is on the premises of your home or office. This of course is either good or bad depending on how you look at it. It's good because your data is literally right there at all times. It's bad in the sense that if there was a fire or other damage to your house (as previously mentioned), your NAS drive would also be at risk.
Capacity and Cost
NAS devices such as the Synology model above are very flexible with capacity, as you can purchase a range of capacity hard drives to install. The important detail is that drives you purchase ideally should all be the same size and model for the NAS array configuration to work optimally.
So while the NAS itself is an investment, so are the hard drives you purchase for it. Network attached storage is not the cheapest computer data backup solution, but it does provide great control and great redundancy for storing your business data in your home or office, which offers a great peace of mind!
Final Thoughts on Computer Data Backup Solutions
Choosing a backup solution is an important decision. If you are looking for an easy solution and you generally back up smaller files, cloud storage is the go to choice. Your data is offsite, and you can protect that data with 2 step authentication as necessary without the need for purchasing extra hardware.
If you prefer to have your data close by at all times, or wish to physically store it yourself quickly, many people continue to swear by external USB drives which are fast and relatively inexpensive.
However, if your data consists of large files that need to be quickly accessed, for example video or raw photo files that load into programs like Adobe LightRoom or Premiere Pro, a NAS system is a superior method as both the access and storage is fast enough to not interfere with your work, and the capacity can be easily configured.
In the end, my perspective is that whatever you eventually decide, your decision should make sense for your home office or business situation, and it is my hope that this article has provided some information to help along the way.
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