You Can Always Reinstall Your Software… or can you?

One frustration that clients face when recovering from a computer failure or moving to a new computer is reinstalling their productivity software. (Productivity software is the software you use to do your job: for example, Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Cloud.) This is a minor frustration compared with what it takes to recover data that wasn’t backed up, but it’s still hard to be productive when you have all your data but you’ve lost the software that you use to create and maintain it.

Once software is installed on a computer, the installation source and any license numbers are out of sight, out of mind for most people. Thus, they tend to misplace the files and information they used to install it, despite warnings from software companies to hold onto them. Today, I am going to explain why it’s important to make sure you keep those things safely stored and documented.

Many computer users fail to understand that while data can be easily copied from one computer to another, most software cannot be, at least on Windows computers. Software that runs under Windows typically includes common files that are stored in the Windows folders, other common files that are stored in shared folders within the Program Files or Program Files (x86) folders, configuration files stored in subfolders of the invisible ProgramData folder and the user’s invisible AppData folder, and Windows Registry settings. Because of this, most software made for Windows computers must be properly installed within Windows in order to run. There are utilities that purport to transfer software from one copy of Windows to another, but I’ve never seen one that works well. There is simply no substitute for making sure your installation source and license information are available.

“Just make full image backups!”, I hear some people answer. (A full image backup is a snapshot of absolutely everything stored on a computer, which, when restored, transforms the computer to exactly the way it was at the time the backup was made.) Unfortunately, while this can work around the problem in some cases, it’s not a cure-all. Full image backups take a long time to make, relative to data-only backups, and also consume much larger amounts of storage space. It’s expensive to make and keep full image backups of all your computers locally, and generally impractical to make them online. And restoring a full image backup is really most helpful after you’ve repaired a failed computer. Using them to load up a new computer often results in system instability. (The “restore to dissimilar hardware” feature found in some image backup software is best for restoring a backed up computer temporarily a new computer, just long enough to get everything you need off of it, and then restoring the new computer back to the operating system that came with it.) Full image backups are also not much help when a single program becomes corrupt. Who wants to restore an entire full image backup just to regain access to Adobe Acrobat Pro, for example?

For the installation sources, I recommend using both of the following methods: First, keep any original media, such as CDs, DVDs, USB flash drives and downloaded files. (Downloaded files can be stored on whatever media are most convenient for you.) If the media didn’t come in an easily stored box, folio or envelope labeled with its name and version, then put it in something that can be so labeled. You can designate a drawer, cabinet shelf or box to hold these. Second, for redundancy and convenience, you should also copy your original media. (It’s completely legal to do this for the purpose of making sure you don’t lose your software. It’s only illegal if you share your copies with someone else.) If you have a network server or network attached storage device (NAS), you can create a software installations share on it and copy your installation media to subfolders within that share. Again, be sure that one way or another, you preserve the software titles, versions, system requirements and any special installation instructions for each program.

Similarly, you should keep at least two copies of your license keys on hand. The first should be kept in printed form with your original installation media. For example, if you purchased QuickBooks on CD, be sure you store one copy of the license key for QuickBooks with the CD. For the second copy, I recommend a document or spreadsheet into which you transcribe your license keys — and be sure to double-check your transcriptions. Your document or spreadsheet can be stored with the copies you made of your original installation media for your software.

Nowadays, many software titles are distributed electronically. You purchase the software online, and the company e-mails you the license information and a link to download the installation files. It’s fine to keep track of the license keys by keeping the original e-mails in an easy-to-find folder in your e-mail, if you like. However, the software companies may not keep the installers available for download in perpetuity, so it’s a good idea to keep a copy or two of the downloaded installers.

One final note: Some software, like QuickBooks, is provided to you when you purchase it, and the software company periodically sends out updates for it during its lifecycle. As with original installers, though, the software company may not keep the updates available forever. That can be a problem for software like QuickBooks, in which updates may alter the data files and render them unusable with older builds of the software. So, if the updates are provided via download, it’s a good idea to keep copies of the updates with the original installers. (Some updates are just that – updates – while others are free-standing installers that will install the latest build of a particular program.)

Unfortunately, there are some software packages that download and apply their updates autonomously, without the company providing you a download to install. If you have to reinstall a program like that too long past what the software company considers end-of-life for that program, then you may have no choice but to purchase the latest version. If your company depends on any such software, it’s best to be proactive about making sure you’re always using a supported version, even if that means buying and upgrading to the newest version every few years.

Properly maintaining your software library will make the difference between a smooth computer restoration or replacement, or suffering serious loss of productivity when equipment fails or must be replaced. It makes sense to take care of this before an emergency arises. If you don’t feel up to doing it yourself, then please don’t hesitate to hire Lebowitz IT Services to help you organize your software installers and license keys.

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