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Website backups are an essential part of any business continuity plan. Whether you’re a blogger, online retailer, or large enterprise, your website is a key asset that contains valuable data like customer information, orders, product details, and more. But what would happen if your server crashed, or files were accidentally deleted? Regular backups ensure you can recover important data with minimal disruption if disaster strikes.

Even the most diligent webmaster is vulnerable to accidents like mistakenly deleting important files or directories with a single click. On the technical side, hard drives fail, servers crash, and other hardware or infrastructure issues can abruptly take a site offline without warning. However, maintaining regular backups protects against potential data loss from these unplanned events by ensuring another copy of critical files and databases exists separately.

Why is website backup important:

Hardware Failures:

Websites rely on servers and other hardware that is prone to technical faults. Hard drives can fail or crash at any time, taking the live site offline. Backups safeguard a copy of critical files so the site can be restored onto replacement hardware.

Software/Code Issues:

Bugs, glitches or faulty updates to the website code, plugins or themes can potentially corrupt files and break functionality. Backups provide the ability to roll back to a previously known good version.

Accidental Deletions:

A single mistake, like accidentally deleting an important file or directory, can cause severe issues. Regular backups act as an “undo” button, allowing files to be recovered from deletion errors.

Security Threats:

Hacking attacks like ransomware may encrypt live files until payment is made. Backups ensure another untouched copy is available to restore the site from.

Human Errors:

Mistakes during site migrations, theme installations, or backend tasks can disrupt the live website. Backups provide a safety net to revert to the last functional state.

Natural Disasters:

Unforeseeable events like fires, floods, or earthquakes may destroy on-site servers and hardware. Remote backups safeguard data from full loss due to force majeure incidents.

Planned Downtime:

Scheduled website maintenance, infrastructure changes, and migrations require the site to be temporarily taken offline. Backups streamline restoring service afterward.

Backup types:

Full backup:

Full backups are an essential part of any website backup strategy. As the name suggests, a full backup captures all website files and database contents without exception. This means that if restored, a full backup is capable of restoring the entire site to the exact state it was in at the time the backup was taken. Because of their comprehensive scope, full backup files are typically larger than other backup types. For this reason, they are best run on a scheduled weekly or monthly basis to prevent backup file growth from becoming unmanageable over time.

Incremental backup:

Unlike full backups that capture all files and database contents, incremental backups only back up files that have been changed or added since the previous backup, whether that was full or incremental. This makes incremental backups much smaller in size and faster to complete compared to Fulls. For this reason, they are well-suited to a daily schedule to regularly capture file system changes on a more frequent basis.

Differential backup:

Differential backups provide a middle-ground option between full and incremental backups. Like incremental, they only capture the changes made since the previous backup. However, differentials back up all changes made since the last full backup, whether or not those specific files were captured by interim incremental backups. This makes differential backups larger than incrementals but smaller than fulls, which capture the entire file system.

Archive/Compressed Backups:

Archive or compressed backups offer an effective optimization to standard backups through data compression. Using archiving techniques like ZIP compression, backup file sizes can frequently be reduced to a fraction of their original sizes. This provides enormous benefits when it comes to backup speeds, as less overall data needs to be processed and transferred during the backup operation. The downside is restoration may take longer than uncompressed files due to decompression overhead.

Cloud/Remote Backups:

Leveraging off-site cloud storage services is the best practice for protecting website backups and enabling disaster recovery. This remote backup strategy protects data even in the event of hardware failures, server issues, or natural disasters affecting the local infrastructure. Many cloud backup platforms also maintain previous file versions over time, letting admins restore from any point in history with granular version control.

A step-by-step guide on how to backup website data:

1. Determine what to backup:

When beginning the backup process, it is important to carefully identify all components of the website that should be included. Taking a full inventory ensures a comprehensive backup that will facilitate complete restoration if needed. This involves auditing both file-based and database content. On the file side, core code, themes, plugins and their assets like images need to be captured. Additionally, any user-uploaded files or server configurations are part of the website. The database’s powering functionality must also be backed up. This commonly includes the main site database along with tables for users, comments, and more.

2. Choose a backup solution:

When it comes to selecting a method for backing up a website, there are several options available. Popular plugin-based solutions like UpdraftPlus, BackupBuddy, and BackWPup provide an automated way to back up all critical files and databases within WordPress environments. These support scheduling backups to both local and cloud storage destinations. For simple file syncing, services like Dropbox or Google Drive integrate seamlessly.

3. Install and configure the backup software:

Once a backup solution is chosen, it needs to be installed and configured properly. This typically involves uploading plugin files or installing from the dashboard. Key configuration steps include connecting to cloud services by setting authentication details. Other settings include selecting the local and cloud locations for storing backups. It’s important to define the schedule, such as daily or weekly backups.

4. Perform a full backup:

To begin effective backing up of the website, it is important to first conduct a complete baseline backup of all current files and databases. This full initial backup is performed through the backup plugin or software by selecting the appropriate backup type, which captures all site files, code, themes, plugins, uploads, and databases in an archive. It is best to monitor this first backup process for any warnings or errors and validate the expected content to be included in the resulting backup file.

5. Schedule incremental backups:

To efficiently capture file system changes over time, incremental backups should be scheduled to automatically run frequently. This involves configuring the backup software to perform incremental backups that only backup changed portions of files since the previous backup. Setting up a daily or weekly schedule ensures these incremental backups stay up to date. As incremental backups are often much faster and produce smaller archives compared to full backups, they strike a good balance.

6. Test restore process:

To ensure backups can be reliably restored when urgently needed, it is important to periodically test the restoration process. This involves selecting a recent full or incremental backup file and initiating a restore, taking care to route it to a separate non-production test or staging environment rather than the live site. During testing, the restore operation is monitored for any errors or missing/corrupted files. Upon completion, it can be validated that all expected website files, code, themes, plugins, and database contents have been properly recovered.

7. Optimize backups:

To keep backups running as efficiently as possible, several optimization techniques should be employed. Backups can be compressed using tools like gzip to greatly reduce file sizes, ensuring faster storage and transfer. It is also important to routinely reduce older backup files beyond the retention period to avoid unnecessary storage usage over time.

8. Store backups securely:

Ensuring backups are properly secured is an important part of the process. In addition to storing backup files locally on the server, it is highly recommended to maintain off-site copies as well. This provides redundancy in case of an on-site disaster or cyber incident. Secure cloud storage services are a popular option for remote backups, as they provide scalable storage in hardened data centers. Encrypting files before uploading adds an extra layer of protection. Alternatively, physical external hard drives can be used, just taken off-premises regularly.

9. Monitor backup logs:

To continuously ensure backups are successful, it is essential to actively monitor the backup logs on a routine basis. Most backup software automatically generates thorough records of each job’s activity that can be reviewed weekly or biweekly. Examining the logs allows administrators to quickly check the status and confirm there were no warnings, failures, or missing files. This validation process helps detect any emerging issues right away before they critically impact the backups.

10. Update backups:

It is critical to the backup strategy to repeat the full backup process anytime significant updates are made to the website. Conducting a new complete backup after making core changes like upgrading WordPress, themes, and plugins, or performing widespread file or database modifications ensures the changes are fully incorporated into the new backup baseline. Regularly scheduled full backups further allow periodic point-in-time snapshots to be captured regardless of updates. Testing recovery from the latest backups following changes validates all alterations can be successfully restored if needed.

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