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Transport through the fourth dimension
A nice advantage of using Windows' built-in backup tools is integration with a little known but very useful Vista feature known as Shadow Copy. Much like Apple's vaunted Time Machine, Shadow Copy retains multiple versions of files as you work on them and will allow you to go back and restore previous versions at will. Strangely, this feature isn't available in Home versions of Windows Vista, which makes Microsoft's product segmentation chafe me even more. Shadow Copy works by saving incremental changes to files on any volume that has System Protection enabled. By default, that means the main system drive but not other drives, so I had to go and enable it on my RAID 1 array. Shadow Copy works by saving incremental changes to files, so it doesn't occupy a tremendous amount of space. I believe Microsoft estimates about 15% of a drive will be occupied by Shadow Copy data—well worth it, in my view.

Shadow Copies are accessible by going to the "Previous Versions" tab in a file or directory's properties. And, as you can see in the screenshot above, previous versions of the file that were captured in a backup job are also available to be restored or copied via this dialog box. Very slick—and eminently useful.

Last lines of defense
The combination of Shadow Copies, a system drive image, a local RAID mirror, scheduled backups from our other PCs to that mirror, and weekly backups of that RAID 1 array to an external hard drive adds up to pretty decent protection against user screw-ups, malware data holocausts, and hardware failures. What it doesn't do is protect against larger problems, such as fires, floods, and theft. If you take a backup route similar to mine, you will want to be very careful where you store that offline backup drive—a fireproof safe might be a good place. One might also wish to add additional external drives to the backup rotation, so that one of them can be stored off-site, either at a trusted friend or relative's house or in a safety deposit box.

My last line of defense against catastrophic loss of my most critical data, though, was to take advantage of a free offer from an online backup service called iDrive. This firm offers 2GB of online storage via its iDrive Basic backup client absolutely free.

The software is simple to set up and use, and one can choose exactly which files to include in the backup job. I chose only my most critical files from programs like Quicken, key business documents, registration keys for software I've purchased online, and the contents of my Documents directory. This most precious information would be the worst to lose, and since iDrive doesn't mind, I decided to back up those files every night. This last little piece of the puzzle has given me the most peace of mind, I must admit, because it's a different class of protection than any local backup alone can offer.

Of course, 2GB won't begin to contain the growing collection of family pictures a we've produced with eight-megapixel cameras, not to mention the baby videos coming out of our new HD camcorder. This is where optical storage comes into play for me. I plan to burn the family picture and video collections to DVD periodically and give them to my parents to keep. One can pay more for additional storage capacity at iDrive or other online backup services, but my since my total data set is just under half a terabyte and I have a pretty slow upstream on my cable Internet service, that doesn't seem entirely practical for such needs. iDrive has so far been excellent for me, though, so I may change my view on this front in time.

The bottom line is that a fairly well integrated, rational backup strategy was really pretty easy to devise, once I devoted a little time and attention to it. The software tools I used cost me nothing more than I'd already paid for Vista, yet I have achieved everything I'd hoped—and more, thanks to some nice tricks like Shadow Copy integration. If you haven't taken the time to think through your own backup strategy, I'd encourage you to go ahead and give it a crack. You'll find that it's more rewarding than procrastination and, if you have a bit of computer geek in you, maybe even more fun.

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