Backup Strategies for Photoshop users

Separate data partition/drive

It's important when we work with Photoshop that we have good backup strategies. This already starts with the way we store our data. It's important to separate the operating system from the actual data.

By default the Windows operating system creates a default My Documents folder on our C: drive. We can change the location of this default folder by changing a registry setting. A good tool is Microsoft's tool called TweakUI. In this example we're going to have a look at the XP version of this utility (No link provided, because Microsoft continues to change the url of the page where you can download this tool. Please use Google to find it).

TweakUI is part of the Microsoft's PowerToysXP Tools. Look on the page for a link that allows you to download TweakUI. Install and start TweakUI. Click on My Computer / Special Folders and select in the Folder input box My Documents. Click on Change Location and set it to the location you prefer, click OK:

Tweak UI

The My Documents folder is now changed to the new location that you've entered (you might need to log off/on first for the change to take place).

There are advantages when you have your personal data in one location; it makes it easier to make backups, restore system partitions (in case of an operating system failure you can restore your system without risking to overwrite your data in the data partition) and it allows you to have your data on separate hard drives (which can be removable).


Causes of data loss

Now that we know to change the location of the My Documents folder, let's have a look why we should need backup strategies:
  • Lost data because of virus attacks
  • Accidental lost (deleting or overwriting the wrong files)
  • Theft (online theft, someone stealing your computer, drives or backup media)
  • Disasters like for example fire or flooding
  • Intentional damage, sabotage
  • We want to able to restore earlier versions of some of our files

It's important that we have our data organized. We are already getting slightly organized if we change our My Documents location. The next logical step could be to create a directory named Photoshop and to create several sub-directories in this directory.


Backup locations and media

When we make backups we have to think about where we want to store this data. There are a few possibilities and let's have a look at most of them.

Tape is fast and easy and quite often used by companies. The disadvantage is that it can be expensive (it's quite often cheaper to buy a hard drive) and it's slow when you have to restore a single file, since data can't be read randomly like on a hard drive or cdrom. If the data that you want to restore is for example at the end of the tape, then you have to wind the complete tape. For use home users there's another disadvantage; millions use CD/DVD, only few people use tape. Tape is not a medium quite commonly used among private users, so you can't just grab your tape and go to your friend or neighbor and restore your data on their computer, because most people don't own a tape drive.

A great advantage of CD / DVD is that the equipment and media are inexpensive. The limitation is that backup speeds are slow (mostly with rewritables) and the amount of data that we can store on one media is limited. Things are getting better and new techniques make it possible to store 50GB of data on a single DVD in very near future. A double sided DVD that's already available can store 9.4GB, but can only be used on DVD writers that support them.

If you have a network then it's possible to store your data on a different machine, quite often a dedicated server. A network can be quite fast. In general most people use 100 Mbit network technology (because it's cheap) and the speed that this technology offers is faster than writing data to CD / DVD but slower than a hard drive.

Second Drive
A second drive is a good option, because it's reasonable inexpensive and fast. If you decide to use a second drive then make sure that you choose one that is larger than the data that you want to back up, because it will allow you to save multiple versions of the same file, which can be very useful for us Photoshop users.

One or more drives in a Raid configuration.
The other option is to have your data stored in raid configuration. In this setup you're using 2 or more drives. The raid configuration that most home users use is called raid-1. Raid-1 makes use of two drives. Both drives are always identical (mirrored) and a special raid-1 controller (card) takes care of that. The are also software solutions, but these are less reliable.

Do understand that if you've deleted a file by accident, that the file will be gone on both drives, simply because like I said, they are identical. Write speed is the same or slightly slower on raid-1 systems than single drive systems, because the data has to be written to two drives. Read speed is in general faster, because the system has the choice from which drive to grab the data and in most cases that will be the drive that's not very busy doing other things. There are more advanced raid configurations and more can be read about it here.

Other backup media are ZIP media and floppies, but these have become outdated because of lack of storage and speed.


Backup Software

Now that we've seen where we can backup our data, let's look at the way we can store our data, which programs we might want to use.

Windows backup
Windows has a backup program of its own. You can find it here: Start/Programs/Accessories/System tools/Backup
There is not a whole lot to say about it, other then it does it job just fine. The scheduler is a bit clumsy to use and the program doesn't allow you to make copies of multiple versions of the same file.

Second Copy 2000
Second Copy 2000 is a program by Centered Systems. What makes this program interesting is the following:

  • it's easy to use; easy to use wizards guide you setting up a backup procedure
  • It's reliable. Those who use it never complain about crashes and files can be verified after they are backed up.
  • It doesn't use a lot of resources. It uses 4MB while running in the background and backups can be given a priority. When you give a backup a low priority then you hardly know when it's taking place.
  • It offers archiving. What that means is that if you have a file that was changed since the last backup, it will allow you to archive the original backup first, before backing up the new copy. This can be very useful when you use Photoshop.
  • Scheduled backups. You can set up a schedule when the backup should take place. The schedule options are very flexible, like backing up every few hours or minutes, how many times every week, which days when not to run, etc.
  • Multiple ways to backup files: move, compress, synchronize, exact copy, simple copy, etc.
  • It's inexpensive.

Vice Versa is produced by TGMRN Software.
Features that Vice Versa offers that Second Copy 2000 doesn't offer:

  • Advanced backup of open open files
  • Advanced archiving
  • Side by side view
  • Manual source and target comparison (Second Copy can only compare during the actual backup)
  • Time synchronization
  • Several other options

Real-time Backup
I want to mention two products that allow real-time backups:

Both products are reliable and inexpensive. How do they work? Both programs monitor all kind of file activity on your hard drives. Let's say you save a Photoshop file; a real-time backup program will notice this and will automatically make a copy of the file in the location of your choice. The extra advantage of these two programs is that they allow you to keep archived copies. What does that mean for us Photoshop users? Let's say that we have instructed the backup program to keep 10 archived copies. If we decide to work on an image in Photoshop, it will allow us to save the current document 10 times and this will allows us to restore 10 different versions of that same file. Without programs like these users tend to save the files they are working on with names like file_copy1.psd, file_copy2.psd, file_copy3.psd, etc which is time consuming and it can also lead to errors.


File integrity

A verify option in backup software is very useful to check the integrity of the files that were backed up. There are also programs available that will allow you to recover damaged files.

WinRar is a program like WinZip that allows us to compress files. The advantage of WinRar is that it can create recovery volumes. The number of recovery volumes determines how much data can be recovered. Let's say we have a PSD file that's 10MB. We can save that file with WinRar as a single compressed file or we can split the file in 6 pieces (volumes) of 1MB In this example I assume that WinRar compresses 10MB into 6MB). However, if one of those volumes is severely damaged and even recovery records (which is another WinRar option) don't allow us to recover the volume, then we're out of luck. However, a single recovery volume allows us to rebuild a complete volume. So if we had 1 recovery volume, then we would be able to rebuild 1 volume. If we want to be able to recover two volumes, then we need 2 recovery volumes.

Reed-Solomon is a technique that allows us to recover files. It's the same technique that's being used for CD / DVD to recover from scratches on our media.

I want to mention two products, which are both free:

These products allow us to create recovery volumes just like with WinRar, however you don't need to create volumes first. Also be aware that these tools don't compress the files. Let's go back to the 10MB PSD files. Any of the two programs mentioned earlier allow us to create a recovery file. Depending on the size of the recovery file we will be able to recover data between 0-100%. Needless to say that if you want 100% recovery that you'll end up with a recovery file that has about the same size as the file you want to protect. Both products are not limited to a single file. You can have 20 PSD files and 1 recovery file without a problem. However, if the recovery file gets damaged then you'll have no data to do your recovery, so that's why these programs allow you to create more than 1 recovery file. So let's say that you have 5 recovery files that can recover 10% of your data, then 4 recovery files will still allow you to recover 8% of your data if you have 1 damaged recovery file.

The other difference with WinRar is this; a recovery volume in WnRar allows you to recover a single volume. However, if two volumes are damaged for only 10% then it's impossible to do any recovery, simply because we can't recover two volumes with only one recovery file.

Reed-Solomon works different. If you have decided to recover your files with a max recovery of 10%, then it means that you can recover 10% data, no matter whether the damage is spread over several files. So in case you have 10 files, of which one has 1%, the other 5% and the third on 2%, then Reed-Solomon will be able to recover all files, since 1+5+2=8%, which is lower than the 10% we had put aside for recovery. In theory there's a lot more to it, but it gives you an idea how reed-solomon based programs like ICE ECC or QuickPar work.

Personally I prefer QuickPar; it's more reliable than ICE ECC and easier to use. ICE ECC however has one big advantage; it can also be used with subdirectories.

Another product I want to mention (which is also free):

I had no chance to test it yet, but it looks very promising. The difference with the other two products is that this product is especially developed for archival storage on CD and DVD. The principle is simple; it will create a recovery file for an existing CD / DVD that you can store on your hard drive, a different CD, DVD, floppy, ZIP disc, etc.

Don't underestimate the importance of descent storage of your media. Be careful with advertisements that tell you that a certain CD or DVD will store your data for 100 years or more. Even when the media is of a high quality, it's still important how you store your media:

  • avoid high temperatures
  • avoid huge temperature swings
  • avoid high humidity
  • store media in a dark environment
  • store CD/DVD media vertically in proper cases
  • store media in a dust free environment
  • if you label media, make sure you proper labels or pens. Personally I avoid labeling media, I write everything down on the card that's inside the case.

Only if you take good care of your media, your media might last (I say might, because the predictions are all based on laboratory results) 100 years or more. Don't ignore the storage recommendations. Ignoring them could mean that you lose the data on your media already after 1 or 2 years, because there have been known cases that this actually happened.

Also make sure that you choose the proper media. Tajio Yuden and Verbatim are two brands that offer excellent media according to several tests. Also be aware that the quality of your writer can make a difference and that some media deliver better quality on different writers.

CD / DVD Writables are good for short term data storage, but don't use them if you want to store your data for archiving purposes, since their quality is not as good as CD and DVD roms.

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