Preparing for and dealing with technology when the worst happens

The topic of this post was inspired by the passing of a close family friend. Nobody likes to have difficult conversations about what to do when the worst happens, but the reality is that not having these conversations can make a bad time even worse. So much of our life is managed by digital bits therefore when someone else has to manage it, they need to know where to find everything and how to access it.

It doesn’t just have to be a a death that requires someone else to handle your affairs. A short term illness where you are incapacitated may necessitate a power of attorney to pay your bills and manage other elements of your life. Having the difficult yet important conversations beforehand are necessary so that your family can continue without the extra hardship of piecing together your financial affairs.

Our friend suffered through numerous illnesses over many years. As his condition worsened, he spoke with his daughter and went through everything – bank accounts, insurance policies, investments, etc. By showing her where the paper work was located and how to access the files on his computer, she could deal with the estate after his death. It’s hard enough emotionally to handle the loss of a close family member. We can’t control what happens through illness and death, but we can control how easy or difficult we make it for our family members who have to continue on.

Backing up the computer – make it Virtual

I was approached by the family to ask how they could effectively back up our friend’s laptop after he died. It was several years old and there was concern that if something happened, they would lose some very critical data. I have written about the need to use multiple methods of backup for protecting your important data. This called for a different approach. I wanted to not only back up all of Joel’s files but also allow them to continue using the computer and all the software installed in case of a complete computer failure. This called for making a copy of the computer in such a way that it could be run virtually on another computer.

running Windows 7 ‘virtually’ in another computer

There are numerous methods for what is known as virtualizing a computer. What this means is that the files that make up the entire computer are stored on another computer. You start it up and can actually run the computer in a Windows on a second computer. There are numerous methods and programs that can virtualize a computer. The one I used is simple and can be free if you have a Windows 10 Professional (not home).

First, download disk2vhd from https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/sysinternals/downloads/disk2vhd. This program is run on the computer to be virtualized. Make sure that you have an external hard drive to store the backed up data. Run disk2vhd.exe and select the volumes to include – generally you want to include all built in disks. Choose a save location (VHD File name) that is on the external disk you plugged in.

Disk2vhd is very straightforward to run

It will likely take a few hours to create the virtual disk. This will be a large file.

Once completed, copy the disk files to another computer. I suggest you also keep a backup copy somewhere safe as this can also be used to retrieve files and if something goes wrong with the virtual or original physical computer, you still have this copy. Enable Hyper-V on Windows 10 (see https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/virtualization/hyper-v-on-windows/quick-start/enable-hyper-v)

Once Hyper-V is installed, run Hyper-V Manager and create a new virtual computer. Point to the .vhdx file that you copied from the hard drive as the source disk. Now you can boot up the virtualized computer. The first time it starts it will likely detect a whole bunch of new hardware. This makes sense since from the computer’s perspective, it has lost all its hardware and now has new ‘virtual’ hardware. Once this process completes, the computer will run very similarly to how it did before.

The End Result

Now there is a copy of the old computer. Our friend can work on her father’s estate and know that there is less risk to the data since there are multiple copies and now even multiple computers with the same data. Every situation is different but the key element to handling digital data in case of serious illness or death is preparation and ensuring that you use the right tools to make the important data accessible.

Let’s ensure that we deal with the things that we have control over.

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The things you forget to back up – web browser bookmarks

So you’re backing up your documents folder and all your music. You’ve got family videos backed up. Most computers are now set up so that all of your personal files are set up in specific ‘data’ folders so that it’s easy to add them to a back up program. Does that mean you’re all done? Not so fast.

Many programs have their own settings that may or may not be something you want to save. A word processor may have a setting to save files to a specific folder. If your computer crashes and you have to reinstall, you can easily set this up.

But what about other things that aren’t so easy to set again? I’ve been using the web for over 25 years. In that time, web browsers have changed and I’ve built up a list of bookmarks, also known as favourites. Web browers like Chrome and Firefox let you store these bookmarks in the cloud so that you can always recover them. While this is true, I recently discovered that it doesn’t always work so well.

I logged in one day and found that many of my bookmarks were gone. I checked another computer that I use and they were gone from there too. I did some searching online and found out where Chrome stores its bookmark file:

The above is an example from Windows 10.

The files that are specific to bookmarks in this folder are the following:

Great, so now I knew what file stored the bookmarks but the bookmarks were gone. I then remembered I had another computer that I hadn’t turned on for a few days. Maybe the files were there?

I turned on the computer without being connected to the Internet. I made a copy of the file and then connected online. Sure enough, as soon as it connected, the bookmarks were lost on this computer too. But then I copied back the file that I had saved. I opened Chrome and there were all my bookmarks! After a few minutes, the lost bookmarks synced to all of my computers.

The lesson here is to back up these lesser known tiny files. They may be  tiny in size but big in impact to how you work.

I added these bookmark files to my backup software, called Zoolz. Shown below is how I selected these files.

Note that I don’t need to back up the entire folder structure where Chrome stores information about the program. By backing up this file when it changes, I ensure that I can recover from a future data loss.

What software do you rely on? Do you know how to back up the settings in that software?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

How I backup and store multiple copies of my pictures and videos

In a previous post, I talked about a folder structure for storing pictures and videos. Now let’s look at the methods I use to do the following:

  • create additional copies of pictures and videos at home
  • backup pictures and videos online

The primary copy of my pictures and videos is located on an external hard drive that is generally connected to my laptop computer. This makes it easy to bring it anywhere but if something were to happen to the hard drive, such as losing it or having it fail, I would lose everything. That is why I have multiple copies.

Copy to another hard drive at home

A few years ago, I set up a device similar to this one. It is a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device. This is a device containing a few hard drives that does not require a computer. It provides hard drive storage space on your existing network.

During the writing of this article, I reviewed the settings on my NAS. When I logged in to check it, I discovered that one of the hard drives in the NAS had failed. This NAS device was configured with 2 hard drives, each 2 TB in size. The NAS is set up as RAID 1, which means that the hard drives are set up to be clones of each other. This is transparent to the user – when you copy files, it keeps the drives in sync. It was just a matter of purchasing a new hard drive, telling the NAS device to detect it, and then it automatically copied all of the data from the good drive to the new one. Having a system like this gives you extra protection from failure. With hard drives, it isn’t a matter of if the drive will fail – it’s when it will fail.

Below is the display on my NAS device showing the failed drive.

It is important to note that I should have known about this failure. This NAS device is set up so it can send emails to notify about problems like this. My email password had changed and I did not update the NAS device. Keeping on top of dependencies like this is important!

Keeping the NAS device in sync

I use a program called FreeFileSync to sync up my pictures and videos from the external hard drive connected to my computer to the NAS device on my home network. This can be either run on demand or scheduled to run every so often. What I like about a sync program is that it only copies what has changed, not the thousands and thousands of pictures that I have. The combination of my external hard drive and backup to the NAS drive means that I don’t have to worry if while I’m out that something happens to my photos and videos.

a screenshot of FreeFileSync

Online Backup

But what if the NAS drive fails? That’s why we need to backup away from the primary location, which in my case is my home. There are many different online backup services and I’ll have more to say about how to choose and what to choose in a future posting.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

World Backup Day 2018

If you went on Google this past weekend and searched for “world backup day”, you would find lots of talk about backup. Who started this? To be honest, I’m not really sure, but it doesn’t matter – it’s a really good reminder to make sure that you are backing up your data.

According to www.worldbackupday.com, many people aren’t backing up properly:

If you aren’t backing up at all, there are 2 things you can do to get started:

  1. Choose an online backup provider and start backing up
  2. Buy an external hard drive and start backing up

Ideally, you would do both of the above.

Cost of Hard Drive Storage Over Time

 

The cost of hard drives per gigabyte has dropped dramatically over time. I recently had to purchase a new hard drive for home backups and I was able to purchase a 4 TB hard drive for $160. You can get these even cheaper but I needed these for type of systems known as Network Attached Storage (NAS). More about that in a future post.

At this price, it cost 4 cents per gigabyte of storage. Let’s compare this over time. I found this chart at www.mkomo.com/cost-per-gigabyte-update

This shows how the cost per gigabyte has gone from over 1 million dollars in 1980 to 4 cents now in 2018. It wasn’t even possible to buy a hard drive at 4 TB in 1980, but if you could, it would have cost 4 billion dollars!

The point I’m making is that it has never been so cost effective to buy so much hard drive storage. If you have tons of videos, pictures, music and documents, you can buy more than one hard drive for backup plus a subscription to an online backup service.

Take the Plunge and Start Backing Up

Picture yourself in one year from now on World Backup Day 2019. You’ve been backing up all your data so you feel calm and relaxed, knowing that you’re protected from the dangers of ransomware and failed hard drives. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the options, remember this: there can never be too many forms of backup. If you change your mind after 6 months and want to do something else, that’s fine, add it to your backup routine. Backup is peace of mind so start doing it today!Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Backup vs Sync – a case for both

Everyone knows that they need backup copies of all of their important data, but when it comes time to actually set it up, that’s when most people get confused by what to do so end up doing nothing. Let’s  start by understanding two important concepts – backup and sync.

Backup

Traditional backup software takes a full copy of all data and places it in another location such as an external hard drive or a remote system over the Internet. Backup can also copy only files that have changed since a previous backup. A key feature of backup software is that the backed up files are not easily accessible the way you open a document or a picture that is located on your desktop.

A backup of your entire computer puts the contents into a form that is easily restored if the contents are lost. Backups generally allow you to restore everything or a single file if that’s all you need.

Example of backup software include online services such as Carbonite, Backblaze and IDrive. Backup software for your computer includes programs such as Acronis True Image and Paragon Backup.

Sync

Synchronization or sync files is a process where you keep an identical set of files and/or folders on 2 or more computers. You can even set up a synced folder on the same computer. Syncing can be a manual or automatic process. The act of copying a set of files between 2 computers every day is a sync. There are numerous programs that allow automatic syncing of folders between computers. Unlike backups, a synced copy of a folder is accessible and the files can easily be opened or modified.

Examples of software for sync are Resilio Sync and FreeFileSync. Online services such as Dropbox and OneDrive are also forms of sync.

When should I use backup software?

If you do nothing else, choose an online backup service and have it back up your files. If you suffer any loss of data, even your entire computer, you can get back all of your important files. The same can be done with local backup software that goes to an external hard drive, but remember that if a disaster should strike your home and all you have is an external hard drive backup, you may lose all of your data. The combination of online plus local backup is the ideal solution. The local backup gets used to restore in most cases and the online backup is if the local is broken or a disaster destroys all data in your house.

When should I use sync software?

Let me start by saying that all data protection should start with a good backup program or online service. If you use a service such as Dropbox or OneDrive then all of your files will get automatically synced online. Yes, this is a form of backup, but think about what happens if you get a virus. The online copy will also get infected. Most services like Dropbox and OneDrive will let you restore previous versions of files, but having a proper backup solution in place allows for a more certain restore in case of a virus.

Software such as Resilio or FreeFileSync allows for you to create copies of your files on another computer that you own. Resilio even lets this computer be in another physical location – more on that in a future post.

Here is an example that shows where you might use sync software. Let’s say you have a desktop and a laptop and while working at home you might switch between these computers. A synced folder of documents means that you can work on whichever computer you want and the files will be kept in sync. A service like Dropbox can perform this sync or a local program like Resilio will keep it in sync without using the cloud.

Final Thoughts

There is a lot more to say on the topic of backup and sync. In future posts, I will talk about other use cases, including a way to sync all of your home computers together and then set up one backup from a single computer.

What types of backup and sync are you currently using?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail