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

James Bruce 08-06-2012

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 4 Resources to Become a Backup Master with Time Machine [Mac] Read More 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.

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 Carbon Copy Cloner - A Free & Powerful Backup Utility (Mac) Read More .


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 How To Backup Your Mac With A Homemade Time Capsule After losing some fairly important accounting files recently, I realised that my backup strategy is quite flawed. Although I take a weekly bootable backup of my Mac, that doesn't really help when I deleted the... Read More , 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 The Windows Backup and Restore Guide Disasters happen. Unless you're willing to lose your data, you need a good Windows backup routine. We'll show you how to prepare backups and restore them. Read More .

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?

Related topics: Computer Maintenance, Data Backup.

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  1. William Johnson
    September 29, 2016 at 7:04 pm

    The article is several years old, and things change rapidly. It probably wouldn't be much work to update it. For example, Carbon Copy Cloner is no longer free; it actually costs more than SuperDuper now.

    I also disagree that Carbonite is a "premium service" -- they spend too much money on advertising, and there are better off-site choices. Also, since the most useful aspect of this article is dividing up backup into broad categories, here's another sub-category for you: offsite options that require both the software plus an account on their server (such as Carbonite), vs. offsite options that provide you with only the software, and you arrange a separate independent server provider (such as Arq).

  2. noname
    September 13, 2016 at 6:00 am

    you have a great guide, but I am still looking further to adopt your options to a less expensive and reliable way of backing up my data. For example by using free online services like dropbox, onedrive and google. Google photos have an unlimited backup of photos of a determinated size.

    And for windows users onedrive is a realiable service I think, as long as you don't need more than 5gb of data to backup online.

    I think the important think if, unlike you other people like me want to do a cheap but realiable backup. Is to value your data according to their content. Not every single gb needs to by backup three times, but maybe the most important gigabytes does. For example, some people would value their official documents and photos more than their movies or music. Other won't. Me myself, do and I have envise a way to use some small storage device to do that and keep it same with me in case of fire.

    You know, there are some small SSD storage in the market these days.

  3. BluesBrother
    December 25, 2014 at 11:52 pm

    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!

  4. Boni Oloff
    November 14, 2012 at 3:49 am

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

  5. Daizy
    October 31, 2012 at 9:30 am

    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.

  6. Dieter Verbeken
    June 11, 2012 at 9:17 am

    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
      June 11, 2012 at 9:54 am

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

      • Dieter Verbeken
        June 11, 2012 at 10:05 am

        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...)

  7. sfmitch
    June 9, 2012 at 1:44 pm

    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.

  8. Bruce Epper
    June 9, 2012 at 11:28 am

    Windows backups, not Mac here, but a rather complex hardware setup with HUGE amounts of data (there is currently 9TB of storage attached to my system with approximately 280GB as bootable partitions and the remainder is data, VHDs and VirtualBox VMs).

    OS and program partition is backed up to a virtual disk for use in VirtualBox using Paragon's Hard Disk Manager Suite 12 using its P2V functionality. This means that I can run my production system on any machine that is running VirtualBox. It'll run slower, but I can still work with it. Once I have a replacement machine/drive, it is a simple matter to do a V2P Restore operation and have everything back in place and if it is on different hardware, it can even do driver injection during the restore so I don't have to fight to change system drivers just to get it to boot the first time after the restore. This P2V backup is only done when installed software changes or major reconfiguration of software happens. The resulting vdi is saved on a second internal hard disk and also replicated out to another drive in a 4-bay eSATA toaster. The same process is done on the XP partition on the primary drive.

    Data resides on a third partition of the primary drive, the second internal drive and 4 other drives that are plugged into the toaster as needed. That toaster along with another single-bay toaster will house the appropriate drives for backups. VHDs used for alternate boot scenarios (primarily for software testing so it won't corrupt my normal operating environments) are stored on the second internal drive for usage and backed up to one of my toaster drives. These backups are done manually as required and exempt from the automated backups for the rest of the system as the smallest VHD is 40GB.

    I have two copies of one full data backup that is used as my baseline. One copy is kept here and the other at my dad's place across town (physical drive). When I decide that my differentials are growing too large, I will create two more copies of a baseline data backup and rotate the drive at my dad's house.

    My nightly differentials are kept locally. Once a week I will push a copy of the differential to an online host.

    All backups are encrypted by default.

    I am hoping to change this entire process later this year by building a LARGE NAS server with mirrored storage which will house all data and backups will be done to a large tape unit instead with a more flexible rotation schedule. It will also be able to be used as a backup destination for my parent's and sibling's computers (possibly using CrashPlan) giving them a free option too.

    • muotechguy
      June 11, 2012 at 8:26 am

      Thats... immense. 9TB? That's a lot of... movies?

      Have you thought about writing a guide on the topic? You probably should.

      • Bruce Epper
        June 12, 2012 at 12:30 pm

        There is about 180GB of music which is about half of my CD collection that I have ripped so I don't need to keep changing discs while working.

        I have also ripped most of my DVDs as well as converted VHS tapes and home movies and those are currently taking up about 2.5TB of space. This also includes intermediate files used by my editing tools and my experiments that are not quite what I want, but may end up being what will get used if I can't figure out how to do it to my satifaction. Sometimes even perfectionists have to realize that perfection may be unattainable. :(

        I have one 2TB drive that is dedicated to programming utilities, frameworks, compilers, source code (I generally keep all revisions so I can backtrack when errors are found and can advise users which versions are affected), programs compiled from said source code (with the same revision retention problem - yeah, I'm anal about that stuff), video tutorials, sample code, eBooks - pretty much anyhing that I have dealing with programming.

        There is another 700GB in Linux distros, VirtualBox VMs and Virtual PC VMs (inluding XP Mode), beta versions of software that I am working with such as Win8 RP and related materials.

        There is just shy of 150GB of current versions of tools that I am frequently installing for other people including various antivirus/antimalware tools, general utilities (Adobe - *shudder*, PDF readers, codecs, commonly required updates from Microsoft, etc). This includes a section where all of the current patches required for XP, Vista, and Win7 are located. These are updated once a month shortly after patch Tuesday. When I first work on another computer especially if it is on a slow internet connection, I can generate a CD/DVD that I can use to automatically apply all of the latest required patches that are not on the system. It saves a boatload of time.

        There is a 2TB drive that is normally connected where the latest backup will be dropped.

        The remainder of the space is documents, databases (a couple of them are reaching the 100+ GB mark), OneNote notebooks, text files, digital magazines (like Dr. Dobb's Journal), photos, a locked down directory where I have a WinXP SP3 baseline package stored which is used to generate custom system recovery CDs and DVDs, a few games and other miscellaneous items.

        As far as writing a guide to backups, it isn't something I've never even thought about trying to tackle. There are just too many variables to be able to do it justice without writing a monstrous tome. What is sufficient for one won't even scratch the surface for another and yet be overkill for someone else. Pretty much everything needs to be tailored based on risk, importance of the data, time constraints for both backup and restore, ease of restoration of critical elements, hardware involved, and so much more. Pretty much every client I've ever had or every company I have worked for has ended up with radically different plans for backup and/or disaster recovery when it has been a concern for them (and for most home users, it isn't even a blip on the radar).

        • muotechguy
          June 15, 2012 at 10:11 am

          Well, that would be pretty good advice to start a guide with I think!

          Anyway, thats a pretty incredible amount of data and backup system you've got there, so thanks for sharing, Bruce.

  9. Ben Weber
    June 9, 2012 at 10:52 am

    Not crazy at all...on my Windows 7 machine, I use Shadow Copy Cloner to make a clone to a second internal drive, and I use Crashplan to do an offsite internet file backup and also back up to an external USB drive (crashplan lets you back up to multiple places at no additonal cost, even to other computers on your network!). I've had the main disk get corrupted, all I had to do was tell the bios to boot off the backup, and I was back in business with virtually no interruption. I do the clone once a week, not daily, only because if I do get a virus or some other malware, I want to decrease the chance of putting it on my cloned drive. I have individual files on the other backups anyway, should I need them (yeah, I know, I have to be careful not to restore the infected file!). But while all this backup sounds excessive, it has pretty much no perceptible impact on the all happens behind the scenes. Sadly, most of the people who do this kind of thorough backup are the ones who have had disks irreparably wiped out before!

  10. Ricki Ohana
    June 8, 2012 at 9:26 pm

    Disaster did strike one day and I learned my lesson the hard way. I keep my Mac clean from unnecessary things so I use my WD1Tb external Drive for everything. My 1Tb is partitioned. A small part for cloning my Mac just-in-case for booting with Carbon Copy Cloner, and the second main partition with ALL my stuff I Sync with Sync Two Folders to my 500Gb External Drive, which is always disconnected so it's an 'outside' back up.

    This is a weekly back up session but a few hours a week sure is worth keeping everything safe.

    Better to be safe than sorry is my motto.

    • Justin Winokur
      June 9, 2012 at 3:06 am

      If there were a fire/flood or even if someone broke into your home and stole everything off your desk, your disconnected drive would be very much "inside"

      • Ricki Ohana
        June 9, 2012 at 9:54 am

        Not exactly. The disconnected drive is hidden but close to hand. So when I said 'outside' i meant that literally.

  11. Justin Winokur
    June 8, 2012 at 7:18 pm

    This sounds very much like my backups. The biggest difference is that I do not have a clone. Reinstalling the OS and doing TimeMachine restore will get me pretty darn close to the same state. So, instead, I have a TimeMachine drive at work and at home. Since I take my laptop everyday, I keep them both fairly up to date.

    Also, I use Backblaze instead of the companies you mentioned. Having never used those guys, I cannot say which is better or worse. However, I really appreciate Backblaze's openness with their hardware specs. And, at the time I started using them, they had the locate tool, but Apple now has that too. I do wish they have an iOS client and supported Linux. Maybe in the future.