My Backup Strategy

I recently read an article entitled Mac Software for Advanced OS X Users over at AppStorm, and one of the tools it tipped me off to was SMARTReporter. SMART stands for “Self-Monitoring, Analysis, and Reporting Technology”, and it is a monitoring technology built into most hard disks. SMARTReporter asks the drive for it’s status every once in awhile, and if there is trouble, it alerts you. This seemed like a good idea, so I installed it. Just a few weeks later, SMARTReporter began notifying me that OS X was reporting I/O Errors with the drive. Soon after the first few warnings the computer started hanging. I quickly attached one of my external backup drives, and while it took some time, I was able to update the backup to include any files that had changed since my last backup.

I took the computer to the Apple Store and while they were ready to replace the drive under warranty immediately, I had a non-standard drive. When I ordered my Macbook I chose the 7200RPM disk, which isn’t typically carried in the physical Apple Stores. They ordered the disk, and the next day they called me back to say it had arrived and to schedule a time to bring the machine in to have it replaced. They replaced the drive in about 20 minutes, and when I got home I hooked up that aforementioned backup drive and had my computer restored to normal in no time.

Now this entire ordeal was annoying, but I never truly got angry. The truth is that my fairly regimented backup strategy gave me the confidence to know that there was almost no chance of me losing any data. In fact, in the 24 hours between my visits to the Apple Store, I was able to continue to use my laptop by booting off of that Firewire Backup disk. I honestly didn’t expect the replacement to arrive in 24 hours, so I even went a bit overboard and MacGyver’ed a method of keeping my laptop portable while using the external disk.

In a few conversations I’ve had since all of this happened, some questions have come up about my backup methods, so I figured I would write them up here.

I love my MacBook Pro, but at the end of the day it is just a hunk of hardware that will go bad at some point. The data stored on that computer is much more valuable (to me) than the hardware itself. My computer contains email archives going back to the early 90s, photos going back even further, all of my music, documents, writing, code, and more. Preventing the loss of this data is worth a bit of hassle, but I promise you that my methodology is only a bit of hassle. In practice it isn’t anywhere near as painful as it seems. I start with the low-hanging fruit and then get into the more involved practices. The most important thing to take away from this is that no backup method is 100% reliable, so make sure you choose more than one way to backup your files.

  1. The first line of my defense is Dropbox, which is where my “Documents” folder lives. Dropbox gives every user a free 2GB virtual disk that lives “in the cloud” (in other words, online). The Dropbox application which runs on your computer ensures that a copy of that virtual disk is also in a directory on your computer. If you add, modify or delete a file in the Dropbox folder on your computer, it will (almost) instantly be copied up to “the cloud”. If you are offline and modify files on your computer, the next time you are online it will copy any changes up. Furthermore, you can run Dropbox on multiple computers and it will keep all of them in sync. Want to get at your documents at work? Easy. This is one of those brain-dead simple tools that can be a lifesaver.
  2. The next step is Apple-specific. Apple’s Time Machine is backup for everyone. It requires almost no configuration and can totally save your bacon. In a default configuration, you pick an external hard disk to use, and every time you connect it it will backup your computer automatically. If you leave that external hard disk connected all the time (as in the case of a desktop computer) then Time Machine will perform a backup every hour. One great side effect of this is that it keeps old versions of files it has backed up around, so if you accidentally deleted a file yesterday, or made a change which you want to “undo”, you can grab the file from last week’s backup. They have made the configuration so simple that the act of simply attaching an external disk to your computer is enough; Mac OS will ask you if you want to use it with Time Machine. If you are a 100% laptop user like me, you may want to invest in Apple’s Time Capsule, which is a network device which Time Machine can backup to over the network, freeing you from having to connect disks to your computer. As a bonus it is a Wireless-N router, so you can kill a few birds with one stone.
  3. As if Time Machine and Dropbox got mashed together, BackBlaze [referral link] backs up your hard disk to that pesky “cloud”. The service costs $50 a year, but for that you get a complete, off-site online backup of your computer. That first backup takes several days, but it just plugs along in the background and you will most likely not even notice it is working. Once it is all backed up, it will copy updated or changed files up to their servers on the fly to keep your backup current. Note the emphasized words back there, off-site. In the event of a real disaster (fire, flood, robbery or the like), any number of backups at your home might be destroyed. That is why paying for one of these services is worth it. BackBlaze has several competitors (Carbonite and Mozy, among others), so take some time and figure out which one works best for you. Note that BackBlaze won’t back up any files bigger than 9GB. This is much bigger than only the largest video files, but it is good to note. (Update [20120331]: BackBlaze has removed the limitation on file size, though it is still restricted by default. You can easily change the default in the BackBlaze preferences panel)
  4. One of the things that NONE of these previous methods will get you is a way to get RIGHT back on your feet after a hard disk crash. If you want that you are going to need to keep a live copy of your hard disk, and the best way to do that (on a Mac) is with Carbon Copy Cloner (which is “donation-ware”, meaning it is free but the developer could use your support). Get (another) external hard disk, particularly one that your computer can boot from (on most Mac’s this means a FireWire drive, but check to make sure). Then use Carbon Copy Cloner to create a clone of your computers hard disk onto this external disk. Once you’ve done this, try and boot your computer off of this external drive. If you were successful, your computer should boot and look exactly the same as it normally does (although the external drives are often much slower, so everything may take a bit longer). Repeat this ‘cloning’ on a regular basis so if the hard disk dies in your computer you have a quick way to get back on your feet. I have a calendar alarm every Saturday morning to remind me to connect my clone drive.
    1. Advanced Tip: If you want to make life a bit easier on yourself, investigate CCC’s “Scheduled Tasks” functionality. You can cause a clone to happen automatically when you connect your external clone drive, and you can also cause it to only clone what has changed since your last clone (which should cause the clone to take much less time).
    2. Extra Credit: Once you get a CCC workflow that works for you, you may wish to consider duplicating your efforts with a second clone drive, and keep that second clone drive off site. Keep it at your desk at work or even at a trusted friend’s house. I personally keep my second drive in a safe deposit box at my bank. So I am not going to the bank every week, I keep one clone drive at home, and I clone to it every Saturday. Then once a month or so, I go to the bank and swap the clone drives. This way I have a clone that is no more than a week old at home, and one that is no more than a month old off site.

That all looks complicated, but really only the 4th level requires any “manual” intervention. Once Dropbox, Time Machine and BackBlaze are all set up, they don’t really require any work on your part. And for those first three methods, the initial setup is really easy, even for the novice.

Please don’t let the apparent complexity of #4 scare you off easily, because having a clone to boot from can be a life-saver. Because of this cloned drive, when the hard disk in my Mac started to fail last week, I simply ran CCC to update the clone before the drive completely died, then I rebooted my machine off the clone and was back to the races. I then ran off of this backup until Apple got the replacement drive in, and when I got home from Apple I just used CCC to clone that external drive back onto the new disk from Apple. Given that it only took Apple 24 hours to receive the replacement drive, this might seem like a bit of overkill, but what if it had been a few days? Or a week? I added #4 to my regimen after my last drive failure, I was out of commission for a few days because I didn’t have a clone to boot from.

The key thing to remember, especially about methods 2-4, is that unless you configure them otherwise, they will backup every file on your system. Even files that you might not think are important will get backed up. To me, this is a key feature of good backup strategy. Unimportant files have a notorious way of becoming really important the moment after a hard disk crash. Any backup method which requires you to manually select or copy files yourself is doomed to failure.