Posey's Tips & Tricks

Is the Free Backup Option Good Enough?

As the saying goes, you get what you paid for. But it's not quite as simple as that.

As someone who has been working with Windows seemingly forever, I took my first Windows certification course as a teenager about 30 years ago. Given how many years have passed, it almost goes without saying that I don't remember much from that course. Even so, the instructor made one statement that still sticks out in my mind, even today. That statement was that Windows Backup (which was known as NT Backup at the time) will work in a pinch, but you shouldn't bet your job on using it.

The idea behind this statement was that Windows Backup was functional, but just barely. There was a lot of potential for things to go wrong, and Windows Backup lacked many of the features that were standard in third-party backup applications of the time.

Recently, I was thinking about the fact that Windows Backup has been around in one form or another for all these years, even if its name has changed a few times along the way. During that time, Windows Backup has been vastly improved over what Microsoft gave us back in the days of Windows NT. So does my instructor's statement from so long ago still hold true? Is it OK to use Windows Backup to protect your data, or should you be using a commercial backup product?

The answer to this question is that it depends. Let me start out by saying that in a corporate environment you should absolutely be using a commercial backup solution if for no other reason than that Windows Backup was designed to back up a single machine, not an entire network. Perhaps more importantly, commercial backup products are supported. If you have a problem with a commercial backup product then there is usually someone that you can call to resolve the issue. While it's theoretically possible that Microsoft might provide support for Windows Backup, good luck figuring out who to call if you need help.

But what about your own personal machine? Is Windows Backup good enough, or should you be using something else? Again, it depends.

Certainly, using Windows Backup is better than not backing up your machine at all. If the choice is between using Windows Backup and not backing up your machine at all, then I would go with Windows backup.

Having said that, Windows Backup is far from being an ideal backup solution. It tends to be a little bit inflexible and newer versions of Windows Backup are primarily geared toward syncing your data to OneDrive. Sure, Windows includes a file history backup option and there is a way to create an image of your entire machine, but these options are scattered throughout Windows.

I have occasionally heard people suggest that the biggest consideration that you should take into account when deciding between Windows Backup and a commercial backup solution is the value of your data. In other words, if you were to suddenly lose all of the data that is on your machine, would you be willing to pay whatever a commercial backup application costs to get that data back? If so, then the data is valuable enough to justify the cost of a commercial backup application.

In my mind, this philosophy can help to guide you in the right direction, but I think that the logic is a little bit flawed. The reason why I say this is that this simple scenario assumes that Windows Backup isn't going to work. It's almost like saying that if you have backed up your machine using Windows Backup then you might as well not even have a backup at all.

I have successfully used Windows Backup to restore data quite a few times over the years. The recovery process sometimes requires you to jump through a few hoops and you may occasionally find that your recovery options aren't quite as granular as you might like, but it does work -- most of the time. Although Windows Backup will usually get the job done, I have seen two or three situations in recent year in which Windows Backup was unable to restore a backup.

The other fallacy behind this argument is that it assumes that Windows Backup and a commercial backup are the only options. There is a third option that might actually be the best option. Several of the enterprise backup vendors offer "community" versions of their products. These are essentially enterprise backup products that have been tweaked for small business or individual use. Such products, while likely unsupported, are often available for free and are vastly superior to Windows Backup.


About the Author

Brien Posey is a 21-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.


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