Let’s face it: If you have to remember to back up your data, you won’t. Any backup solution that does not eliminate the human factor is bound to fail. So put away your external hard drives and thumb drives that you bought so that you could back up your data regularly, and read on to learn about some solutions that will take the chore of backing up from you — and, in the process, make sure that your data is regularly secured.

Windows Home Server

Windows Home Server (WHS) has been out for several years now, but few people have even heard of it. That’s a shame because it provides the kind of hands-off, automated backup that most Windows users need.

WHS is an operating system, not a device. It’s based on Microsoft’s rock-solid Windows 2003 Server operating system, which is still in production on millions of servers — computers that run web sites, transport e-mail, and perform dozens of file streaming functions — around the world. WHS, though, takes the geeky foundation of Server 2003 and adds functionality aimed squarely at home users — most significantly, automated backup of all household computers. The only requirements to use WHS are an in-home network — which many already have through their wireless broadband or DSL router — and a healthy fear of losing data.

The easiest way to acquire WHS is by purchasing a product with the operating system pre-installed, such as HP’s MediaSmart Server. These devices, which are essentially small computers designed to be run and operated without a keyboard or monitor attached, are relatively inexpensive, starting at about half the cost of a full-fledged desktop machine. Four hundred dollars, for example, gets you a MediaSmart Server with plenty of horsepower and a 1 terabyte drive to start out. Or, if you have an old computer around, you can opt to build your own Windows Home Server by buying a copy of the operating system itself for less than 100 dollars.

Once set up, WHS asks you to install a small client application on every computer in your house. That little application allows WHS to communicate with your machines. From that point on, you’re largely out of the picture. Each night — typically very late, when you’re sleeping — WHS backs up every computer in your house, even replicating data, if you choose, so that it is still salvageable if a drive in the WHS or MediaSmart Server fails.

WHS does more than backup. It also provides secure, web-based, remote control access to all of the machines in your home, and you can set it up to stream audio and video to connected computers and other media devices. But it is Windows Home Server’s core function of automated backups that should put it high on the list of any Windows user currently relying on a human-centric backup procedure.

Online backup

Take the concept of Windows Home Server — a hands-off backup device that communicates with your computer via a small client application that runs in the background — and apply it to the internet. What do you have? Automated online backup.

Backing up your data online addresses a significant concern of any household-based backup solution. If something were to happen to the physical box on which your backups reside — theft, for example, or loss due to fire or some other disaster — your data would be lost.

With your data backed up over the internet, you’ve eliminated that concern.

The trouble with online backup is that it’s slow. Even if you have a speedy broadband internet connection, the rate at which an online backup service uploads your files for safekeeping, or downloads them for restoring files, may be capped. And other factors may hamper backup speed as well. For example, most services will throttle or stop backups if you’re actively using your computer.

Still, keeping a copy of your important files off-site — which is what happens when you use an online backup service — is a cornerstone of responsible data maintenance. But because of the speed issues and because some backup services will not provide you with unlimited storage space, you’ll probably want to restrict the data that you back up in this manner to only your most critically important files.

So which online backup services are worth investigating? Backblaze, Mozy, Carbonite, SugarSync, CrashPlan, iDrive, Dropbox, ZumoDrive are all well regarded. All of these services support Windows. Many also support Mac computers. CrashPlan is available for all platforms, including Linux.

Most of these services offer a free version that limits the amount of data you back up to 2 GB. Paid versions of many either eliminate the storage limitation entirely or provide some hefty amount of storage space — from 150 to 500 GB — that should satisfy the backup needs of most. Backblaze, Mozy, Carbonite, and CrashPlan are the services that offer paid versions with unlimited storage.

CrashPlan and Carbonite, in particular, offer some unique services that are important to frequent users of online backup. CrashPlan offers the ability to simultaneously back up data to another local computer, which makes restoration of data much faster than with the other online services. Carbonite integrates seamlessly with Windows Explorer. For Windows users, having the ability to initiate a backup simply by right-clicking a folder can be very convenient. Mozy should be singled out for its user-friendly software.

The cost of the paid versions of these services varies, and many offer either monthly or annual payment plans. Expect to pay anywhere from 4.5 dollars per month to 15 dollars per month. Annual plans typically work out to a bit less per month. If your business or personal life depends in part on the safety of your data, however, that’s a small price to pay for peace of mind.

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