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What Is Differential Backup and How Can I Benefit from It?

What Is Differential Backup and How Can I Benefit from It?

You probably already know how essential the process of backing up is to protecting your data from getting lost or corrupted, but did you know that devising and implementing an efficient and optimal backup strategy can be quite complex? Backup services and plugins may simplify the process of backup, but the variety of particular types of backup operations they offer requires you to invest a bit more thought into making a choice of tool and strategy.

In this article we’ll go over the main three types of backup — full, incremental, and differential — and discuss in detail the advantages and disadvantages of each. Then we’ll zero in on differential backups in particular and 10Web’s backup service in general, as well as go over which particular backup strategies that include differential backups will keep your data most safe. Finally, we’ll give answers to a few popular differential backup-related questions and let you make the educated choice. Let’s dive right in!

What’s a full backup?

What is a full backup? - 10Web Blog

A full backup is the “classic” type of backup, what you think of when you think about the backup process intuitively. Namely, it is an exact copy of all your files and folders. A full backup is the starting point of all your other backups: initially you definitely need to make a copy of the entirety of your data to be able to safely restore. Here are the most important advantages and disadvantages of full backups:

  • Fast restore. It’s faster and simpler to restore from a single file that contains all the data, which is an important advantage.
  • Single file storage. Keeping all the backed up data in a single file results in better storage management. Besides, full backups are self-contained.
  • High storage space requirements compared to other backup types. Also, since you likely don’t change all your data that often, using only full backups wastes a lot of storage space.
  • Potential security issues. Since all the data is stored in one place, if your backup media somehow gets accessed or compromised, you lose it all.
  • Slowest type of backup. It does take quite a while to copy all those files if your site is somehow significant in size.

Do keep in mind though that nowadays full backups are almost always used in combination with either of the two other, “smarter” backup types we’ll discuss next.

What’s a differential backup?

What is a differential backup? - 10Web Blog

A differential backup is when a backup creates copies of only the files changed since the last full backup. For example, if you’ve set your site to perform full backups only on Sundays and get by with just differential ones on other days of the week, this is how your backup process will go:

  • Sunday: All the data.
  • Monday: Changes since the Sunday backup.
  • Tuesday: Changes since the Sunday backup (including the ones already backed up on Monday).

Here are the main advantages and disadvantages of differential backups:

  • Faster restore than from incremental backups: You only need two backup containers to recover files if you ever need to.
  • Backing up is faster than in the case of full backups, and the storage requirements are significantly lower.
  • The backup process runs longer than in the case of incremental backups and requires more storage space.

Bear in mind that the nature of differential backups is that they inevitably grow in size as you make more and more changes. That’s why you absolutely need to perform periodical full backups to keep the size of the backups reasonable. Basically, differential backups are a perfect choice if you have time to backup, but would want a faster recovery in case of emergency.

What’s an incremental backup?

What is an incremental backup? - 10Web Blog

An incremental backup stores all the changes made since the last backup, no matter if it was full, differential or incremental. For example, if you have a backup schedule of full backups on Sundays, incremental backups on all other days, this is how the process will go:

  • Sunday: All the data.
  • Monday: Changes since the Sunday backup.
  • Tuesday: Changes since the Monday backup.

Incremental backups have these main points of advantages and disadvantages:

  • They require less storage space and are faster than both full and differential backups because every backed up modification is a new one.
  • However, it does take a while to restore from incremental backups: file recovery is pieced together from a typically large number of unique backups.
  • There’s always the danger of one of the backups failing and subsequent incremental backups missing those files.

Basically, the recommendation is to use incremental backups if you somehow cannot dedicate time to the backup process or are fine with the risk of failed data recovery, but are ready to wait for quite some time if you ever need to restore your data.

How can I benefit from the differential backup method?

Creating our very own backup service, which by the way is entirely free and super efficient and reliable, has taught us quite a few things about the benefits of using differential backups.

  • For one, if you have a reliable cloud storage space, for example Amazon S3, like in our case, storage space and safety stops being an issue, and you can totally afford to perform differential backups, instead of incremental ones.
  • Secondly, differential backups are better for your visitors because if your website ever crashes, recovery is a lot faster than in the case of incremental backups. It may be a bit slower than recovery from a full backup, but a full backup also takes forever to be performed, so differential is a nice compromise.
  • Finally, differential backups are less risky than incremental ones because each modification since a full backup is backed up many times before the next full backup, meaning a full data restore will always be possible.

What’s the best backup strategy for my company or website?

Based on the points we discussed above, in the majority of cases the optimal backup strategy is a combination of full and differential backups. The frequency of full backups depends on how often and how radically you update your website. For example, if you change important parts of your website every day, the differential backups will soon become larger than full ones, so it’s better to perform a full backup before proceeding with daily differential ones. The rule of thumb is as soon as you change more than 50% of your website, you should perform a full backup before resuming with differential ones.

Answers to some general backup-related questions

What are the most important features to look for in a WordPress backup plugin or service?

The most important features of a backup service typically include scheduling, the option to store your data on cloud or elsewhere, reliability in terms of functionality and easy restoration, differential backups, real-time backups, and intuitive interface.

How many previous backups should I keep?

According to “the backup rule of three,” you need to:

1. Have at least three copies of your data.

Nowadays though having about 10 data restore points is more than enough to keep your data safe.

2. Use two different media types.

If you’re ever extra unlucky and lose not just live data, but, say, the hard drive with the backup, you’ll have another option.

3. Keep a copy offsite.

If some natural disaster or another dire circumstance destroys all your onsite copies, you’ll have a copy of your website online in a cloud.

This strategy is all about diversifying your backup strategy so that if something happens to one medium or copy, you’ll still have the option to retrieve your backup.

What frequency of backup should I set?

Differential Backup Service - 10Web Dashboard

It depends on how often you update your website and how crucial it is not to lose any data. Check out our article on this topic to find out more.

Hope you found out more about differential backups in particular and the process of backing up in general and can make better choices when it comes to your data protection strategy. Which type of backup or combination of types do you use for your website? Has it been effective thus far? Any tips you’s like to add? We’ll be more than happy to hear from you in the comments section down below!

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Nare Navasardyan
Nare Navasardyan
Nare is a writer at 10Web. Particular interests lie in technologized otherworlds, human sense-making, and cyborgs of all kinds. In her free time she enjoys being a stereotypical lady of letters and verse and petting her black cat Shami.

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