If you don't have one already, acquire a drive to use as a backup and set it up properly. It will need to be larger then your current drive, we reccomend 2x the size (this is the norm). If you don't wan't to do this then stop here and give a professional a call, either here or elsewhere. Of all the most important things you can do for your computer, a solid backup and tested recovery strategy is *all of them*. Also, if your here looking for backup tips, read the words here, make sure you at least once or twice test your recovery strategy so when you have to, you can do it confidently and not in a panicked, sweaty and stressed out state, if its for a customer's server then a test recovery to another machine should be scheduled within 7-30 days of implementing a backup, depending on the imoprtance of workstations, recovery tests should be made on normal visits at least once after the recovery software is installed and setup, we'll add some docs for that later in the future. Also, I cannot stress the importance of backing up relevant software and keys, just do it, life is so much easier if you do, especially if you want a "fresh start".
Which is better, an system image, incremental, of file backup? Whats better for which scenario?
This depends on how much work you are willing to make for yourself. In the shop, 1TRM is in favor of whats called an Image snapshot, Basically, we get it, if we can, we "clone" or image the drive (this essentially means take a picture of all of the data, paste the picture on some place to store it, storing your backup on the drive its backing up is usually not allowed because it is not a backup if its on the same drive), then we fix the instance live on your system, if issues come up, or if we find we made a change that causes your computer to stop booting, we just wasted a bit of time and we can easily start over with a few clicks and some patience. Outside of a repair shop, snapshot images of computers are not very useful, something like incremental system backups are more ideal, the difference is that a single snapshot takes up a lot of the space and only saves the state at a certain time, incremental and differntial backups can often be recoverd to on hour ago, one week ago, one month ago, and 2 months ago, while only taking up slighty more space on the backup drive then a single snapshot (This is certainly dependant on how you use it, but its pretty much always better to do incremental or differential in home or office environments). There is a basic introduction to file backups a little further down.
I heard the terms Incremental, differential, and snapshots, please explain more, how are they relevant here?
They are quite relevant, because at home and work, you should certainly have an either incremental or differntial backup, and software that can make it happen without causing stability problems, live cloneing sofware uses something called "Volume Shadow Service" Which is a great breakthrough, but at the same time will certainly cause issues when improperly implemented. Snapshots are pretty much useless in home and office scenarios, because they are somewhat more inconvenient to make and are only useful for a recovering to single point in time, they are perfect for repair shops, but impractical in almost any other envirnment.
What if I only want to back up my documents, videos, and music? Well, THATS a file backup.
If you are going that route, insure you are also backing up your software installers and software keys (like MS Windows CD's, and Office or Photoshop keys and installers, you can no longer download many older versions of Office or Windows which can certainly still be used, though 1TRM always reccomends modern software, it usually has security benefits) There are excellent tools built in to all modern operating systems for doing this, though it is not relevant to this article, feel free to shoot us an email and we will be happy to expedite some documentation on how to get them started. The file backup is great if you have another similar computer handy and need to keep the user working, often at the expense of extra licensing and hardware costs. In other words, I don't usually do file backups as incremental backups back those up too, but an incremental drive imaging solution enables me to restore either files, or an entire computer, a file backup is just a file backup.
Ok, enough fluff, how do I do it, what should I use?
There are great commercial and free tools, here is a VERY quick overview of what we use and reccomend. Please do take note, if your making your first backup after some sort of failure or inturruption, then your mileage will vary. This document is in early stages (see the tpyos and spleling eroorrs?), in the future we'll include links for installation and usage of the below tools. This list is based on our knowledge and what we have found to work on a variety of systems. Generally, you should try all (or some) of these out, and make sure it can solve your specific problem, also make sure you are comfortable with it before you need to be. I try to avoid being biased at all times, but the only software I reccomend for mission critical servers is either Time Machine (Apple) or Acronis (Windows) due to extensive experience with them, others may work just fine (possibly better even), but if its critical, do you really want to tell your client, coworkders, or employees that you cannot get them up and running because your cheap? Poor backup strategies put companies out of business overnight. If you read this and decided to go with Acronis, please remember to write me a letter or buy me a beer (paypal link) if you get to look like a hero, or if you get to go to work tomorrow because there is still work to do thanks to your having read this.
Apple's OSX 10.6 and newer
(Free) Apple Time Machine Simply the best, easiest way to back up all of your Mac (since 10.6), if you have a drive failure, you will also need installation media for your OS (and of course to have already initiated your Time machine and succesfully backed up your system, ideally quite recently), you can install newer or the same, never older unless you enjoy headaches, if you are on 10.5 or older, then its time to get a new Mac and say goodbye, it is just *too* old.
(Commercial) Carbon Copy Cloner If the system doesnt boot, this is a great tool that can copy the data from an old drive to a new drive, and with a little TLC, the new drive can be made to boot, but you will be better off cloning and then fresh installing over the new drive (OSX installers try to retain your applications and documents, and generally do a great job) After a clone, or a fresh install of any version of OSX, you should boot to the utility partition and do a permissions and disk repair, and once again after installing lots of apps, and also once ever 6 months or so.
Windows 7 and Newer
(Free) Aomei Backupper This tool looks very promising, its free, and has professional version available with a few more features. You'll need to use it on a system that actually boots, so if you arent booting, its too late for Aomei.
(Commercial) Acronis Backup We have used and certainly reccomend Acronis backup, it has been around for a long time, has TONS of great documentation and tips online, and includes a great user manual. You'll need to have been making backups before the systems stops booting with this one too, though. As an added bonus, you can pay more for their "universal Restore" feature (not a bad idea) and restore your computer to dissimalar hardware, if you had any idea how awesome that was you would certainly be like "oh super neato!".
(Commercial) Norton or Symantec "Ghost" Ghost is pretty old school (it is/was a bootable CD, my version is REALLY old, still works great though), and was very popular in the past because it was a very reliable way of backing up computers, it may have been one of the first popular backup softwares for network admins, I see it near legacy stuff every now and then. The feature I like the most about it is its ability to clone a windows installation to a bigger or smaller drive, even the older versions still do a superd job at what they do, as a bonus, I think its probably the easiest way to upgrade a functioning windows computers hard drive. Maybe not as relevant to modern IT staff, but still certainly an awesome tool worth keeping around.
(Free) PING "Ping is not Ghost" Haven't had a chance to test this beyond playing around with it, but it has made some headway as a good open source competitor to Ghost and other boot CD's designed for backing up a system that is not "live".
(free) Clonezilla I have tried to use this, with no success. Tons of people really like it, but I could never get the advanced features going in a reasonable amount of time, the learning curve is either too steep or I am totally doing it wrong, if any readers have had luck with it we'd love to hear from you, it seems to have promise.