How to back up your hard drive online for free

24th May 2009 | 11:00

How to back up your hard drive online for free

Access your files from anywhere with a net connection

Configuring your backup location

Sometimes computers crash so spectacularly that the only way to get your machine breathing again is to completely reinstall the operating system.

But what happens to your data? Your precious personal documents and digital pictures? Your carefully crafted list of internet favourites? The family accounts?

The answer, of course, is that those particular copies are lost. But the solution is easy: don't keep your data stored locally. It's easy to back things up securely online, keeping your data safe even if your computer crashes and burns.

Here we explore a hassle-free way of backing up data to an online repository.

1. Organise your files

We'll start by assuming that all of your important documents, media and pictures are in your My Documents folder. If they're not, put them there now.

Next, go to the Start menu and choose 'Search'. We're going to hunt down and remove the junk you don't need. Click 'All Files and Folders' and then select the 'My Documents' folder from the 'Look In' dropdown menu.

The aim is to remove waste – so start with the search term '*.tmp' and click 'Search'. You can find other temporary files by searching for the ' ' symbol (it's called a 'tilde'). Select all of the files that are returned by hitting [CTRL]+ [A], then hit [Shift]+[Delete] to erase them.

You can search for and delete other unwanted filetypes in the same way. To finish off, use a freeware disk-cleanup program like CCleaner to track down and erase any lingering unwanted temporary data.

2. Find a location

Next, you need to configure the back-up location. For this you'll need to have some FTP storage space on a remote server. Many internet connection accounts come with free web space as part of the package, and that should be fine to use, but check that there's enough space for your data first.

If you don't have any FTP space, try signing up for a free service, like that found at www.drivehq.com. Remember, though, that if your host goes down, so does your backup. It pays to pay sometimes.

You'll need to know the FTP address of your storage space as well as your user ID and password. If you don't know these details, check the help documentation on the website of your web host or ISP.

3. Create a network place

Open the Start menu and choose 'My Network Places'. Click 'Add a Network Place'. In the Wizard that appears, click 'Next' and then select 'Choose another network location.

Specify the address of a website, network location or FTP site.' Click 'Next' and enter the full address of the site that you wish to access as an FTP URL. Click 'Next' and untick the box labelled 'Log on anonymously'. Enter your FTP username in the box.

Finally, you'll be prompted to give a name for the connection. Make sure that the box labelled 'Open this network place when I click finish' is ticked, then click 'Finish'.

Storing your files online

4. Store files online

The first time that you connect to your new network place, you'll be prompted for your FTP password. Type it in and tick the box labelled 'Save Password' in the Log On As dialog before clicking 'OK'.

In future you can treat this network place more or less like any other folder on your system. Start by dragging a copy of your cleaned-up My Documents folder to the new online storage link.

In future, you can quickly add new documents directly to the network place you've just created and retrieve them from there too.

5. Improve security

One problem with the method described above is that it can make your documents vulnerable to access via HTTP. There are a few ways to enhance security, though. If possible, place files in a section of storage space that's only accessible via FTP.

If that's not possible, put files in folders with names that are hard to guess – a string of letters and numbers – and make sure that the root folder contains an 'index.html' file so that snoopers can't browse the directory. You could also use an '.htaccess' file to password-protect a personal folder from potential snoopers.

You'll find an online tool that'll help you generate the required files at the .htaccess Password Generator. It should go without saying that sensitive data shouldn't be put online, even in a password locked folder. You're better off using an encrypted USB stick to back up really important files.

6. Using Syncplicity

We've tried several online storage options, and our current favourite for both ease of use and price is relative newcomer Syncplicity.

With Mac, Linux and Windows versions available, you can synchronise and share up to 2GB of data online from two machines for free, while paying $10 a month buys you 50GB of space and usage on any machine.

You can sign up for and install the software direct from syncplicity.com, then right-click on the folders that you want to back up to Syncplicity's cloud hosted storage. The first backup takes a while, but after that the program updates your folders in the background.

It's transparent and easy, and as long as you have an internet connection you can access your files anywhere. You set the privacy level of the stored files, sharing them with others if you like. Files can be transferred with 128-bit encryption – so your secrets are safe with Syncplicity.

7. Windows Live Sync

Microsoft's Live suite of tools offers several storage and synchronisation options, including Windows SkyDrive, a file storage and sharing system with 25GB of free space. This is perfectly decent, but we like the simplicity and approach of Windows Live Sync.

Rather than uploading your files to a server, Live Sync gives you access to documents stored on your local internet-connected machine from the web, using a clientside application installed on your machine.

You enable remote access by right-clicking on the application's task bar icon and choosing 'More', then 'Settings'. You can then browse and grab files from the local machine at sync.live.com.

The only thing you'll need is your Windows Live ID to log in. You can also configure the system to synchronise folders across computers with Windows Live Sync software installed. Up to 20 folders can be synchronised, each containing a maximum of 20,000 files apiece.

Another handy feature is that you can share folders on your machine with family, colleagues and friends. Just click the 'Create a shared folder' link at the Windows Live Sync site and browse to the directory holding the files that you want to synchronise with others.

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First published in PC Plus Issue 281

If you liked this, why not check out 10 brilliant free online backup tools

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