As the developer here at MakeUseOf and as someone who earns their entire income from working online, it’s fair to say my computer and data are quite important. They’re set up perfectly for productivity with my favourite apps and preferences. That’s why when my hard drive ground to a halt yesterday, I got a little bit panicky.
Luckily, the warning signs had been there since about a month ago with random read errors on large files; and I had been sensible enough to implement a full backup plan in preparation for this very day. If you’re in the same position as me and your data is critical – read on for the ultimate 3-way backup plan.
Why Bother Backing Up? Nothing Ever Happens…
It certainly does happen. Hard drives and power supplies are the most common failures in any computer. Worse still, your home might be burgled, burned, or buried in an earthquake. More likely though is that your hard drive will just break.
Even if you don’t earn your living with your Mac, would you be happy if your extensive collection of family photos from the last 10 years just disappeared overnight?
3 Mac Backups? Are You Mad?
Not in the slightest. Let me explain:
One is a bootable cloned drive – an exact copy of everything that’s updated nightly. In the event of my main drive failing, this bootable clone drive can be picked up, taken to another Mac, and booted from right then and there, instantly giving me an exact copy of my daily work machine. That’s exactly what I’m working from now. Unlike Windows drives, the operating system and data is not tied to a single machine – they’re hardware independent and entirely portable.
Right now, the system I was previously running on a late 2009 iMac is being run on my old 2006 Macbook Pro. This is one of the reasons I choose Macs over PCs – being able to get back up and running again in under 5 minutes is fantastic; no re-install needed.
The second backup is a Time Machine. It’s always a good idea to have a secondary backup in place that isn’t an identical mirror of your main drive, because if a file gets corrupted or deleted from the main drive then the mirror is going to simply replicate the problem. A Time Machine backup ensures you have a good amount of flexibility to roll back changes to files; or undelete something.
Relying on either Time Machine or a bootable clone is really not enough; the Time Machine is a versioning file store that will let you roll back changes but you can’t actually boot from it.
Thirdly, something off-site is needed. It’s all very well having a time machine and bootable backup, but if your house burns down or the devices are stolen then it was all meaningless. An off-site backup ensures your precious data will persist even through natural disasters.
Note that “burning to DVD” is not included anywhere here, because it’s an productive waste of time burning disposable media that’s simply going to decay and corrupt your data. You’d also need approximately 110 DVDs to back up 500GB.
Okay, I’m Convinced. How Do I Do This & What Do I Need?
Bootable Cloned Drive
My app of choice here is SuperDuper. It’s a premium bit of software at $27.95 (though basic backup functionality can be had for free), but the support is superb and it gets things done reliably and without error. The smart update and scheduling ensures I’m not doing a full backup every night, but only the bits that have changed.
Both of these apps can be used to back up to a remote network drive, but I suggest using them primarily to make a bootable backup on an external USB hard drive.
The location one doesn’t really matter. You could purchase an official Time Capsule from Apple for upwards of $250 refurbished, or simply use another internal or external drive. Network shares are not fully supported, but I wrote a tutorial on setting one up in Windows Home Server, though I admit I haven’t tried this again in Lion.
There’s even hacks to run an Ubuntu Time Machine server, but bear in mind that unless you’re using the officially sanctioned methods then there’s always a chance things will break in the software update (this includes third-party Network Storage devices that claim to support Time Machine).
I’ve chosen to use a premium service here from Carbonite, but Crashplan offers a similar unlimited backup plan, both for around $60/year. As Matt wrote about a few weeks ago, Crashplan also has a free version that enables you to back up to a friend; assuming they don’t live next door – and you both have enough spare drive storage to do this reciprocally – it’s a great free, off-site backup solution.
In the strictest sense, off-site may mean you take a physical drive and leave it somewhere else, but in practical terms this makes daily backups obviously difficult; and frankly unccessary with most consumers on high speed broadband connections.
That’s my ultimate 3 point backup plan for Mac. If you don’t already have backups in place, I seriously suggest you get started on one today. The only truly reliable backup is to have at least 3, some of which are off-site. What I’ve outlined here means you can be up and running again from a backup drive, yet secured against backing up corrupted files, and able to withstand anything the world will throw at you.
Also check out Tina’s PDF manual on backing up and restoring your computer.
What about you? Have you faced disaster and now realise the value of Mac backups? Or do you just not bother? What methods do you use?