Feature

Keeping laptop backups in sync

Back up your own
If you use Windows 2000 or XP, familiarize yourself with Offline Files. This feature - introduced in Windows 2000 - provides a centralized backup of several users' desktops or laptops to one desktop. Suppose you have a laptop, and you want to back up of all of your documents to the desktop. You must first colocate your documents and copy them to a directory on the desktop. Then create a Windows share of that directory back to the laptop. It makes things easier if you assign a drive letter to it. On the laptop, right click on the network share and select "Make Available Offline." Click OK, and Windows makes a local copy of all documents in that network share.

You're now free to work on these documents on your desktop or laptop. By default, changes on either machine will be synchronized when you log off of your laptop. You can change these preferences to synchronize on a regular basis, or to synchronize when you log on to your laptop. You can also force synchronization at any time. If there's ever a conflict with a file that has been changed on your desktop and laptop, Windows will ask you what you want to do. You have the option of overwriting either file or copying both files to both machines with a notation (e.g., copy 2). If you do a good job of keeping your important documents on this offline drive, the deletion or corruption of files can be corrected by synchronizing again.

I encountered one challenge

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when attempting to use this in my environment. To completely remove all backup requirements from my laptop, I needed to synchronize three types of files. The first type was word processing documents and spreadsheets. The second was a Palm Pilot database, and the third were my Outlook .pst files. With Outlook, I wanted to use the same .pst file on the road that I had available in the office. With my Palm Pilot, I wanted to sync it to my desktop when I was in the office and to my laptop when I was on the road. The idea was that I would arrive at my office after having been on the road, synchronize my Offline Files, put away my laptop and continue to use Outlook, with my Palm Pilot cradle and all other documents on my desktop as if I had never left the office. The problem was that - by default - Windows excludes files with a .pst or .db extension from synchronization. I found a workaround to this problem.

I found the answer in a Microsoft article. You can go here to read this article about the gpedit.msc command, and how you can use it to change extensions not synchronized by Offline Files. While using it to synchronize .pst between multiple computers is unsupported, it worked fine for me. I had to ensure I synchronized from my laptop to my desktop before using Outlook on my desktop. Otherwise, I would have ended up with new mail in both .pst files. Recovering from this wasn't pretty.

I now have every bit of needed data on my laptop when I travel - without needing to back it up. I can even share these documents with others in the office who need to work on them while I'm on the road. When I come back to the office, I synchronize my Offline Files and put my laptop away. Any documents I've changed while on the road are automatically copied to my desktop, and any documents that anyone else has changed while I was on the road get copied to my laptop. This includes all of my Outlook mail and my Palm Pilot database. Before going on the road again, I make sure I synchronize my laptop again.

The Linux solution
Users of Linux desktops and laptops also have a free option available to them - rsync, a file transfer program for Unix systems - which uses the rsync algorithm that provides a fast method for bringing remote files into sync. It does this by sending just the differences in the files across the link, without requiring that both sets of files are present at one of the ends of the link beforehand. It can be used to update whole directory trees and file systems, and can even preserve symbolic links, hard links, file ownership, permissions, devices and times. It requires no special privileges to install and it can use rsh, ssh or direct sockets as the transport. It even supports anonymous rsync, which is ideal for mirroring.

With rsync, establish synchronization between your laptop and any Unix or Linux desktop where you have a home directory. This gives you the same amount of functionality as described in the Windows solution earlier. Using one of these utilities, you can backup laptops and other remote users. All you need is a central place for everyone to synchronize to.

Web Bonus:
Online resources from SearchStorage.com: "Mobile computers: Regular backups prevent disaster," by Linda Christie.

This was first published in January 2003

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