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Posted on Oct 24, 2010 in Backup, Introduction to Backup | 0 comments

Choosing backup media is easy when you know how, thanks to this handy guide

Quick links for backup media:-

DVD/CD Recordable
Portable hard drives/USB flash drives
Tape drives/cartridges
Network backup
On-line/Cloud

Part 1 – Backup Overview
Part 3 – Backup Software
Disk backup software review/bench tests

In this article, we are going to consider which backup media to use, that is, where you store your backup data. In our previous article we discussed why backups were important and which data you should consider backing up. Backing up data can consume a lot of storage space so it is important to consider carefully how best to store it. There are dozens of options, so we will concentrate on the five that are of most use to home users and take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of each option. Whichever backup media you choose you will also need to use some backup software, which we will be covering in the next article.

Let’s take a look at our short-list of backup media now. Remember, you are not restricted to one choice, you could use any combination of the media below depending on your requirements.

DVD/CD Recordable

Stack of recordable CD's


Recordable CDs and DVDs have become extremely affordable in recent years. (Picture courtesy of Wikimedia)

There are now affordable DVD recordable disks on the market that can store up to 8.55 gigabytes of data, making them an attractive option for smaller backup needs. Software which backs-up to DVD or CD disks is readily available and DVD writing hardware is extremely affordable. However, as the prices of external hard drives have tumbled, the popularity of optical media such as CD and DVD has waned and many new PCs don’t even ship with an optical drive any more.

Advantages:- Very affordable, easy to store and transport disks.

Disadvantages:- Limited capacity may require several manual disk swaps, may be slow to record and verify. Newer PCs are not always equipped with DVD drives.

Portable hard drives/USB flash drives

External hard drive enclosure


Portable hard drives are readily available on the high street and the web and make excellent backup media (Picture courtesy of Wikimedia)

Portable hard drives are getting cheaper and cheaper, making them an attractive option to use as backup media. Readily available in very high capacities they are an ideal backup solution for the home or small office. For smaller backup needs, many users carry a USB flash drive or pen drive. These are easier to carry around but have more limited storage capacities.

More expensive portable hard drive enclosures include not one but two or more physical hard drives. The second drive can be configured to automatically copy the contents of the first drive, meaning that your data is safe even if one of the drives fail. This technology is called RAID and is very useful for protecting highly important data. However, since any data stored or deleted on a RAID array will be immediately changed on all disks in the array, it should not be considered a backup strategy on its own.

Advantages:- Fast recording times, very large capacities available.

Disadvantages:- Can be more expensive than DVD backups, especially for smaller backups, cannot make multiple backups for off-site storage without investing in extra drives.

Tape drives/cartridges

Magnetic tape drive


Tape cartridges make excellent enterprise level backup media but their prohibitive costs usually put home users off. (Picture courtesy of Wikimedia)

Many home users have not used magnetic tape drives to store programs and data since the early days of home computing, but big businesses all over the world rely on them for enterprise level backup. Tape drives such as the ones commonly used by businesses have not caught on so much with home users because of their prohibitive costs.

Advantages:- Virtually unlimited backup capacities available, easy to store and transport media, tape backups are usually fully automatic requiring no user intervention aside from changing tape cartridges.

Disadvantages:- Hardware and media is expensive for home users, many home computers will require extra hardware and software upgrades before they can use tape drives.

Network backup to another PC or network enabled storage

Category 5 network cable


Building a small network is now inexpensive and easy, making network backup a viable option for many users. (Picture courtesy of Wikimedia)

Businesses have used the network backup model for many years, often in conjunction with tape backups. Now many home users are connecting two or more PC’s to their broadband connection. In doing this they are also creating their own private network in their homes, which allows for easy sharing of computer resources such as printers, scanners and storage space. On a small network like this, backing up data from one machine to the other is usually as easy as copy and paste.

Because network backup is so convenient, many vendors have started producing network-attached storage (NAS) devices. These devices are like mini-computers that plug into your network and provide additional storage space. Some NAS devices can also stream music and video to other devices in your home, such as games consoles or multimedia players. Some can even connect to a printer and allow it to be used by any computer on the same network. Many NAS devices also support RAID technology which can automatically back up one hard drive to another in real time.

Advantages:- Storage capacity is only limited by hard drive space on the networked PC or NAS and can be expanded almost without limits. Backups can be fully automated, fast recording times (especially on wired networks).

Disadvantages:- Requires investment in a second PC or NAS device which must be turned on at the same time as the first PC. Performance on the second PC may be degraded while backups take place, it is not usually convenient to securely store or transport a second PC or NAS.

On-line/Cloud

Dater center


As internet access gets faster and cheaper, more and more big corporations will allow us to store our data on their servers, for a fee of course. (Picture courtesy of Wikimedia)

On-line backups are a relatively new idea. Now that many of us have very fast internet connections, some companies (such as Amazon) are offering to store our data in their data-centres. Using specially designed software users can automatically encrypt and upload copies of their data for safe keeping.

James Duncan Davidson wrote an interesting blog article on the economics of on-line backup for large amounts of data. You can read this blog entry by clicking here. Prices have fallen since then, but cloud backup can still be costly, especially if you have a large amount of data to store.

Advantages:- Virtually unlimited backup capacities available, backup process can be fully automated, backup is stored off-site, meaning your data is safe even in the event of theft or fire.

Disadvantages:- No way to access your data if your internet connection fails (until connectivity is restored), can be expensive especially where large amounts of data are stored and transferred. Creating and restoring backups is very slow compared to other backup media, even with a very fast internet connection.

For the vast majority of home users, we would recommend backing up to a portable hard drive. Small businesses may wish to investigate NAS devices and on-line backups. If you have a very large volume of data to back up, for example if your work involves freelance video or photography, you may want to consider tape drives as backup media.

That is all for our guide to backup media. In our next article, we explore some of the best backup software solutions available for your Windows PC.

<< Go back from Backup Media to Backup Overview
Go to Windows Backup Guide Part 3 – Backup Software >>

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