Get the best of RAID's features with SyncToy
13th Jun 2009 | 09:00
Back up your data and access it from anywhere
SyncToy: a simple alternative to RAID
For a technology that's been with us for over two decades now, RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks) has never really taken off with casual users.
Starting as a technology to use low-cost hard disk drives to build powerful servers, it has since found its way into some high-end home computers, using chips on the motherboard to distribute data between multiple hard drives.
If you're feeling a bit lost already, fret not – you're not alone. Setting up a RAID configuration isn't easy, and requires you to delve into the deepest nooks and crannies of your PC's setup.
Because each PC's hardware is different, it's nigh-on impossible to produce a one-size-fits-all guide. RAID is also available in software but, unfortunately, not Windows Vista; instead it resides in Windows Server packages. This is a shame because that means we miss out on one of RAID's best features – mirroring.
With this function enabled, data is written to two separate hard drives simultaneously, meaning that you have two copies of the same thing. Subsequently, if one disk fails, an exact duplicate is available to be used straight away on the other hard disk. This is great if you have lots of important documents, a large music collection, or family photos and videos.
However, just because you can't take advantage of RAID in Windows Vista, the news isn't all bad: there are readily available alternatives to RAID.
SyncToy is a free, official Microsoft add-on for Windows, and it enables the creation of duplicated folder pairs within your operating system. It's powerful and versatile, and incredibly easy to set up and use. One of the key advantages of SyncToy is that it scans your folders for changes before copying the files, so if you've only added one photograph to your Photos folder recently, it won't attempt to copy the whole lot.
SyncToy's original purpose was to synchronise data between your computer and your mobile devices, such as digital cameras and MP3 players. But it works just as well as a back-up tool for your PC, and can potentially copy entire drives quickly and easily.
The only thing SyncToy lacks is an automated, daily back-up feature, although this is sure to be a feature of later versions.
A huge advantage of using SyncToy to back up your files over the built-in Windows Vista Backup and Restore Center is that it doesn't split and compress your files, so you can access them from anywhere. Of course, the disadvantage of this is that you need more free hard disk space to store the backup, but with the price of drives falling constantly, that shouldn't be too much of a problem.
SyncToy works best with portable hard disk drives or back-up drives installed in your PC, but you can potentially use anything that can hold data, such as a USB drive or a memory card. Download SyncToy from here and follow the walkthrough opposite to set it up.
Walkthrough: setting up SyncToy
1. FIRST RUN
Click Create new folder pair. SyncToy creates pairs of folders to synchronise, making it easy to see where your data is going to and from.
The left folder is the source folder, the folder you want to copy your data from. Click Browse, then choose the drive you want to back up – for example, Music. Hit OK.
2. CHOOSE DESTINATION
The right folder is the destination folder, or where you want to copy your data to. Click Browse on the right, then choose a folder on an external or back-up drive and click OK.
If no destination folder exists, click Make new folder. Give it a relevant name. Now click Next.
Synchronise: changes in left and right folders are repeated each way, so files you delete in the destination folder are deleted in the source.
Echo: changes you make in the source are repeated in the destination, but changes in destination are overwritten.
Contribute: adds new files to the destination without changing it.
4. NAME THE PAIR
Choose Contribute, click Next, and give your folder pair a name, then click Finish. We're almost ready to synchronise, but first it's a good idea to see what exactly SyncToy is going to do.
Click Preview to see a list of its proposed changes, then click Run to make the changes.
5. RUN IT AGAIN
To add more folder pairs, click Create new folder pair. It's not necessary to run SyncToy every day, but it's worth it if you've just uploaded a batch of photos to your PC.
Open SyncToy, and choose the folder pair you want to update from the left. Click Preview, then Run.
6. ENTIRE DRIVES
SyncToy can mirror your entire hard drive but it may take a while. Instead of specifying a directory as your left folder, select your hard disk drive – C: for example.
As the right folder, specify a drive of at least the same capacity as your main hard drive. Then select Synchronise and name the pair, as above.
First published in Windows Vista: The Official Magazine Issue 124
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