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Ultimate Free Data Backup Guide for Windows and Linux Users – Softwares and Tips Included

You never know when your hard drive is going to crash, with all your critical data on it. Sometimes (it happened to me), hard drives can even crash within a year of usage!


There is, however little hope of cure. A hard disc, once crashed, is usually gone for good. So what can be done about this?

Well, the best thing you can do is backup your data regularly. There are many ways to do this. If you don’t have very much data to speak of, or your data isn’t particularly critical, copying it to a CD or DVD every month or so sometimes works.
But what if the data you generate is irreplacable? Or extremely difficult to obtain? It could be either important business data from your work, or it could even be the huge digital music collection you’ve worked so hard to collect. Either way, in the case of a hardware failure, you’re in the soup. And of course, backing up huge volumes of data on DVDs every day is hardy an option.

So how do you back up your data? Here are some of the more popular ways of backing up data:

  • Optical media (CDs and DVDs).
    For small scale and trivial data.
  • Tape drives.
    For backing up huge volumes of data, usually for archival purposes.
  • Hard disc mirroring.
    On servers and other important computers, there is usually an array of discs in a RAID (Redundant Array of Independant Discs) setup. When data is written on the main drive, it is copied onto the others as well.
  • On the cloud.
    This is a relatively new idea, where backup services provide networked servers to store data, connected to the internet and hence accessible anywhere. Such services generally allow users to upload data from their computers onto the service’s server and download them again. Some even allow you to order DVD copies of selected data for archival. Such services, however, are outside the scope of this article.

As you can see, there are quite a few ways to keep your data redundant and safe. On the Linux desktop, people are generally unaware of the plethora of powerful command line tools that, in the hands of an expert, can be amazingly useful. The learning curve for these applications can be extremely steep though. Here we discuss 5 amazing backup tools and what they can do.

Tip: Partition Linux carefully, avoid data loss due to OS reinstalls

Most of the problems caused by operating system crashes can be avoided by intelligent partitioning.
There are some situations in which you could render your operating system unbootable, and would therefore have to re-install. If you happen to be short of hard disc space to temporarily house your important data, this could be a killer. So that brings us to a very important point:

  • Keep your /home directory on a different partition than root!

If you do that, you can store all your personal and important data inside your /home folder (you should be doing that anyway). How does this help?
If you reinstall your operating system, you need not format your home partition. Wiping / should be enough. Just remember to tell the OS installer that you’re using a different partition for /home (quite easily done on most installers).
Your home folder contains important config files and folders (hidden) that store the configuration of your applications. Losing them means setting up each application again. With a different partition for /home, you don’t have to lose these files for something as trivial as reinstalling your OS In fact, most of the time, you can actually install a different distribution with the same /home! (Only recommended for people who don’t mind risking a broken system  )

Anyway, on to the backup tools:

1. BackupPC

(Cross platform)

BackupPC is an enterprise grade software backup tool. That is, it can scale well, and you can use it to back up huge bundles of data on the level of an enterprise.

It backs up software on to a server’s hard drive, so it’s useful only if you have some sort of local network.
(note: a local network needn’t mean something fancy. It could just mean having a computer and a netbook and a wifi router, and backing up important docs from your netbook to your computer (server))

BackupPC runs on the server side, so there is no need to install any software on the clients. It backs up Linux clients over ssh, rsh or nfs and the new version allows any computer with rsync to be backed up. It can do backups over SMB using Samba, can run multiple parallel backups and can backup devices with intermittent connections to the network, such as laptops.

Backups are performed using pooling and differential algorithms, which means identical files will be backed up only once, and only new files are backed up each time.

BackupPC is written in PERL and is available for download on the sourceforge page.

2. Bacula

(Linux and Unix, client side supported by windows)

Bacula is a powerful backup tool for all platforms. It runs on the client side and allows the administrator to easily backup data on the computer to various media.

Bacula features the ability to back up data to a server and to build a catalog of backed up files.

Though it can easily be used on a single computer to perform simple backups to external drives, it also scales well, and can be used in scenarios as complicated as this (don’t get scared):

Bacula is essentially a console based tool, but GUIs for Bacula are available – BAT (Bacula Admin Tool) and Bweb (Bacula Web interface).

A whole range of plugins and GUIs can be found on the Bacula Wiki.

3. DAR

(Linux and Unix)
DAR (Disk ARchive) is an extremely versatile utility to backup files from the console.

DAR is not for the faint of heart, being controlled with a configuratin file and operated from a command line (though various GUIs are also available, such as kdar and DarGUI).

DAR has a whole load of features. It can handle incremental backups like most clients, and also has a feature for selective compression. It allows you to filter you backups, so you can back up only particular files.
Even while compressed, it gives you direct access to the backup copies of particular files, which is something you cannot do with plain tar archives.
DAR features something called “slices”, which means it can split up the backup copy into little pieces, which can then be written on to media like CDs, or sent by email (because most email clients have a limit to attachment sizes).
DAR can also encrypt your archives, and also uses Parchive to check the archive for data corruption.
It features great archive management, you can merge two archives, or even have archive subsets, where data can be transferred over archives without extraction.

DAR is available for free download from the DAR homepage.

4. DirSync Pro

(Cross platform)
DirSync Pro is a small and powerful utility for file and folder synchronisation. This program allows you to synchronise data between two computers, or between a computer and media mounted on it, such as CDs or USB drives.

DirSync Pro lets you synchronise folders using a one-way or a two-way sync. It does not require any installation, so you can just download-and-run.
DirSync also has advanced logging capabilities, so you can leave your backup running, come back and inspect what it’s been upto.

Screenshot of it showing the directory settings tab:
(courtesy the project homepage)5. TimeVault

(Linux only)

(Screenshot courtesy the Ubuntu wiki)
TimeVault is a simple GUI application for the GNOME desktop that makes taking directory snapshots as easy as a few clicks, and is sometimes compared with OSX’s Time Machine.

TimeVault’s main coolnes lies in it’s tight GNOME/Nautilus integration. Previous versions of files can be reclaimed in Nautilus’s file properties dialog itself, under the “previous versions” tab.
TimeVault can be used to watch directories for changes and store tham in a snapshot folder.

TimeVault can be found on the Ubuntu wiki. The FAQ is also a good place to visit.