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[ The PC Guide | System Care Guide | Backups and Disaster Recovery | How To Back Up ]

Backup Software

An important part of the backup puzzle is using the right software. The difference between good and mediocre backup software can be the difference between backups that are reliable and easy to use and ones that are not. The difference between mediocre software and bad software can be the difference between backups that restore properly when you need them to, and those that leave you high and dry!

This is a hardware site and I am getting pretty far afield with this long look at backup as it is, so I am not going to try to get into too many specifics on backup software (which I could write quite a lot about). You have to carefully compare the different packages out there and get one that meets your needs, much as with any other piece of software. The various features of backup software can be confusing however, so I will list below the types of capabilities you will want to look for in backup software, to help you make a good choice when you look for a package.

Beware that here, as in many other places, you sometimes only get what you pay for. Many backup devices ship with basic backup software, provided as a courtesy by the hardware manufacturer. In many cases these are functional but stripped-down versions of commercial packages. They will usually work, but may not be nearly as full-featured as a package you would buy at the store. The best thing to do is to try any software that comes with your device; if it meets your needs then you don't need to buy anything else.

The following are abilities or features that you may want to consider carefully when looking at PC backup software (not listed in any particular order):

  • Wide Device Support: Backup software varies significantly in its ability to support backup devices. Generally speaking, it is more difficult to find software support for newer devices than well-established ones. Some software companies will make software updates available for their users to provide expanded support as new drives hit the market; others will not. Do remember that while support for more devices gives you more flexibility, ultimately the only device you really need support for is the one that you are actually using.
  • Operating System Support: The software should support all of the features and requirements of the operating system under which it runs. This means, for example, that Windows 95 software should have full support for long filenames, backup of the Windows 95 Registry, and backup of FAT32 partitions.
  • Backup Type Selection: All good backup software will let you choose between doing full, selective and incremental backups. Better ones will let you select files and directories based on search strings or patterns.
  • Media Spanning: The software should provide proper support for backing up to multiple pieces of media in a media set. So if you did a backup to Zip disks and the data took up 250 MB, the system should prompt you when it is time to switch disks, etc. Strangely, some poor backup software has problems with this.
  • Disaster Recovery: A very important feature, and one that is often found only on more expensive products (as opposed to the freebies that come with many tape drives) is support for automatic disaster recovery. With this type of software, sometimes called one-step recovery or single-step restore or similar, a floppy disk is created with a special recovery program that will let you restore your system simply. Without this feature, you often have to reinstall the entire operating system before you do a restore, which can cost a lot of time and cause a lot of problems.
  • Scheduling and Automatic Operation: Depending on how and when you do your backups, it can be very helpful to have the software run automatically at a preset time. Most of today's software will support this.
  • Backup Verification: Every decent backup package will allow you to enable a verification mode. When active, the software will read back from the tape every file that it backs up and compare it to the file on the hard disk, to ensure that the backup is correct. This is important to ensure that your backups are viable.
  • Compression: Good backup software will give you the option of enabling software compression, possibly at various levels, to enable you to save space on your backup media.
  • Media Append and Overwrite: You should be able to set the software so that you can control easily what happens when the software starts a backup of a tape that already contains a backup set. You should be able to tell the software to always append to the tape, always overwrite it, or prompt you each time to let you select.
  • Tape Tools: If you are using a tape backup unit, the backup software will allow you to do things like formatting, rewinding, retensioning or viewing the catalog on your tape. The tape drive may come with software that does this for your particular model; it's much easier if the backup software supports these tools also, however.
  • Security: Better software packages will let you password-protect a backup set so that the password is required to view or restore from the backup image. (Be very careful before using something like this, you don't want to lose that password!)
  • Backup Configuration Profiles: You may want to do different types of backups at different times. For example, you might have a bunch of compressed ZIP files on one drive and want them to be backed up with tape compression off (since it won't do anything anyway) while your regular files on another drive are backed up with compression. Good software will let you store different profiles for different types of backups to save you from having to change things every time.
  • General Quality Issues: You should find out about the general nature of the software. Does it work well? Is it buggy? Are people having problems with it? What is the warranty? What is the upgrade policy of the manufacturer? USEnet can often be of assistance here.

Next: Software Conflicts


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