Backing up Windows Machines to FreeNAS: Part One

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Introduction

As you might remember from my articles about building my own Network Attached Storage (NAS) using FreeNAS(part 1, part 2), my primary motivation was to come up with a redundant solution for storage of backups.

As a do-it-yourselfer when it comes to PCs for nearly two decades, I’ve grown relatively unattached to much of my data. Generally speaking, my “disaster” recovery plan was to replace failed hardware and cope with losing all of my data. Thankfully, I have very rarely needed to use this plan because it is very stupid and useless.

I am not ignorant; for years I have realized that my disaster plan at home is stupid and useless. But, I have always wound up doing an analysis. In every scenario that I imagined, it always wound up being more work to create, maintain and recover than it would be to just start from scratch. As long as I only had one or two PCs devoid of irreplaceable data and I was the only user, this would work out just fine. Ultimately, this paradigm is not sustainable. I have accrued multiple computers, these computers each contain more and more irreplaceable files, and most importantly, I got married and now I’m supporting two users.

It was inevitable for me and ultimately it is inevitable for everyone – you will lose data. It is not a question of “If” but a question of “When?” Your data is constantly at risk, whether caused by a hardware failure, a careless revision or a reckless deletion. Too much can go wrong, and the data is too important to ignore doing backups.

Requirements

At the very least, I’d think the bare minimum would be for every computer user to periodically back up their “user profile” type folders. These are the folders on your computer which contain documents, pictures, music and videos that can not be easily replaced. Hopefully, everyone’s made it to the point where they are saving those files in a central folder or at the very least everyone can find those folders pretty easily on their computer. Operating Systems have gone a long way to forcing you into doing this. That way, if you ever lost everything on your computer it’d be a matter of re-installing the Operating System, any missing applications, and restoring your profile(s) from the backup.

In my particular case, I require a more robust backup solution. In my brainstorming on backups, I made a list of features that I considered to be “must-haves”:

  • Redundant, fault tolerant backup storage (solved by the FreeNAS machine)
  • Low Cost ($0-$75 per license)
  • Automated and Scheduled
  • Integrated into the Windows Explorer
  • Differential backups to provide version history on backed up files
  • Restore an entire machine in one-step

Aside from the first requirement, none of these should be extraordinarily rare. I anticipate that the more of the features I want that are included in a product, the more the cost will go up. This is about the only concession that I’m willing to make in this regard.

Research

When discussing this with a friend, he said what I needed to do was to trade my PCs in and buy an Apple instead. Apparently Time Machine comes default with MacOS and is the gold standard of what I call “stupid easy” backups. From what I have read, this feature sounds great and sounds like it would be easy to have Time Machine write its backups out to a Network-Attached-Storage like FreeNas. However, I am not nearly creative or hip enough to own any Apple products, and more importantly, I am an old dog to whom it is difficult to teach new tricks. For the foreseeable future, I will continue to be a Windows user.

Off and on, I’ve been reading other blogs, Internet forums and PC publications looking for “free” backup software that does what I want. In researching products, I focused primarily on things that had free versions or were completely free. Ultimately, there are literally dozens and dozens of free or low-cost backup solutions out there. Because of the numerous options, I focused my research in on the following products.

  • DriveImage XML: I started off with DriveImage XML because it was a package I had tinkered with in the past and it was free. It ticked off the majority of my must-haves, but lacked nice Windows Explorer integration or the ability to do differential backups.
  • EaseUs To-Do Backup Free: A very simple to use backup utility that ticked off all of the check marks on my list except for Windows Explorer integration.
  • Windows Backup and Restore: Pretty simple to use and set up, I like that it has some of the Windows Explorer integration features I was after, but this software is only included in certain versions of Windows Vista, and all versions of Windows 7. Because I still have older PCs, I chose not to use this.
  • Genie Timeline Free: I found this product through a page on Superuser.com. It seems to be the best Time Machine equivalent for the average Windows user.

Ultimately, I have decided to to purchase Genie Timeline Pro, the more feature packed version of Genie Timeline. As of the time this blog was published, Genie9 is running a 50% off promotion on this software.

To Be Continued

All the “fun” work is over and this is where the rubber meets the road. Over the next week I will work on installing and configuring Genie Timeline Pro and blogging about how it works backing up to the FreeNAS machine.

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