By Joe Stoddard. Most "best-practices" backup procedures in use today were established around 1990 when magnetic hard drives cost $10,000 per gigabyte of storage (now, more like $2), and system-to-system compatibility was poor at best. Those conventional backup techniques, still evangelized by many consultants and IT "gurus," involve finicky tape drives, complicated software, and rotation schedules that make the critical path for your next waterfront development project look like child's play.

Unless you're a big enough builder to have a full-time IT staff to ride herd on your backups, there's a very good chance it has not been getting done properly, and that could put you out of business if a catastrophe were to strike.

It's 2002, and for most builders, a faster, cheaper, easier, and better way to back up data exists. The recent crop of big, fast, inexpensive hard drives and reliable external drive enclosures makes it possible to copy a computer full of data in minutes and easily transport the whole thing off-site for safekeeping.

For example, the $299 IOGear ( ION external hard drive houses a standard 80GB IDE drive and comes ready to plug into any computer. It connects via your choice of fast USB 2.0 or Firewire. The USB version is also backwards compatible with older (and slower) USB 1.1-equipped computers. If the preconfigured 80GB model doesn't provide enough storage, you can buy the empty enclosure ($129) and install your own IDE hard drive. IOGear also makes a shirt-pocket-sized version of the external enclosure ($100) to fit 2.5-inch, laptop-sized hard drives.

What and when

At least two schools of thought exist about what should be backed up--and when. The brute force method is simply to copy the entire drive daily: operating system, programs, and data. On the surface, it might seem like the best way to go, but remember that Windows computers maintain a registry of both installed software and hardware, so unless you have the actual computer (or an identical clone) of the one you backed up, restoring the data will almost always require some manual tinkering to get everything working again.

A more conservative approach is to migrate your data into a common folder (say, "My Documents") and simply copy the entire folder, uncompressed, to your external drive. The downside to this approach is that you'll have to re-install your applications on a new computer before restoring the data, but often that can be a blessing in disguise, giving you a chance to start fresh on a clean machine.

In either case, if you've copied the files in their native uncompressed format, should disaster strike, you can plug your external drive into any modern computer you can rustle up and be back to work in a few minutes. Compare that with the old way: Reinstall a similar tape drive in a new computer (if you can find one); reinstall the tape drive software (if it still exists); spend hours or days swapping out tapes as the software slowly rebuilds your data; and pray that you have all the tapes you need and that they are all functional.

Always remember that one piece of backup advice from the old days still stands: Take a copy of your data off-site, which means you'll need to buy two identical external drives and swap them out at predefined intervals, maybe once a week. The best backups in the world won't do you any good if they burn up in the same fire that gutted your computer in the first place.

Joe Stoddard is a technology consultant to the building industry. Reach him at