How to Back Up Your Mac

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My backup plan: Lex Friedman

Macworld cares about your data, and you should too. If you don’t backup, assume that you will someday lose data that is important to you. We’ve covered the basics of how to keep your Mac backed up, and Macworld editor Dan Frakes has already written about his own setup for backing up. Here’s mine.

I like to make backups of my files both on-site (in my home) and off-site. I’ll start with my approach to on-site backup.

My basic setup

My primary machine is a MacBook Pro. I use it as a true laptop at night, and by day it’s hooked into my desk setup with a second monitor, external keyboard, and other devices. I found continually plugging in external hard drives (and then later unmounting them so that I could disconnect from them) was far too annoying to stick with. Thus, to mesh my need to back up regularly with my preference to move my Mac around frequently, I opted to connect my external hard drives wirelessly.

I use an Apple Airport Extreme Base Station. It sports a single USB port, but you can plug a USB hub into it to make multiple devices accessible on your wireless network. My hub has a pair of hard drives (along with a printer) plugged in.

Time Machine

Those hard drives become available on my Mac as network drives. The larger of the two hard drives serves as my Time Machine backup. (For my initial Time Machine backup, I connected the drive directly to my Mac. Wireless file transfers are, as you would expect, slower than wired ones. By making the initial backup while connected directly, that initial dump of hundreds of gigabytes went far faster than it would have otherwise.)

The drive that I use for Time Machine holds 1TB of data—that’s 1,024 gigabytes. Since Time Machine tries to keep multiple revisions of changed files, I like to afford it as much disk space as possible. I think of Time Machine as perfect for recovering files that I might not notice have gone missing right away, like an erroneously deleted MP3 or an unfinished article for Macworld. The more space Time Machine has available, the more versions of my files it can keep.

I don’t go to Time Machine often, but I love that it’s there.

SuperDuper!

Time Machine is excellent, but it’s not enough. In the worst case scenario of colossal hard drive failure, you can’t start up from a Time Machine backup; it’s not bootable. So the second, smaller hard drive connected to my Airport Extreme serves as a clone. I use SuperDuper for this purpose.

SuperDuper creates an exact copy of your Mac’s hard drive. That way, if your internal drive gets completely and irreparably hosed, you can plug the cloned drive right into your Mac and boot from it instead.

It’s not immediately obvious how to use a networked Airport drive with SuperDuper, because you won’t see the drive listed in SuperDuper’s dropdown menu. Instead, you’ll need to use SuperDuper to create a Read/Write ‘Sparse’ Image on the remote drive, and backup to that. (Check the “Backing up over a network” chapter in SuperDuper’s copiously detailed Help for detailed instructions.)

As I did with my initial Time Machine backup, I made my original SuperDuper backup with the drive connected directly to my laptop via USB.

Of course, a cloned backup’s usefulness is tied in large part to how recent it is. I schedule SuperDuper to run the backup every evening; like Time Machine, it’s able to transfer only those files that have changed from the previous backup. Of course, in the event that I need to restore from a clone that’s a few days stale, it’s likely that my Time Machine backup will be far more current—allowing me to update the necessary files piecemeal.

CrashPlan

Those are my local backups, and I’m happy with how they work. But with all the precious data on my drives (particularly all the photos and videos of my kids, and everything I’ve ever written) they’re not enough. If my whole home is destroyed, I can at least rest assured that my data will remain safe.

To achieve that goal, I rely most heavily upon CrashPlan, my favorite of numerous online backup solutions. For about $5 per month, CrashPlan behaves much like Time Machine—it stores backups of all my files, including past iterations of those files, and updates continuously throughout the day. I can restore files via a Web interface, or via the CrashPlan software on my Mac. Should my Mac and backups get toasted, I can login to the CrashPlan site from any other computer to regain access to my files. And, for a fee, CrashPlan will ship a DVD or hard drive with the latest snapshot of your data that it has on file.

CrashPlan can also send you regular updates (via e-mail or Twitter) letting you know the exact status of your backups. (You can, of course, check on that status manually at any time.) The once-a-week emails telling me that my (and my wife’s) laptops are fully backed up as of just a few minutes ago are very reassuring.

Dropbox and Google Docs

If you’re a Mac user and you don’t already use the free Dropbox, you’re missing out; it’s simply brilliant for synchronizing files across multiple computers and devices. But Dropbox is also a great way to backup certain files.

Following the OS X instructions from Dropbox’s Website, I created symlinks for folders that I update very frequently, moving the originals to my Dropbox folder, and placing the symlinks where the folders used to reside on my Mac. This way, Dropbox backs up those files regularly (and with file revision history) without changing my workflow at all, and without eating up double the necessary space on my hard drive.

Not only can I access my Dropbox backups from the company’s Website, I can also get at them from any other Mac (or device) linked to my Dropbox account.

Google Docs quietly supports many Dropbox-style features. Though there’s no way yet to mount your Google Docs folder on your desktop the way you can with Dropbox, you can upload your files to the service as an added backup. Admittedly, I don’t do so often, but when I’m working on longer pieces, I like to be as safe as possible.

Other Websites

Finally, I upload my photos and videos to various Websites, including my own personal site hosted through Dreamhost. That means that my latest photo album with shots of the kids playing outside in the snow exists not just in iPhoto, my Time Machine backup, my SuperDuper clone, CrashPlan, and potentially Dropbox and/or Google Docs; it’s also hosted on one or more Web servers, too.

Paranoid is good

In his conclusion to his own backup write-up, Dan Frakes wrote that he’s “admittedly paranoid about losing” his data. So should we all be. My total financial investment in my backup solution is cheap—many 1TB hard drives can be had for under $100, and the $60 that I pay CrashPlan each year is similarly affordable. My data, on the other hand, is priceless. Hard drives crash. You can hope for the best, you can let nagging fear worry you endlessly, or you can take a few relatively simple steps to ensure your data stays safe. Even if you don’t take my approach or Dan’s, make sure you’re thinking carefully about how you’re protecting your data. I don’t worry about my data anymore, but I still worry about yours!

[Lex Friedman is a frequent contributor to Macworld.]

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