Automatic Backup and SyncToy

by Wren McMains

The concept of automatic backup is wonderful. Set it up and forget it. You always have a backup. RAID drives are another variation on this idea; your data is spread over multiple drives and if one fails, all you do is replace the bad drive and you loose nothing because your "backup" is always current.

I've been programming computers over 50 years and on several occasions have seen companies loose all their current data because an automatic backup system went awry or a RAID system failed. This is why I recommend using the Preview option of SyncToy. In each case these companies had to revert to their off-site backup which hadn't be touched by any automatic process ... it also turns out that the delay in getting the off-site backup gives one time to re-think exactly what's happening and make sure that nothing is going to destroy their last backup when they attach it to their system.

Although I don't recommend it, a very nice product for automatic backup is ClickFree. I have a friend who loves ClickFree because it's so easy to setup and the backups are automatic. He installs it and forgets it, thinking he never has to do anything else until he needs the backup.

I have two problems with it, or any automatic backup:

  1. Since he sets it up and forgets it, he doesn't know it's not running. (When I looked at one of his machines I saw it hadn't backed up in a month, and nothing he or I could think to do made it start backing up automatically ... my recommendation was to un-install completely and then re-install.)
  2. The other problem with this, or any automatic backup, has to do with the way hard drives fail. Modern hard drives are auto correcting and it's hard to tell they are starting to fail. I would estimate that more than 50% of the time the first failure seen are uncorrectable read errors. During a backup a read error on an individual file means the backup program can't see the file and will delete it from the backup. A single file isn't too big a loss, but a read error on a directory (folder) will mean the entire folder and all the folders under it are deleted from the backup. This is a big problem. Just what you need to restore has just been deleted from your backup.

Since one schedules backups for times the machine is not being used, the drive is likely to have gone to sleep (default setting to save power, and the setting I use and recommend). Failures are most likely to start occurring when the drive spins up, leading to the problem described above.

This is why I recommend using the Preview option of SyncToy ... if you actually look at the preview you'll see that it's trying to delete files and folders it shouldn't you can avoid running it, protecting your good backup. The nice thing about SyncToy is that the preview shows deletes at the top in RED, if you see a lot of them that you can't explain you know you're in trouble.

One can automate SyncToy to function just like ClickFree, but this can lead to the same problem.


  1. Use Windows Live Mesh to automatically backup active folders. (Like any automatic backup, this has a potential problem, see below, but hopefully you'll be protected by a SyncToy backup. If your Mesh is repeated on several machines, some of which are off-line part of the time, you can also find deleted files on these off-line machines if you keep them disconnected from the internet when you turn them on after a problem occurs.)
  2. Run SyncToy with Preview first, review results, then Run.
  3. If you can't manage run SyncToy manually often enough, and want run automatic backups (either something like ClickFree or SyncToy run from Task Scheduler), but be sure you also keep a second SyncToy backup on an external drive.
  4. Keeping a second backup on a drive which is disconnected (both power and USB) is the best protection against power surges, lighting, viruses, etc.
  5. Keeping a third backup off-site (far enough away to protect against fire, theft, hurricane, etc.) is highly recommended. Best strategy is to keep exchanging it with your second backup. Exchange them soon after making the second backup, the next time you make your backup to your disconnected external drive you're making it on top of what was previously your off-site backup.
  6. We've been discussing backing up your data. Don't forget to make an backup of your system software at least every six months, or after installing a lot of new software. Be sure this backup is made using a stand-alone program, and that Windows is NOT running from the drive being backed up. I've had good luck with Paragon.

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