Is Your Critical PC Data Adequately Protected From Disaster? by Alan M Johnson

No sound business large or small can afford to loose their data or the ability to use their computing assets without a potentially heavy reputational, opportunity or financial loss. Usually in the event of a disaster you lose a bit of all three. The recent panic about on and off line security of data is testament to the risks and consequences. Though it seems worrying about security is fashionable and protecting from disaster is not and therefore often forgotten. However I would urge you both are just as catastrophic and perhaps disaster is more likely these days!

More and more people are now realising just how much protecting against disasters applies equally to individuals as well as businesses. Could you do without access to your bank account, reference to that critical email correspondence, access to your home budgeting finance software or spreadsheets. At the very least it's hugely inconvenient at worst it could lead to heavy financial losses or liability.

For the purposes of very small businesses or home users protecting and managing disaster scenarios really merges the three industrial IT fields of Disaster Recovery, High Availability and Backup. Using best practice from industry and modern desktop PC's with sophisticated hardware and software it's amazing just how much we can do. Protecting against disaster essentially comes with two key strategies:

• Disaster Prevention - by using redundant components so that a single critical component failure doesn't compromise the whole systems ability to function i.e. extra power supplies, redundant disk arrays (RAID1, RAID5 etc), protected uninterruptable power supplies, dual network cards (NIC), dual processors, even dual machines (clustering) etc.

• Disaster recovery (Backup and Restore) - periodically taking snapshots of the whole system and changed parts of it are the as 'old as the hills' way of being able to recover from any disaster scenario. This used to be done to an offline media like tape or cartridge but now online media are becoming so cheap and far faster its more convenient to perform online backups to a low cost per GB data store (i.e. external hard drive or USB stick for domestic or home professional users).

Surprisingly some of these industrial IT tools and techniques are now available to the home user or professional. High quality desktop computers all now come with RAID providing redundant disk drive support. So how come you have never heard of any this or many of the other techniques? Not many PC vendors can be bothered making it available as an option, configuring and supporting it or understanding how to do it right. For the average risk adverse PC vendor this just open's up a can of worms that seems like more cost or risk of cost on the wafer thin bottom line. So they just cross their fingers and hope you don't ask about it...

Practical things you can do to reduce your exposure

The following is a five step list of inexpensive things you can do to protect yourself from disaster and minimise the impact in the event it happens, roughly in priority order:

1. Protecting your live data - The most unreliable piece of equipment in your PC is the only bit that moves, an awful lot, the mechanical hard drive. Almost everyone will at some point experience one failing and lose data and time as a consequence. An extra disk in your PC need cost no more than US$40 these days, even an extra terabyte is only US$90. Almost all good quality desktops support RAID levels that will protect your data. The most basic of these is mirroring (RAID1) which simply copies the contents of one disk directly onto another simultaneously, should one fail the other can take over.

This all happens automatically in the RAID controller (either on your desktop motherboard or in a separate controller card). More sophisticated is RAID5 which uses parity across a minimum of three drives (so an extra two are required but you can add more to increase performance). RAID10 (1 + 0) expands on the RAID1 mirroring concept combined with RAID0 striping to improve performance but requires a minimum of four drives.

2. Backing up your data - Windows Vista Business or Ultimate come with effective backup software for both a complete image backup of your PC (a snapshot of the whole machine and its configuration) and to backup your individual data files incrementally. These editions of Vista only cost about an extra US$50 or so over the basic edition and are well worth the extra if only for Backup and Restore. They have a number of other professional and business features worth having.

3. Feed your PC clean reliable power - for around US$20 you can get a simple surge protector and filter for your mains supply. In the event of a brown out or lightning strike this might save your PC. For US$100 or more depending on how sophisticated you get you can have a full clean uninterruptible power supply (UPS) which will keep your machine running for a few minutes even after the power has failed by switching to the built-in battery and a power converter circuit. This few minutes allows you to shutdown your system in an orderly fashion saving files, closing applications and finishing work off neatly and without risking any corruption that a sudden power off might.

4. Keep your PC cool - it never ceases to surprise me where people put their PC's, under the desk, in a cupboard, next to the heating radiator are all bad places. Largely gone are the days where computers need air conditioning to function reliably but you do need to make sure they get adequate ventilation and are sited in a generally cool location. Not doing so will likely shorten its life and worse still reduce its reliability.

5. Preventative maintenance - to keep its insides cool your PC sucks in cool air at the front and blows out hot air out the back. When we get PC's back for upgrades or maintenance it's not unusual to find a thick layer of dust and dirt over the fans, grills, motherboard and key components. This radically reduces their cooling effectiveness and can at worse actually seize fans up or short out components. You really will do your PC a lot of good if you periodically blow the dust out and vacuum it up with one of the pointed flexible plastic hose attachments. Also make sure your filters on your case if you have any are regularly cleaned.


Not really in the list as it's a whole topic in itself (and its covered by another article) is general security and virus protection. Many tools on the market today are way over the top for what you need. You want something basic and unobtrusive so that it gets the job done but doesn't interfere or hog the performance of your machine. In my opinion many of the small niche security software suppliers and not the big market players are the better tools in this regard. You should be able to get something completely FREE that does all you need.

Standby machines

Another option to consider is what the industry would call a "warm standby" machine. Have another similar if not identical machine ready to take over your critical work if your main machine dies. Using an image backup or a hot swap disk from the dead machine to the new you can be back up and running in minutes. With the low cost of commodity machines these days you could quite inexpensively have a reduced power [cheaper] machine ready to take over the vital work in an emergency.


All the ideas I've described in this article are all best practice that industry has been doing for business for years. Now modern PC hardware and software within the reach of the domestic and home professional opens up some powerful options to make any pain due to hardware failures or data corruption completely unnecessary. Do yourself a favour and get it done for your own data no matter much you think it will never happen to you, you will sleep more easily.

Alan is Chief Technologist at [ This site can't be reached] Cryo Performance Computers in the UK.

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