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Backup Philosophy for our Systems

This page was initially written when I only used Windows, in fact in the days of Windows 3.01 and Windows 95. On the Windows side I have now included specific information on one powerful freeware CD/DVD burner that I use as the ones supplied with many Windows machines are very basic 'Lite' versions with an expectation you will lose patience and buy an upgrade. I have updated it periodically and have now split off the section covering Backup and Synchronisation under Ubuntu Linux into a separate page.


The ability to Backup the system has always been considered an essential to any system on which our livelihood will increasingly depend in the future. The amount of data involved has increased dramatically from the days when we had a HP Colorado T1000E tape drive on an external port on the original (Dell P120) computer which came with a 850 Mbyte hard drive - now a minimum size Windows XP system is about 6 Gbytes. Our photographs occupy 40 Gbytes and Audio 15 Gbytes - videos are not practical to back up and occupy some 750 Gbytes.

The Dell P700 has CD writer built in and since then all our machines came with or have had a DVD writer added and CDs and DVDs have become the main backup media. In the last year pocket sized USB drives have become affordable and have a capacity of 160 or more Gbytes which have now become our main transfer and backup device for Pictures and Audio away from home whilst at home we try to keep multiple copies on different machines by copying over the network.

Backups to CD in the days of Windows 95 and 98 was either by simple dragging of the folders to the CD in Windows Explorer or by use of the Windows Backup program which allowed one to also backup the registry and compresses the files to save space. The Windows Backup program was found in the Start Menu -> Programs -> Accessories -> System Tools -> Backup. These days the programs provided are less useful and copying to CD/DVD is not easy for the backups of system files as they are buried in the file system and many files lock up copies as they are in use. Many files are also hidden so it is easy to miss them.

There are lots of commercial CD/DVD writing programs such as Nero but they are now huge and difficult to understand, as well as costly. Usually a cut down version of a CD/DVD writing program is included when you buy a computer with many facilities disabled until you pay up. I am currently using a freeware program called ImgBurn which has most of the facilities I want to be able to do a backup of enough of the Windows system to be able to extract the critical data if a complete system rebuild is needed because of a hard drive failure, crash or virus. If you download it make sure you do not end up with other programs which are heavily advertised on their site and have large seductive links and similar names - you need to go to the blue bar at the top and click on the download link which will take you to a page with links to several download mirrors - use the official mirror provided by ImageBurn at the bottom of the list or currently click the following to start the download of version 2.4.2 http://download.imgburn.com/SetupImgBurn_2.4.2.0.exe

Considerations for Rebuilding the system

Addition consideration has therefore been given to how to rebuild on another machine or from basics if the system is considered to be corrupt. This involves archiving of all the valuable documents, the program sources needed to restore the system and copies of the special configuration files (templates, fax covers etc) - in other words everything which has not been installed so it can safely be loaded into another machine. It is clearly easier to do this if the Folder Structure is set up with this possibility in mind. My Documents has therefore been augmented by several more top level Folders. Following the nomenclature of Windows XX they are called My Programs, My Backups, My Teaching, My Web Site, My Images and My Pictures. Between them they contain all our documents and the files needed to rebuild the system.

The Folder Structure I use

These folders containing all the documents and copies of information needed for rebuilding are very much more secure if stored on another drive, preferably a physically separate drive but even a different partition improves ones chances against malware and they are less likely to be damaged in a system crash. We have a separate partition on all our machines on the desktops they are on a physically different drive to the Windows system. My Pictures is divided into subdirectories by year which just fit a DVD and My Audio is also subdivided to fit onto a DVD. My Video is on a separate large drive with a NTFS filesystem to give high speed and to be able to hold files over 4 Gbytes in size - it is so big as too be unrealistic to back up other than [selectively] to a hard drive

Should anything else be backed up?

For a few weeks make a conscious effort to think about the importance need for a backup of everything you do and use - the spell check dictionaries, lists of favourites, the templates and the data and configuration of all the applications and make sure they are being backed up. You may have to change where applications such as financial packages store data to ensure they are covered or include extra directories in your weekly backups. Most of the settings we may need to use are specific to a user and are contained somewhere in the subdirectories under C: Documents and Settings/yourusername/Application Data. If you have not separated where you store your documents then they will be in C: Documents and Settings/yourusername/My Documents and another important folder which needs saving, namely your desktop, is at C: Documents and Settings/yourusername/Desktop and several other folders used by Microsoft live at this level. It is therefore very sensible to back up C: Documents and Settings/yourusername/ rather than look for the current location for every dictionary, address book, email folder, set of cookies, favourites and other configuration settings separately. This backup will be too big for a CD but should fit on a DVD if your Documents, Photographs, Audio and Video files have been moved to a separate drive as recommended above and may fit for some users without too much digital media without changing the locations where such media is stored.

I have also written a specific page about Howto Backup and Restore Email messages, Address books and Dictionaries largely for small firms where an address list and email messages are of vital importance.

Backup Programs

There is a Windows XP backup facility - have a look at Windows XP Backup Made Easy which is a very sensible article by Ed Bott, Microsoft Press Author and Expert Zone Community Columnist.

In Windows XP Home Edition, this tool has to be installed manually from the CD-ROM, whereas in Windows XP Professional, this tool is installed by default. To load in XP put the CD in your drive - if it does not automatically open then get to it via My Computer

Note: Some OEMs such as Compaq, DELL and HP don't ship the Windows XP CD nor they include the NTBACKUP utility by default. You can try googling for "NTBACKUP.MSI download" or try downloading from http://www.winxptutor.com/ntbackup.msi - if I download files without really knowing their pedigree I try to get two or more copies from different sources and compare them.

Ntbackup normally writes to a file which should be on another (removable) drive or you should copy your backup file to a CD/DVD. NTBackup has a clever way of copying files which are in use called Volume Shadow and has a mode in the case of XP Pro where it is possible to do a complete restore in conjunction with the Windows XP Pro CD but I have never tried it.

The Backup Timetable

Every Month plus before and after significant software changes in the system:

Every Week:

Between other backups:

The media (or names on a disk) should be cycled through in order and some archived for much longer just in case you need an audit trail or you accidentally erase something and do not find out until the next quarter or even year when you need it. The Drive/CD/DVD capacity should be sufficient to hold a Data files backup and a series of Incremental Backups. One copy of the most important data must be held at a separate location in case of Fire, Flood or Theft.

Backing up the Laptops and Networked Machines

At any one time the home machine (strictly the shared drive on the home network) or the Laptops have the 'master' documents, Email folders, address books etc. and the other machine is acting as a backup. The transfers between them are done over a network connection. I still make data backups to portable hard drive or CD/DVD but are less frequent when a recent duplicate of active documents exists on the Laptop.

CD/DVD writing Programs - ImgBurn

This is a new addition to my Backup page as I have finally found a free and flexible CD/DVD burning program for Windows XP and Vista . Many machines have a 'Lite' versions of a CD/DVD burning program installed, often from Nero or Roxio/Sonic but I wanted something more comprehensive. One of my requirements is to be able to make quick backups of machines I am working on in case virus removal or partitioning disks goes badly astray. It is desirable that it is simple to use but it must have the flexibility to be able to back up a system without having to know explicitly the locations of all the important files ie it has to be able to make a copy of the Documents and Settings folder without falling over because some files are in use, the folder nesting is too deep or file names too long.

In addition I wanted a program to tell people about for making LiveCD disks from ISO images for Ubuntu Linux and Disk Partitioning and to be able to verify the downloads and burning using the md5sum checksums which are provided these days with many large downloads. It is strange that I should be looking for Windows software to help people make the transition to Linux.

The search proved more difficult than I expected - the main recommendations I found doing Googling did not satisfy all the above or did not run under Vista and in some cases did not seem to work on my system at all. I finally found ImgBurn which does all I require yet has a basic interface simple enough to make life easy for newcomers.

When you download from ImgBurn make sure you do not end up with other programs which are heavily advertised on the site and have seductive links such as Express Burn which is expensive - you need to go to the blue bar at the top and click on the download link which will take you to a page with links to several download mirrors - use the official mirror provided by ImageBurn currently at the bottom of the list or you can currently click the following link to start the download of version 2.4.2 http://download.imgburn.com/SetupImgBurn_2.4.2.0.exe

It will work 'out of the box' for most purposes yet there is the flexibility to set it up for bulk back-up of system folders and files. It has a brilliant idea in the 'drop zone' a small circular 'area' which is transparent and stays in front of all other windows onto which you can drag and drop files/folders from any program such as Windows Explorer to add them to the list of files for burning.

Loosely quoting the ImgBurn web site

ImgBurn will handle every current type of drive including CD, DVD, HD DVD and Blu-ray. It is normally entered by a quick start task selector panel has has several 'Modes', each one for performing a different task namely:

ImgBurn supports all the Windows OS's - Windows 95, 98, Me, NT4, 2000, XP, 2003, Vista and 2008 (including all the 64-bit versions). The web site says that it should also run on Linux if you use Wine. I have tried it under Ubuntu Linux with WINE 1.0 and I only had to change the Interface method to ASPI from SPTI.

ImgBurn supports a wide range of image file formats - including BIN, CUE, DI, DVD, GI, IMG, ISO, MDS, NRG and PDI. It can burn Audio CD's from any file type supported via DirectShow / ACM - including AAC, APE, FLAC, M4A, MP3, MP4, MPC, OGG, PCM, WAV, WMA and WV. You can use it to build DVD Video discs (from a VIDEO_TS folder), HD DVD Video discs (from a HVDVD_TS folder) and Blu-ray Video discs. It supports Unicode folder/file names, so you shouldn't run in to any problems if you're using an international character set. It's a very flexible application with several advanced features that are often lacking in other tools, especially when it comes to burning DVD Video discs. "

Whilst ImgBurn will work perfectly straight out of the box, it is also very configurable for special purposes. I will give a detailed explanation of the settings I changed to enable me to backup all of the important 'system' files in one go.

Setting up ImgBurn for backing up system information:

We need to change some of the default settings to be able to back up system folders because:

  1. Some system files will be in use and should not be saved as they will always be different. Always close all programs especially your email and browser programs otherwise files you need to save may also be marked as in use and not saved or be inconsistent.
  2. The folder depth of nesting in a Windows system exceeds the CD filesystem defaults which are initially set to give the greatest possibility of being read on every legacy operating system
  3. The file names are longer than the defaults which are set to enable reading on every operating system
  4. You need to back up files which are hidden by the system to prevent accidental changes
  5. You need to be able to back up files marked as system files by the system to prevent accidental changes
  6. You may have files which have no extension if you have received them from a non windows system

Most of these changes do not affect normal operation so can be set the first time you want to save your system and left set from then on.

Start the Imgburn program and you will find that there are are a number of tabs on the right which need to be set up.

General Tab

Options Tab

The first two can be set these once and for all - they are important to make sure you save the system information during backups

Advanced Tab

These can be set once and for all - they are important to prevent aborting in deep directories and long filenames inherent in systems directories but reduce compatibility with older systems such as Windows 95

Labels Tab

You should give the CD/DVD a volume label each time which preferably includes the date - so you can find out what is on the CD/DVD - the others do not matter)

Verify tick box - normally leave this ticked - the CD/DVD will be briefly ejected and pulled back in and the CD/DVD checked after the CD/DVD has been written.

Settings from the Drop Down Menus

In addition some of the most important settings need to be made from the drop down menus at the top and can also be set once and for all.

It is now time to Add the files and folders you want to burn to the CD/DVD. Use the buttons down the right of the source panel or use drag and drop onto the special area called the drop zone which allows stays on the top - see above for turning on and off.

When you have created a set of files for a regular backup you should save the project :

When you come to Burn again

You can now use the button at the bottom to start to burn the CD/DVD. If it is rewriteable it will check that you want to erase the existing data completely.

Backing Up under Ubuntu Linux

I have largely moved to Ubuntu Linux so I have now split off the discussion of backing up under Linux to a separate page - Backup and Synchronisation under Ubuntu Linux

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Content revised: 8th July, 2020