University of Oregon

Digital data may not get damaged or lost the way physical documents do, but that doesn't mean it's 100 percent safe. All of your digital files, photos, text documents, and probably a lot of you movies and music are stored on your computer's hard drive, which like any other machine can break down and wear out over time. Fortunately, there are several ways you can be back up your data. This page recommends several lines of defense that will help you win the battle against data loss.



One line of defense against data loss is partitioning. Your operating system gives you the option to partition your hard drive so that your personal files and folders are located on a separate “section” of the hard drive from your Windows operating system so if your operating system becomes corrupted from a virus, or if you decided you want to do a clean install of the operating system, your data will be safe on a separate section (or partition) of the drive.

Note: it is always wise to back up your data on another hard drive entirely before adding or removing partitions.


  • Free

  • Alter/reinstall Windows without losing data


  • Does not protect data from failing hard drive

  • Difficult in older operating systems post-install


There are two ways to create a partition: during installation or after.

Want to create a partition? See the Mac instructions or the Windows instructions.


 Extra Internal Hard Drives (mostly applies to desktops)

You can also back up your data onto extra hard drives in your computer. Since few laptops and few Macintoshes have second internal hard drives, this applies to desktop computers running Windows.

To use the extra internal hard drive simply treat the second drive as you would another partition, as it will also appear in My Computer with a separate drive letter.

If you have multiple drives displaying and are not sure which belong to each hard drive, you can check this by right clicking My Computer and choosing Manage > Disk Management, which will display all hard drives with their size and manufacturer and the drive letters assigned to them.


  • Cheaper than an external

  • Hinges on rarity of two simultaneously failing drives


  • Can't take it with you (without difficulty)

  • Mostly applicable to desktops only


 External Hard Drives

External hard drives are by and large the most common form of back up nowadays because they are fairly affordable, always on-hand and, with the support of USB and FireWire, usually plug and play. They work exactly like any other hard drive, except they are enclosed in a case so you can move them from place to place. The case also serves as an interface between the SATA (or, in some cases, PATA) connector on the drive and the more readily available USB or FireWire port on your laptop or desktop.

Some external hard drives will come with pre-installed software that is designed to make it easier for you to back up your data. Usually, you can choose which folders to automatically back up in the set up. There's no requirement to use this software; you can always just drag and drop your files from one hard drive to another. However in many cases, the software will be the easiest option to set up and automatically occurring back up, perhaps every night when you sit down to check your email.


  • Hinges on idea that two drives will not fail simultaneously

  • Portable, shareable with many computers


  • Most expensive one-time fee

  • Adds another place of potential hardware failure

  • Want to use an external hard drive to back up your data? See the Mac instructions. (Windows instructions are forthcoming.)


 Optical Media

If you're not backing up a lot of data, CDs may be the simplest option for you. They're widely available and most computers made within the last several years shipped with CD/DVD-R drives. Netbooks would be the exception. If you're burning data from a netbook, it's advised to transfer the data to a computer with a burning drive or to use an external CD/DVD-R drive that hooks up through USB.


  • Cheap if you don't need many discs

  • Portable


  • Prone to scratches and getting lost

  • Not much space compared to extra hard drives

  • Requires disc burning capability

For more info on optical media click here.


Thumb Drives

Along with external hard drives, thumb drives (also called USB flash drives) are a very popular form of back up. Used primarily to transfer and back up small amounts of data, the thumb drive is today's floppy disk. Most are "plug-n-play," requiring no special set up. But, if you're looking to back up a lot of data, look somewhere else: USB drives over 64GB are rare. To back up large amounts of data use some of the other options mentioned on this page. 


  • Small and portable

  • Inexpensive (total cost)

  • High rate of computer compatibility (most are plug-n-play)

  • Good for backing up/transferring documents, photos, program installations


  • Expensive (cost per gigabyte)

  • Standard space is still below 100 GB

  • Prone to loss, breaking


 Online Data Backup Services

As more and more communication, documentation and information sharing becomes centered in computers, a whole new market has been created in the area of online data backup. If you want to use this as your main method of back up for space over (typically) 2GB, you'll have to fork over some cash per month. Typically, it's not that expensive though, and none of the companies reviewed by charge more than $10/month.


  • Exports responsibility to a third party you can sue if it comes to it

  • Accessible from anywhere

  • No hardware or small objects to lug around


  • Many have monthly fees, and free ones typically have limited space

  • If the site is down, you have to wait for your data

  • Backing up large amounts of data (>100GB) can be limited by connection

  • speed and other factors, such as Comcast's monthly upload limits.

  • Here's a basic breakdown of some prominent services:


Note: Do not use these services to store data related to UO business, including sensitive data such as grades, student numbers, social security numbers and contact information.  


 Workplace/School Server User Space

Backing up to your allotted user space that you may be granted via your job or school can be a good option for small amounts of data, since you probably won't have unlimited space. This method is not as easy as several of the other options listed here, such as backing up to an external hard drive.


  • Exports responsibility to a third party you can sue if it comes to it

  • Usually accessible from anywhere

  • No hardware or small objects to lug around

  • Generally included free with your job or attendance


  • May be limited space

  • Stored data should probably be work and school appropriate

  • Possible learning curve for process to access the server


For this method of backup, you'll likely need to access it using an SFTP client such as Fetch or SSH. For the specific settings for your server, you'll need to check with the IT department at your workplace or university.