Bulletproof Mac Backup Solutions For 2012

by Justin Thomas •

We store more photographs, videos, music and documents on our computers today than ever before. Many of those files are irreplaceable. It makes sense to have a comprehensive backup strategy in place, so you’ll never be surprised by an unfortunate event.

In this article, I will present some bulletproof Mac backup techniques which will work quietly in the background without your intervention. While researching this strategy, I gleaned many ideas from Joe Kissell’s excellent book, Take Control Of Backing-Up Your Mac.

A Simple, Comprehensive Backup Method

Here’s a easy and bulletproof way to backup all your Macs — install the Crashplan application on all the notebooks and desktops you own, and have it continuously backup you data to their online storage, or a friend’s computer. See Step 3 (below) for more details.

An Industrial-Strength Backup Method

Using this backup strategy, you can create fault-tolerant backups that run without any intervention. The steps are:

  1. Buy an Mirrored (Raid 1) External Drive for each Mac you own, and Use Apple’s free Time Machine to perform automatic versioned backups every hour
  2. Install the free Carbon Copy Cloner software on each Mac you own, and set up automated bootable backups that are refreshed twice a week
  3. Install the Crashplan application on each Mac you own, and use their service to perform off-site backups twice a week

Step 1: Use Apple’s Time Machine To Perform Versioned Backups

Apple’s Time Machine first appeared with the Leopard OS X in 2007. It’s good tool to backup your Mac. It runs automatically, creating versioned backups of you data every hour. It keeps hourly backups for 24 hours, it keeps daily backups for the past month, and weekly backups for all previous months. This is useful because if, for example, you accidentally delete a file you want, and you don’t notice for a week, you’ll still be able to restore that file from a weekly backup. Time Machine won’t create bootable backups, but you can restore a fully bootable version of your entire home drive from your Time Machine backup.

My recommendation is to use Time Machine to backup to an external drive. External drives are the best choice for backups today — they are now inexpensive and convenient. By using an external drive, your backup is portable, which is handy, because you can unplug the drive and restore data to another computer. Also, if your computer is destroyed by a coffee spill or power surge, the external drive will probably survive.

I recommend getting an external drive that supports mirroring (or Raid 1). Mirrored volumes actually have two separate hard drives housed in a single case, and the drives work in tandem. When you save a file to the external volume, the file is copied to each of the two separate drives. If one of those drives fails, your data will still be available on the remaining drive. After ordering a replacement drive, you insert that new drive into the external drive case, the data will automatically be copied from the working drive.

Note, though, that it is still possible to lose data on mirrored drive. If you accidentally delete a file on the mirrored volume, that deletion will be mirrored on both drives immediately! Also, mechanical failure can occur — such as a drive controller becoming faulty and writing bad data on both drives. Nevertheless, mirrored drives do offer a layer of protection against mechanical failures.

I recommend getting an mirrored external drive with a 5 year warranty, because drive failures are quite common. I’ll be publishing a follow-up article with recommendations on purchasing an external drive. Sneak preview: my two top choices are the Western Digital My Book Studio II and the ioSafe Solo.

If you have more than two Mac desktops or several Mac notebooks, you might consider backup them with a Time Capsule from Apple. This device allows you to backup multiple computers over a home wireless network. Note though, that Time Capsules cannot be used to create a bootable backups, so you’ll have to buy an additional hard drive do this.

Step 2: Use Carbon Copy Cloner To Make Bootable Backups

Bootable backups are quite useful to have on hand. If your Mac hard drive fails, you can send it in for repair immediately. You can then boot up from your duplicate copy using another computer. Bootable backups are also handy if an OS X upgrade goes wrong — you can easily restore your data from your bootable backup. Also, if you need to upgrade your hard drive, you can simply copy the bootable backup to your new hard drive.

SuperDuper Main

To create bootable backups, you need a dedicated application. It’s not good enough to use Finder to copy all your data from your computer’s hard drive, because your copy won’t be bootable. I recommend using a dedicated application like SuperDuper ($27.95) or Carbon Copy Cloner (free). These applications allow you to make bootable copies of your home drive quite easily. These applications can be configured to automatically update your backups on a schedule basis. The application will have to update the files that have changed, so the process will be relatively quick (it takes about 5 minutes on my computer). Mac backup expert Joe Kissell recommends updating your bootable backups at least once a week, or nightly if you want your backups to be very fresh.

To sum up,  bootable backups are certainly handy to have, but they are not essential. If you have another way to boot your Mac in case of failure, and you already have a backup of all your important files, you might not want to bother with mirrored backups.

Step 3: Use An Online Backup Service To Make Off-Site Backups

Let’s now turn to a type of backup that few people consider, the off-site backup, or the backup that physically exists outside your home. With an off-site backup, you’ll be safe against disasters that destroy both your Mac and any backup drives you might own. Disasters of this sort would include a house fire, a flood, theft, an extreme power surge, or perhaps a extreme coffee spill!

To protect against this, I recommend using a online backup service. There are many competing services available, but the highest rated service for Macs is the Crashplan service. It has many sophisticated backup features, and it’s also one of the least expensive out there. Macworld U.K. gave it an Editors’ Choice award, and it was a top pick for backup software in Macworld, Mac Format Magazine and Digital Inspiration.

Getting started

Crashplan is a backup application that stores your data online, on a local hard drive, on a remote computer, or on friend’s home. The initial backup will probably take multiple days or even weeks to complete (as a background process) — like all online backup services, your data needs to be uploaded via your internet connection. However, after that initial upload, Crashplan works in the background quietly updating the backup with only your new or changed files. Crashplan is quite smart about what it updates — it will only copy what’s absolutely necessary and it will compress the file before storing it. Crashplan uses a process called “sub-file updating”, where only part of a file gets updated. For example, if you have a 10GB file on you computer and only a only a few bytes have changed within that file, Crashplan would only upload the portion of the file that has changed, rather than the whole 10GB file. As you might expert, this greatly reduces overall upload time when refreshing your backups. Also, Crashplan encrypts you data files with the very secure 448-bit Blowfish .

The Crashplan application is free — it is supported by ads that appear in the application’s interface (although during my tests I did not see any). The online storage rate are: $24.99 per year for 10GB of space, $49.99 per year for unlimited storage space (data must backed up from one computer), and $119.99 per year for unlimited storage space (data can be backed up from 2-10 computers).

You can also elect to backup your data to a friend’s computer. To do this, your friend must also have the Crashplan application installed. Your files are sent over the internet to your friend’s computer. They are encrypted on the friend’s system, so they won’t be able to read the contents or even see the filename. You can, however, enter your password on their system to restore the backup. If you are hosting somebody’s backup on your computer, you can set a storage limit and blackout times for backup activity. You can also use Crashplan to backup to another computer or external drive you own.

If you live in the U.S., Crashplan also offers a “seed” service where the company sends you an 1 TB hard drive, and you can copy your data to the hard drive where it will be encrypted. You then send the hard drive back to Crashplan, and they will copy all your data into your online storage space. This service costs $129-$165, and it includes shipping both ways. If you don’t mind the cost, this a great way to get your data online quickly.

Yocan attach one or more external USB 2.0 drives to the Time Capsule to increase its storage capacity, as well as a shared USB printer (though you’ll need a USB hub to attach more than one USB device). As I write this, two models are available— one with a 2 TB drive ($299) and the other with a 3 TB drive ($499).

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