Sunday, April 23, 2006

Peter Griffin: Back up before the big crash

The two words that flashed up on my laptop screen had an inevitable finality about them: "imminent failure".

My hard drive was about to give up the ghost.

I'd ignored the warning signs, the digital grating sound those old floppy discs used to make when they had corrupted.

Corruption. Yes, I was about to have first-hand experience of it. Data corruption, that is.

It had been months since my last hard drive backup. I'd been too busy to back up the contents of my 40GB hard drive to a safe location.

Computer technology is pretty reliable these days, so it's easy to become complacent about backups.

But the science of hard drives is an intimidating thing. Lots of magnetic particles constantly organise and reorganise themselves on your computer to store your information. We put a lot of faith in this weird metallurgy.

I made a dash for the closest computer store, P.B. Technologies, and bought a Maxtor 250GB external hard drive. It cost me $291. The laptop had crashed again by the time I got back so I booted it again - for the last time, it would turn out.

First to be evacuated was the My Documents folder which contains the drafts of all my articles going back several years. After the crucial Word and Excel documents came a large folder of important PDF documents.

Then photos from my recent trip away, spreadsheets and some website pages I'd been working on. I only had a reboot or two up my sleeve. The whole thing could fail at any moment. I started to sweat as I nursed my computer through its start-up process and through all the warning prompts telling me that various important files no longer worked.

The laptop hard drive was grinding away, taking an age to perform the simplest of tasks. It staggered on, against the odds for half an hour, then a blue screen, then nothing. It was dead.

That was it, or so I thought. As I later flicked through the folders of files sitting on my Maxtor external drive it was obvious that were many other files that were overlooked in the panic.

A folder containing dozens of free ebooks, the classics of HG Wells, Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe among them, are gone. I can download the books again, they're out of copyright so are freely available as part of the Gutenberg Project (, which seeks to put all of the world's out-of-copyright works of literature online. But it'll be a time-consuming hassle to rebuild the collection.

There are programs unaccounted for. All of the wonderful cities I built in Sim City 4 are mere memories.

The lesson you can take from my hard drive disaster is simple: back up your data regularly in a methodical way.

Don't leave it until the drive that holds all your crucial information starts showing signs of failure.

You don't have to invest in a large external hard drive to do so. If you have a CD or DVD writer in your computer you can burn discs. A typical hard drive of 40GB to 60GB in size will take eight to 10 DVDs to back up. CDs carry less data so you'll need a lot more of them for a full backup.

You can use a backup software package which will create an exact image of the contents of your hard drive, preserving all of the data and the file structure. Norton's Ghost, software originally developed in New Zealand, is one of the most popular backup programs.

It lets you back up to an external hard drive or to discs so you don't have to piece your hard drive back together, folder by folder, if your hardware fails. Life's best lessons are learned the hard way, but learning the value of backing up by losing your data doesn't have to be one of them.


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