The Ultimate Triple Backup Solution For Your Mac [Mac OSX]

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mac backupAs 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.

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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.

mac backup

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.

If you’d prefer a completely free solution, Carbon Copy Cloner is donation-ware that’s been around a long time, first featured here on MakeUseOf back in 2009.

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.

Time Machine

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).

Offsite Backup

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.

mac backup

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?

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Comments (16)
  • BluesBrother

    Well, two out of three ain’t bad, right? ;-)

    Like you, I use SuperDuper! to make a bootable backup – every night. And I make a fresh backup every week. I can (and have) booted that backup on another machine and been back in business in no time.

    I also use Time Machine to make incremental backups. I rely on the bootable backup for full system-level recovery, and the TM backup to recover an individual file or directory. It’s saved my bacon more than once when I accidentally deleted something – permanently.

    Alas, these backups are both onsite, so in the event of a disaster (fire, flood, theft, etc.) I could still be out of business.

    So, I’ve been considering off-site backup for awhile, now, and your article was pretty much the push I needed to get off the dime and do it. I’ve got a good backup plan, but as I always say, “Good enough is not good enough.”

    On another note… large, binary files (databases, VM’s, and the like) are somewhat problematic, in that the slightest change in the file triggers a complete backup of the new version (in Time Machine, for example). Consequently, such files are often excluded from TM backups in order to prevent rapidly chewing through backup disk space. But one really needs a solution for these types of files, too. Since my bootable backup is wiped every week, I could be screwed if I needed to recover a file beyond the age of my bootable backup. What to do? I’m thinking about this particular problem right now, because I just lost a (corrupted) 16GB email database and I had no backup that wasn’t also corrupted.

    Thanks for a great and thought-provoking article!

  • Boni Oloff

    I think backup is a need. But many people is ignoring it.. Including me. :D

  • Daizy

    Although Time Machine is a nice backup tool, it keeps incremental backup. But, you can not make bootable backup via Time Machine. I prefer Stellar Drive Clone software to create clone of my Mac boot volume. It is one of the famous backup tool, you can keep your data either in the form of image or clone.

  • Dieter Verbeken

    i would like to recommend DollyDrive ( They provide an app for your Mac that will reconfigure Time Machine to store your backups online. This tool also has an clone option, a sync directory (to sync files between computers), an online directory (to share files with others) and an iphone app (to access the Sync- and Share-directories)

    So DollyDrive is basically an all-in-one option because i can take a clone, use time machine to restore a specific version of my files, have my files stored online and upload/sync/share files…

    • muotechguy

      250gb or 1tb plans make this service incredibly expensive.

    • Dieter Verbeken

      true, but i started with the small program, and for every month you use their service you’ll receive an extra 5gb to use as u like. So i can increase the ammount of folders i want to backup (which is sufficient for me right now…)

  • sfmitch

    I am using the 3 backup system, too.

    I only clone (carbon copy cloner) once a month, let time machine run all the time and use Crash Plan.

    The online backup is so cheap that it makes sense to add it on – just in case.

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For more details, please read our disclosure.
Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.