Ever since I opened my office, backing up the hard drive of my server has been a daily routine. In setting up that routine, I observed two basic tenets: 1) Do a complete backup of the drive once per week and data backups the other four days; and 2) keep an off-site backup copy to protect against fire and theft. Since then, the way I have carried out these tenets has become faster and simpler.

The conventional wisdom at the time was that tape drives were the way to go because they offered backup capacity in the gigabytes way before any other conventional removable media, and had a standardized format. If you had even a small firm with a few lawyers, the accumulated data needing preservation took up a relatively huge amount of space. However, being a solo, I knew that I did not have that much data to preserve, so other options became available.

Initially, I used my CD burner and five rewritable CD-ROM disks, one for each day of the week. I did this because I found that the tapes or other removable media like Zip or Jazz by Iomega, were more expensive than the CD-RW disks, and I could use a piece of hardware I already had, rather than buying and installing a proprietary drive.

My method for backup was also simple, but time consuming. I would drag and drop directories and files from the hard drive to the disk, then take home the backup from the previous day. Because this method did not involve compression, and backed up files that had remained unchanged from the previous day, this was a long process, often lasting 30 to 45 minutes.

A combination of literature I had read about how the CD-RW was a risky medium for constant rewrites, along with the time it took to burn the disks, led me to seek another method. I had my laptop connected to my network through a wireless access point using the IEEE 802.11b standard. By backing up to the hard drive of the laptop I accomplished two things at once: 1) I got away from the CD-RW medium to a hard drive; and 2) I created an offsite backup at the same time, as I took my laptop home every day. However, the drag and drop method was too long, so I began using the Windows backup utility, which allowed for compression on the fly, and thus a faster backup. However, the transfer speed of the network, along with the fact that all of the files, changed or otherwise, were still being copied, still led to a lengthy backup process at the end of the day when I just wanted to go home.

It was at this point, after months of doing it this way, and after having read an article in a computer magazine on backup procedures, that I learned about differential and incremental backups. In brief, a differential backup backs up all files that have changed since the last full backup, while an incremental backup backs up all files changed since the last incremental backup. The latter method makes for faster backups, but requires a restore of the full backup and every incremental backup done since, leading to the maintenance of several backup files on your media; the former requires just restoring the full backup and the most recent differential backup. Since I did not have that much data that changed in the course of the week, I traded backup time for fewer files to maintain.

During this period I was noticing that flash or “thumb” drives were getting bigger and bigger in storage. Initially, when the 32Mb and 64Mb drives were on the market, I didn’t see them as the alternative to my laptop’s hard drive because, although I didn’t have a lot of data to back up, it was still a few hundred megabytes. One option was an external USB drive, which had the storage capacity needed, but unfortunately not the portability. Finally, drives with 256Mb of storage came out for a reasonable price, and the USB 2.0 file transfer rate made for a faster, portable backup. I now use a 1Gb drive from Memorex and spend less than three or four minutes running my daily backup, which then fits in my pocket and goes home with me. Once home, I copy the backup files to my desktop at home in case the flash drive is ever lost or stolen, thus maintaining two backup copies.

Security is also no longer a problem for these backups. Companies like Verbatim make a flash drive that comes with software to create an encrypted partition on the drive for sensitive data. All in all, it addresses all of my concerns about backups: it gives me speed (making daily backups a less onerous task) and portability for off site backups. With flash drives now on the market with 4 Gb in capacity, solos and small firms should definitely consider this as a backup option.