Selecting Which Files to Backup

With the enormous hard drives that are available today, backing up the entire hard disk drive is usually not a practical option. While there are a few situation where a full backup of the hard drive makes sense, in most cases it is counter productive. If you are backing up an entire 500+ GB hard drive, then you are probably not doing it very often and you are probably not keeping any historical archives of your data. It just gets to be too time-consuming and expensive to maintain multiple copies of huge data stores.

Of the segment of the population who do actually backup their data on a regular basis, most of them are using some type of incremental backup strategy. Incremental backups only copy the data that has changed since the last backup. Since software program installations are now using exponentially more disk space than they did a few years ago, many of us are now using a more selective strategy for backing up our data.

Since online backup services are quickly replacing tapes, cd's, and other local backup options as the best and most effective way to backup home and small business computer data, it has become even more important than ever to use a more selective strategy when determining what data needs to be backed up. Besides the obvious advantages of online backup services in the area of automation and costs savings over traditional backup methods, they also store your data securely off-site, which has been a major flaw in most small business and home user backup methods in the past. Online backup solutions are best used to selectively backup data.

Fortunately, most modern operating systems, such as Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Mac OS, store user data files in a disk location separate from the program files and operating system files by default. This makes it much easier for administrators and users to locate there personal and important data that needs to be backed up. But please note; the operating systems only store data in the /Users or /My Documents folders by default, you may have data in other locations. In many cases the default location for a software program is determined by the settings in that program itself, not the operating system. It is very possible that your applications are configured to store data in non-standard locations. It is also possible, although somewhat unusual, that a software program may store data under the program files folders by default, however, this is not typical for recent versions of software. Another possibility that you have to account for is the fact that you, as a user, can often change the default location where documents will be stored. For example, most programs have a "Save As" function that allows documents to be saved anywhere on the disk.

If you are opting to backup your data files only, which is often the most practical choice, then the burden is on you to make sure that you are backing up the important folders, and to make sure you store new documents in a location that is being backed up. This is not all that difficult to manage. The steps below will help you identify where your data files are being stored:

  1. Make a list of the applications that you use. Then open each application and determine where your data files are being stored. You can either open some of your existing documents in the application, noting the location where they are opened from, or you can save a new document and make note of where the application is saving your new document by default. I recommend you do both.

  2. Use your operating systems search functionality to search for known document types like; .doc, .xls, .psd, .ai, .jpg, .mp3, .pst. Browse through the search results for each file type and determine which files are yours and then look at the folder they are stored in.

  3. Use your backup software to specify the locations found in the steps above are to be backed up.

If you find the steps above to be intimidating, then you may want to enlist the help of a friend or relative who is more computer literate. Chances are that if you are a casual computer user, and your software is reasonably modern, then your data files are all stored in the default locations. It would still be a good idea to verify that your important files are being backed up.


robo said...

Thank you for posting this. I discovered that most of my turbotax files were not being backed up. It would have been a tradgedy to lose them. Keep up the great work!

Laureen said...

can you give a list of the file types to look for?

jazar said...

This may help: