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5 Ways to Prevent Data Loss

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'Lost Data' sign taped to light post in city
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While data loss affects everyone who uses a computer, it is especially problematic for those who use word processing software.

There is nothing more frustrating than losing the important documents that you've spent so much time creating -- especially if you're like most users who create documents directly on the computer and don't have the benefit of a handwritten copy.

I regularly receive questions from users who need to recover lost files, and, unfortunately, at that point it is too late to help, as the damage is already done. The only sure-fire way to recover lost files is to restore them from a backup, and that is why it is so important to have a system to prevent data loss.


Here's what I recommend to prevent against data loss:

1. Never store your documents on the same drive as your operating system
While most word processors will save your files in the My Documents folder, this is the worst place for them. Whether it is a virus or software failure, the majority of computer problems affect the operating system, and oftentimes the only solution is to reformat the drive and reinstall the operating system. In such an instance, everything on the drive will be lost.

Installing a second hard-drive in your computer is a relatively low cost way to take care of this problem. A second internal hard-drive will not be affected if the operating system is corrupted, and it can even be installed in another computer if you need to buy a new one; further, you'll be surprised at how easy they are to set up.

If you're skeptical about installing a second internal drive, an excellent alternative is to buy an external hard-drive. An external drive can be attached to any computer at any time simply by plugging it into a usb or firewire port.

Many external drives also have the added benefit of one-touch and/or scheduled back ups -- you simply specify the folders and the software will take care of the rest. I use Maxtor's external 200GB hard drive, which not only has ample room, but is easy to use (compare prices).

If another hard-drive is not an option for you, then save your files to clearly labeled floppy disks, but beware: computer manufacturers are moving away from including floppy drives with new computers, so you might have problems in the future retrieving data from floppies.

2. Back up your files regularly, no matter where they're stored
Just storing your files in a different location than your operating system isn't enough; you need to create regular backups of your files, and let's face it, even your back up is subject to failure: cds get scratched, hard drives break, and floppies get erased.

It makes sense to increase your odds of being able to retrieve a file by having a second back up of it; if the data is truly important, you might even want to think about storing a backup in a fireproof vault.

3. Beware of email attachments
Even if you're certain they don't contain viruses, email attachments can cause you to lose data. Think about it: if you receive a document with the same name as one on your drive, and your email software is set to save attachments in the same location, you run the risk of overwriting the file that's already there. This often happens when you're collaborating on a document and send it via email.

So make sure you set your email program to save attachments in a unique location, or, barring that, make sure you think twice before saving an email attachment on your hard drive.

4. Beware of user error
We don't like to admit it, but we often engineer our own problems. Take advantage of safeguards included in your word processor, such as versioning features and tracked changes. A common way users lose data is when they're editing a document and accidentally delete portions -- after the document is saved, the portions that are changed or deleted are lost unless you've enabled features that will store changes for you.

If you don't want to mess with the advanced features, use the F12 key before you start working to save the file under a different name. It isn't as organized as some of the other methods, but it is a useful trick nonetheless.

5. Keep hardcopies of your documents
While it won't prevent you from having to type and format your document again, a having a hardcopy will at least ensure you have the contents of the file -- and that is better than having nothing at all!
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