Sorting out the revolution in PC backups: Part 2

Fred Langa

In Part 1 of this two-part series, I gave an overview of the five major types of backup technologies available today for WindowsPCs.

This week, Part 2 shows the enormous speed differences in backup methods; it also includes some real-life scenarios to help you pick the best method for your needs.

Beyond the theories: Backups in real-life

As discussed in Part 1, today’s primary backup options include a second internal drive; optical discs (DVDs/CDs); USB-connected external drives; a standalone, network-attached drive or another PC; and cloud-based data-storage services.

Each of those backup types offers its own mix of cost, security, and ease of use. If you haven’t read Part 1 yet, I suggest taking a moment to go through it — it’ll put each backup type into context, and it might help you better understand the terminology and concepts discussed in this article.

For the five backup types listed above, the most important usability factor is speed. Depending on the size of the data set and the method used, a single back-up (or restore) session can take seconds or days. Obviously, speed is a significant component of your backup-method choice. So this Part 2 of the series includes a Windows Secrets exclusive: real-world timing tests that show how long it takes to back up file sets of different sizes — from a modest 10MB to a hefty 300GB.

Part 2 also includes a closer look at backup usability and applicability to help you make a fully informed decision about your backup options.

Factors affecting backup speeds and times

Some of the elements of backup speeds are obvious. For example, backing up to an internal drive is clearly going to be faster than backing up to a cloud service via the Internet. Other backup speed factors, such as the innate speed of your PC and its subsystems, are less obvious.

There are also some subtle aspects. For example, backup times will vary depending on whether the source and destination drives are defragged. The amount of background activity, the effects of file caching and compression, whether files are processed serially or in parallel, the proximity of a cloud-storage service’s data centers, and so forth can further impact backup speed.

Given all those factors taken together, your backup speeds won’t match mine. In fact, your own backup times will vary from day to day. Local factors always win.

While the times posted below have little absolute value, they serve as a perfectly good reference for the relative speeds offered by the different backup types — and these relative differences should hold fairly true across different PC/network/Internet configurations.

Setting up real-world backup-speed tests

To get a solid handle on relative backup speeds, I ran a series of 14 timing tests, using my daily-use systems.

For the first seven tests, I simulated a small backup. For each test, I timed how long it took to back up a single 10MB test file to the following:

  • A freshly defragged, conventional, secondary internal drive;
  • 16x DVD burner and an empty DVD disc, using the standard live file system (info) format;
  • Defragged USB 3.0 conventional external drive;
  • Defragged networked drive on a second PC, connected by 802.11g Wi-Fi;
  • Defragged networked drive on a second PC, connected by 100Mbs Ethernet;
  • Two cloud-storage services — Google Drive and Microsoft’s OneDrive/SkyDrive — accessed via a standard cable Internet connection (Comcast in Boston, Massachusetts).

I then simulated a 1GB backup made up of separate 10MB files, repeating the backup destinations and conditions I used for the 10MB tests.

Finally, as a convenience to readers, I extrapolated those initial 14 tests to post the time it might take to back up 15GB (the approximate size of a small Windows 7 or 8 setup — or a modest disk image) and 300GB (the size of a large Windows system replete with numerous documents, music files, and/or digital images).

A brief technical aside (Skip this paragraph and the next if you don’t want the details.) To reduce the possibility of human error, the timing tests were run via automated scripts, with start and stop times recorded by software. To homogenize the file sets (i.e., to minimize any bias toward a specific file type), I used a random-character generator to create a standardized 10MB data file containing 10,000 strings of 1,000 characters each.

The 10MB file’s random characters also helped minimize any data-compression bias potentially introduced by the different backup types. For the 1GB test, I used multiple copies of the base 10MB file. I gave each copy a unique name to defeat any local file caching that might skew the results.

To further ensure the real-life quality of these tests, the PCs had configurations that were typical of daily-use systems, and they were run with minimal — but normal — background activity. For example, I kept my antivirus apps (Microsoft Security Essentials and MalwareBytes Pro) active during the tests, so the files were scanned as they passed to and from my systems — just as they would in a real backup.

Quantum differences between the backup options

Table 1 shows the results of the timed 10MB and 1GB backup tests using different destinations — plus the extrapolated times for 15GB and 300GB backups.

To use the table, estimate the likely size(s) of your backup sets. (As one example, use Windows/File Explorer to see how large your Documents folder is.) Find the table’s column with a heading closest to the size of your likely backup, and then read down to see the relative backup times for file sets of that approximate size.

Backup time chart

Table 1. Real-life backup times for differently sized file sets and destinations

At a glance, it’s apparent that large, whole-system data sets will be problematic with cloud-based services. You might be able to live with their 60+ hours to complete a full backup, but two-plus days to restore a system with a few hundred gigabytes of data is probably unacceptable.

On the other hand, backup speeds to internal hard drives, external USB drives, and networked drives are close enough that relative speed is not much of an issue.

Backing up to DVDs has two problems: the time to burn the disc and the time and inconvenience of swapping media for any backup that requires multiple discs.

Weighing all the factors, calling the shot

While backup speed is important, you need to weigh other factors to choose the best backup option or options for yourself. Along with speed, there are the pros and cons discussed in Part 1. And you need to consider the types of files you regularly back up.

These options quickly become clearer once you start applying real-life scenarios.

To start, I’ll use myself as an example. Here’s how I settled on the several backup options I use.

I make my living online, so my backup needs are admittedly more extreme than most people’s. But this will show how the various backup techniques apply to different needs.

Take cloud storage, for example. Both Google Drive and Microsoft’s OneDrive/SkyDrive would take between two and three full days to back up or restore my complete 300GB Windows setup. To my mind, that’s a ridiculous amount of time. For my needs, cloud services are impractical for full-system backups.

But as noted in Part 1, cloud backups are an excellent form of offsite storage that can be further secured with third-party apps that create virtually hack-proof encryption. In other words, cloud storage offers an extremely high degree of both physical and anti-snooping security. That makes them great for long-term storage of extremely important documents and files — ones that you simply can’t afford to lose.

For instance, I store copies of sensitive files such as my tax and health records in the cloud. These are files I need to store safely for at least several years — and sometimes more or less permanently. Putting them in the cloud means that, no matter what happens to my PC or my local copies of the files, the cloud-based copies will still be available. The files are generally small, so backup and restore times aren’t an issue.

Cloud services offer their own built-in security measures, but for sensitive materials, I add one — and sometimes two — extra levels of third-party encryption. I pre-encrypt the files with tools such as Boxcryptor (free and paid; site) as a second layer of defense. (See the Dec. 12, 2013, Top Story, “Pre-encryption makes cloud-based storage safer.”)

For my most sensitive files, I’ll add a third layer of defense by encrypting the files with a tool such as 7-Zip (free; site) — before they’re encrypted again by Boxcryptor. With three separate layers of security and encryption, these cloud-stored files are essentially uncrackable by hackers or other parties.

I also use cloud storage for copies of my processed photos and videos — again, files that I access infrequently. I keep the raw, full-resolution originals on a fast, local drive, where editing is quick and easy and space isn’t an issue. (My local system also has full-strength, image-editing tools instead of the typically limited tools offered by cloud-based photo-storage services.)

Again, the finished, edited photos go into the cloud — where they’ll be preserved, no matter what happens to my local systems. I don’t use extra security on my cloud-stored photos because there’s nothing unusually sensitive about them (how dull, I know), and because I usually want others to see them. Cloud storage makes photo sharing easy; I just send or post the URL of the photos I want to share.

As for regular, whole-system backups — the ones that would take an unacceptably long time via cloud storage — I use a fast, local medium. Once a month or so, I make an image backup using an inexpensive, external, USB drive. (See the Jan. 16 Top Story, “Keep a healthy PC: A routine-maintenance guide.”) I then disconnect that drive and store it locally in a safe place. This protects the backups from anything that might compromise my primary drive — such as malware, mechanical or electrical malfunction, fire, etc.

In between full backups, I keep a second, inexpensive USB drive connected to my PC at all times, and I let Windows 8’s File History make continuous, near–real time backups. (See the July 11, 2013, Top Story, “Understanding Windows 8’s File History.”)

I also have a spare PC that I keep on hand and ready to go — a sort of data lifeboat I can call into immediate service if my main PC goes down for any reason. I keep that spare PC up to date and in sync with my main PC by copying files via my local network. For routine synching, I’ll use Wi-Fi because it’s easy and convenient. If I’m in a hurry, I’ll dig out an Ethernet cable and connect the PCs that way. I sync my files with KarenWare’s Replicator (site), but there are others — such as Microsoft’s SyncToy 2.1 (site) and SourceForge’s FreeFileSync (site).

I rarely, if ever, use optical media for backups. As Part 1 discusses, DVDs and CDs are slow, bulky, and expensive for handling large amounts of data. That said, they’re still good for creating bootable repair or rescue discs. See, for example, the April 11, 2013, Top Story, “A dozen tools for removing almost any malware.”

It’s now your turn to choose the backup option

To find the best type of backup for yourself, read Part 1 if you haven’t done so already. Familiarize (or refamiliarize) yourself with the available options.

Next, look at the timing information presented above, and apply that information to the anticipated size of your backup file sets.

Finally, think about the kinds of files you need to back up. Find the option — or like me, the options — that will give you the best mix of speed, security, and convenience for your needs.

As illustrated by my real-life, personal examples, if you have large numbers of different kinds of files, you’ll probably end up with more than one backup method — some in the cloud (with or without extra encryption), some on a secondary drive, others on a spare PC, and so on.

Be flexible: mix and match backup types as you see fit. But most important, maintain your well-honed backup habits over the coming months and years. With five major backup types to choose from, you can easily achieve that long-sought Holy Grail of backups: a virtual guarantee that you’ll never again lose important files or other data!

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Fred Langa

About Fred Langa

Fred Langa is senior editor. His LangaList Newsletter merged with Windows Secrets on Nov. 16, 2006. Prior to that, Fred was editor of Byte Magazine (1987 to 1991) and editorial director of CMP Media (1991 to 1996), overseeing Windows Magazine and others.