Backup, Sync and Share – Part 5.1: Windows Vista Backup (Files)

 | July 5, 2009 7:11 pm

Windows Vista Backup - Icon

As anyone who must perform routine (and extremely repetitive) tasks can tell you, they aren’t fun.  In fact, unless pains are taken to ensure that they are easy and convenient, they might not get done at all.  This list of unpleasant necesseties includes such joys as: balancing your checkbook, folding the laundry, and routine computer maintainence (including backing up your data).

Maybe this is why Time Machine (a backup program for Mac OS X) is the standard against which all other backup solutions are measured.  Time Machine is an all in one solution: it quickly restores files or an entire disk, can backup to a network (with a little bit of help) or a local hard drive, and it runs either automatically or manually.  In short, it makes backup simple and convenient.  Truly a “set it and forget it” type of solution.

Amongst PC geeks, there is a great deal of Time Machine envy.  (It really does make backup that easy.)  Luckily, however, it is possible to create recreate (and in some ways even surpass) a Time Machine experience on Windows.  This article will show you how.  First, we’ll set up an unattended and automated backup system.  Next, we’ll look at how to search and retrieve things from that backup, verifying that your important information is safe.  Last, we’ll look at how you can find previous versions of your files when you don’t have access to your external backup cache. 

Note: While the instructions here assume that you will be making your backup to a simple home server running Samba and Subversion, they will work with most network attached storage devices (NAS).

A Brief Introduction

Before talking about configurations, it might be good to first introduce the three major backup technologies in Windows Vista: 1) File Backup, 2) File Restore and 3) Previous Versions (also known as Volume Shadow Copy).  While the first two components are self-explanatory, the third needs a bit of explanation to understand how it works.

Volume Shadow Copy takes manual or automatic backup copies (also called snapshots) of a particular file or folder at a point in time.  It’s the core upon which all other parts of Vista’s system works.  But rather than simply making an absolute duplicate of the file, Volume Shadow Copy instead only copies the parts of the file that have changed.  So, if you added a slide to your PowerPoint presentation or a few paragraphs to your upcoming novel, only those changes are saved.  Because it only saves the changes, it takes a lot less space to save different versions of the same file.  Backups, therefore, are smaller and it takes less time for them to run.

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Getting Started

In Vista, everything is accessed through the “Back and Restore Center.”   To configure the automated file backups, stary by clicking on the “Back up files” button.  When the next pane loads, click on “Change my backup settings.”

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Note: Changing the computer’s backup settings requires administrative access, you will probably be prompted by User Account Control to provide your username and password.

Windows Vista - Backup Settings 

Start by specifying where you would like the backup to be stored.  Windows Vista can either backup to an attached hard drive, a network location, or you can burn DVDs if that is a preferable.

To backup to the network, select the second option and either click “Browse” or type in the address to a Samba share on your NAS device:

\\ComputerName\Samba-Share\File-Folder

I want to back-up my files to my server, so the address looks like this:

\\Oakes-Server\PC-Backup\OakesKitchen\

Select where you would like to backup your files.  Windows Vista can either use another drive on the computer, or can backup to the network.

Use the Correct Username

When you click “Next,” you will be prompted to enter in the username and password of your NAS device.  It is important to mention that this is different from the username and password that you use to log-on to the computer.  Rather, it is the username which you use to log-on to the server.  If you enter the wrong username, the backup will fail, which happens because Windows Vista has a bit of a quirk.

The first several times that I tried to configure the backup to my server, I received the following error:

“Cannot create a file when that file already exists.” (0x80070087)

And when I inspected the backup drive, I found something bizarre.  The backup program would create a configuration folder with an awful looking name, and then fail.  Alternatively, I would get an error regarding read/write permissions to the back-up location with the same file behavior.

As I said, this was bizarre.  I didn’t understand why a “file would already exist” or why I wouldn't have the necessary permissions.  After all, no special password was required to write files to the share.  I, therefore, decided to do a bit of research.  In so doing,  I learned something important : while interoperability between Windows and Linux has greatly improved in the past few years, it isn’t perfect.When setting the username that will be used to access the server, be certain to provide the

The problem appears to stem from how Samba communicates read/write permissions to the Windows computer.  When running a back-up, Windows Vista wants to be provided with the username of the “Owner” of the remote storage location.  If it doesn’t use this particular username, it will fail.

Thus, the username you provide to Windows Vista in the backup configuration must be the same as the owner of the drive.  You can find this information by creating a secure shell connection to your server (for instructions on how to set up a secure shell, see Part 1 of this series) and executing a few commands from the terminal.  Because you need to enter the username of the drive owner, you need to access the mount point of the samba folder and view some file information from the ls –l command.

Because all of my data (including the server’s general file store and backup) are stored on attached USB drives, the mount points and their associated permissions can be found in the /media folder.  So, here is how I connect to and retrieve the owner information:

ssh username@servername
cd /media
ls –l

This series of command will generate a table similar to the figure below.  The pertinent information is located in the second and third columns.  As you can see, the owner of my drives is the "root" user.  Thus, this is the username that I need to enter in the Windows Backup prompt.  Due to the way which I have configured the permissions, the password is not important (even though a password must be provided).

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What to Backup and How Often

After you configure the location, Windows Vista will ask which drives and types of files you would like to include in your backup.  If you have any questions about what the different options do, you can mouse over the name and a description of the types of files included will appear.

I personally like to back-up everything with the exception of video and “Additional Files.”  I already use a custom script that copies my video files to an archive folder, and I’ve found that the “Additional Files” includes things virtual hard drives and .iso files that I prefer to backup manually.

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Finally, Windows Vista will ask how often you would like the automated backup to run.  You can backup your files daily, weekly, or monthly.  While these options don’t quite approach the paranoid level of security that Time Machine’s hourly backups provide, I’ve found that daily backups are more than sufficient for my needs.  For files that require more frequent snapshots, I prefer using either version control or Windows Live Mesh, which which can be configured to capture every change.

Restoring Your Files

While it is good to know that a file has been safely tucked away should you need it, a backup is only as good as your ability to find that needed file.  If you can’t locate your back-up copy, then it might as well not exist!  It's not until after you restore the file that you discover if it is of any value.

Luckily, however, Windows Vista makes it really easy to restore files.  To access previous baackups, launch the “Backup and Restore Center.”  But instead of clicking on “Backup Files,” click on the “Restore Files” button.

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This will load the “Restore Files” wizard.  The Vista backup center will let you restore files from the existing machine backup or even from another cache that is much older (or belongs to another machine).  I've found the "advanced restore" this to be a convenient way to migrate large numbers of files from my laptop to other computers.  It came in particularly handy when I got a new desktop at home several months ago.  (To use a backup from another computer, click on the “Advanced restore” option.  You can then specify the location of the backup set you would like to use.)

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After selecting which backup you want to restore files from, you can then look through the file cache manually or use a earch function.  Both are comfortable to use and convenient.  The file browser is identical to Windows explorer, with the exception that it states the date when the file was added to the backup in grayed out letters.

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Using the search, you can choose to restore either an individual file or a particular folder. And what’s better, if multiple versions of the same file are available, it will list each one and the date it was modified.  Several weeks ago, this proved to be an absoulte lifesaver as I was trying to find an old version of a published paper.  It had a bunch of text and graphics which were ultimately excluded (and did not got saved in any new file).  That information has since formed the basis of my next big project.

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The Magic of Previous Versions (Shadow Explorer)

Previous versions makes it easy to find and restore old or deleted versions of filesWhile one of the very best features of Time Machine (or Windows Backup and Restore Center) is that it easily lets you locate and restore a changed version of your files.  However, the backup is of no use if you can’t access the physical media where your archive is stored.

Previous Versions, isn’t quite so limited.  The Previous Versions feature found in Windows Vista Business and Ultimate stores backup copies of files on the local volume.  Like the external backup, it uses incremental snapshots and differentials, which helps to keep the space needed for the backup small.  But more importantly, "Previous Versions" helps you to access old versions of files without being connected to your server!  Additional protection that out-does Time Machine!

Have you ever accidently deleted a file and then thought “Crap, I needed that!”  Such moments never seem to happen at home, but rather when you are at some major conference (moments before you are supposed to speak)!  Previous versions allows you to retrieve that file simply by going into the “Properties” of the folder folder and selecting a snapshot from before your made that regretable decision.

In their infinite wisdom, however, Microsoft only only included the “Previous Versions” into the Business and Ultimate Editions of the Operating System.  (Even thought Volume Shadow Copy and the backup data are available in all versions of Windows Vista.) Luckily, a free utility called Shadow Explorer, is available for those who don't have the official "Previous Versions" browser.  While it isn’t quite as pretty, it does gets the job done.

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Conclusion

Windows Vista provides all of the tools to safely backup and restore your most important files and information.  These tools are included in all versions of Windows and work well.   But while sufficient for most daily computing errors, simple file backup leaves you somewhat unprepared for computing disaster.  Windows Vista doesn’t backup the system, after all, just your files.  So what would you do if your hard drive failed tomorrow?  How would you quickly get back to work with only a minimum of down time?

We’ll take a look at how to prepare for and recover from disaster in the next article in this series.

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