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You're almost done with an important project. That's when whatever can go wrong does go wrong. The panic starts deep in your stomach as your screen freezes. You realize how much work you've just lost--and how much more work you'll have to do to get it back.

Sound familiar? No matter how careful you are, sooner or later you're guaranteed to lose data. I once managed to overwrite a client's entire database with a text file. If I had backed that Mac up regularly, I could have enjoyed my weekend. Instead, I had to spend hours and hours recovering the database.

Eventually it will happen to you: an inopportune crash corrupts an important file, your hard disk fails, your PowerBook disappears under suspicious circumstances, a fire sweeps through your office, or you just make a simple mistake. The details are immaterial. Your only defense is to back up early and often.

Fortunately, regularly making copies of your important files is neither as hard nor as expensive as you may think. In this article, you'll learn how to determine your backup needs, develop a strategy, choose a device (a CD-RW drive, for example), and configure the leading backup software for the Mac--Dantz Development's feature-packed Retrospect Desktop Backup and Retrospect Express Backup. Then when you run afoul of Murphy's Law, you'll be ready.

Step 1: Determine Your Needs

When the backup bug bites you--usually after you've lost some crucial data--you'll be tempted to run out, buy some hardware and software, and start copying files. Don't do it! Only a carefully considered backup strategy will guarantee your success when you need to recover important files. The first step is to find out just what kinds of data you've got. If you're like most people, you don't know exactly what's on your hard drive. Browse through it today, and you're sure to find files you created last year, shareware utilities you downloaded but never used, piles of e-mail, and hundreds of preferences files. Do you really need to back all of that stuff up? Maybe, maybe not--though you never really know how important some things are until they're gone. To figure out just what you want to protect, you should ask yourself these three questions:

How Much Data Do I Have? The raw amount of data stored on your Mac comes into play as you develop your strategy and choose an appropriate backup device. If you have only one Mac, you can easily answer this question by clicking on your hard drive icon in the Finder, choosing Get Info, and looking at the Used line in the resulting window. If you have other Macs to back up, do the same for them and add those results to the total. Don't worry if it seems as though there's too much data to back up. Retrospect helps you out by storing only a single copy of all the duplicate files it finds. (How many copies of SimpleText do you have on your computer?) And some data changes only rarely--for example, your applications--so you'll seldom need to back up all of it. (You may not need to back up some applications at all if you have the installation CD-ROMs.)

How Often Does My Data Change? Now you know how much you'll be backing up the first time, but you still need to find out how much of that data requires backing up on a regular basis. The more your data changes, the more often you'll need to copy your files. For example, your applications rarely change, but every e-mail message you receive alters your Microsoft Outlook Express database. If your mail is important to you, additional backups are going to be critical.

Use Sherlock to find out how much of your data changes frequently: choose Modified Today from Sherlock's Custom pop-up menu, click on the magnifying-glass icon, and sort the resulting list by size (see "Find Changed Files"). Add up the sizes of files that are 1MB and larger to get a rough estimate of how much data changes in a day.

How Vital Is My Data? If you use your Mac mostly for playing games and browsing the Web, you can probably live without most of what's on your computer (except, of course, your Quicken data and Myst III: Exile game files). But if you're an accountant preparing tax returns for clients, your data is very important, especially around April 15. The more valuable your data, the more imperative regular backups are; your files' importance is an essential factor in developing a backup strategy.

Fill In the Blanks After thinking about the answers to all of these questions, you can use the "What's Your Backup Strategy?" worksheet to gauge your priorities.

Step 2: Devise Your Plan

Once you know what to back up, it's time to figure how and when. If you despair at the thought of sitting next to your computer every Friday, swapping Zip disks for an hour, rest assured that you have plenty of alternatives. Before you spend money on hardware, think about the following issues.

Ideal Frequency An old backup may be better than nothing--but not by much if it doesn't contain the files you need. If less than 100MB of your data changes in a day, use a custom search in Sherlock to see how much of it changed over a longer period of time. (Click on the Edit button, select Date Modified, and choose Is Within 1 Week Of or Is Within 1 Month Of.)

There's little point in backing up once a month unless little of your data changes and you don't consider the information very important. But even a monthly backup can prove worthwhile: you can use it to make your Mac functional again if your hard drive is damaged. If you restore all the files from your backup after reformatting the hard drive, your Mac will return to the state it was in when you saved those files; you won't have to spend hours re-creating your preferences and custom keyboard shortcuts or downloading your favorite, and possibly elusive, shareware programs.

You may need to back up your home Mac only once a week, if relatively little data changes (and the data isn't too crucial). If most of your time at this Mac is spent during weekends, say, backing up your files every Sunday night might make sense. If you use your Mac for work that would be difficult to re-create, you really should back your files up every day. Ditto if you're responsible for multiple Macs (and you don't know what people are doing on each one).

In many ways, daily backups are the easiest option. You can automate the procedure fairly easily and do it at night when it won't interrupt anyone.

Find Changed Files Use a custom Sherlock search to figure out how much of your data changes each day.

Multiple Sets A backup set is a collection of media that contains all of your backed-up files. A single set could include, for example, one CD-R disc or three tapes, depending on how much information you have.

A single backup set is like an old backup--its value is limited. If a serious problem occurs--a burglary, a fire, a power surge that takes out both your hard drive and your backup drive (with tape or CD-R inside)--not having another backup set could leave you in the lurch.

You should have several backup sets, though most of the time, two or three will be sufficient. (Be prepared for tapes snapping, CDs getting scratched, and hard drives breaking.) Store one set in a different location. The problem with backing up to multiple sets is that you'll need to establish a regular schedule for swapping them. Otherwise, you could end up with a secondary set so out of date that its contents aren't useful.

If you run a corporate or home office with many computers, two or three backup sets may not be enough. Some businesses have a different backup set for each day of the week, to spread out the risk of media failure. But keep in mind that the more backup sets you have, the more work juggling the media is.

A Permanent Record If you're backing up to several different sets, it's easy to store permanent snapshots of your data for use months or even years later. Just designate one of your sets as a permanent archive; after you fill it up, store it instead of erasing it. Then, for instance, if a client wants to reuse materials from an old project, you can find the necessary files in your permanent archive.

If you're frugal, you won't want to buy more media than you need. But the truth is, the more often you use your backup media, the likelier it is to fail. It may seem thrifty to back your Mac up to the same tape every night, but when that tape breaks, you'll wish you'd spent the extra money.

Store Sets Safely Keep your backup sets safe in a place without temperature or moisture extremes (not in your car's glove compartment), and away from the magnetic fields generated by motors, power cables, audio speakers, and telephones. Consider storing your backups in a physically secure place, such as a locked cabinet or closet. For added security, choose a fireproof media safe. Make sure the safe is rated for protecting magnetic media, which melt at temperatures that won't ignite paper (many fireproof safes promise to protect only paper).

Most important, store at least one of your backup sets elsewhere, whether it's your neighbor's house, a safety deposit box, or an Internet backup service. This will protect you if your computer isn't the only thing damaged. For example, after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, many businesses weren't allowed back into the building for weeks, not even to retrieve backups. Companies with off-site backups were able to buy or lease new computers, restore data from their off-site backup sets, and keep working in temporary offices. Some businesses that didn't have off-site backups went bankrupt.

Make a Plan Take a moment and jot down your thoughts about what you've just read. How often do you want to back up, how many backup sets will you keep, how are you going to handle archiving, and where will you store your backups? There are no universal answers here, but your specific needs will refine your backup-device choices. (See "The Best Backup Device" to figure out which is most appropriate for your situation.)

Step 3: Set Up the Software

Once you have your strategy, your device, and your media in hand, it's time to set up Dantz Development's $175 Retrospect Desktop (5.0 mice. ; Reviews, October 1997) or $50 Retrospect Express (5.0 mice. ; Reviews, September 1998). The main difference between the two is that Retrospect Express can't back up multiple Macs over a network and lacks some customization options. Both offer powerful scripting capabilities that handle everything related to your backups.

EasyScript The best way to start most basic backups is with Retrospect's EasyScript feature (under the Automate tab), which helps you create a backup script. If necessary, you can modify it later (see "Easy Custom Scripts"). The script tracks the Macs you wish to back up, the backup sets that store your data, the backup schedule, and any other options you choose. (See "A Walk through EasyScript" for a tour of the setup process.)

Using EasyScript, specify the source, the backup device, and how often to run the backup. If you've completed the worksheet and thought about your strategy, answering EasyScript's questions will be easy. Next, EasyScript asks how often you want to rotate backup sets. The more frequently you swap them, the more you diffuse the risk of media failure. However, too-frequent rotations can make you loathe backing up--and that's more dangerous than a longer rotation schedule. In most cases, weekly rotation is best. Switch from one backup set to another every Friday, for instance, and then take the last-used backup set off-site. After you enter your information, EasyScript summarizes its proposed strategy and lets you choose a time of day to run backups. If you've decided to use relatively small-capacity media such as CD-Rs, choose a time when you'll be present to insert new discs. If you're backing up to large tapes that won't require any swapping, it may make more sense to choose a late-evening time.

When you click on Create, EasyScript generates your Retrospect script and asks you to name the two backup sets it creates by default. The names go on the catalog files saved to your hard drive; these contain each backup set's directory. More important, Retrospect gives these names (along with sequential numbers) to each tape, CD, or disk in your backup set. When Retrospect asks you to insert a specific tape, say, during a backup or restore, the program will ask for it by name. You should give your backup sets unusual names--it's much easier to confuse boring names than names like Fred and Ginger, for example.

At this point, you're ready to back up. Choose EasyScript Backup from Retrospect's Run menu, and prepare to feed media into the drive.

Easy Custom Scripts You can modify EasyScript's backup script to make it better fit your needs. To see what you can change, click on each of the buttons shown here.

Customize Your Script If during setup you don't see the the options you want--for instance, you might prefer a different destination, selected files, or schedule (including media-rotation schedules)--you can customize the script to fit your needs. Click on the Scripts button in the Automate tab and double-click on EasyScript Backup in the list.

By default, EasyScript creates only two backup sets. I recommend creating another by clicking on the Destinations button, and using this third set as a permanent archive. To do so, choose to perform a New Media backup every so often; reuse your media with Recycle backups on the other two sets. Having at least three backup sets also is helpful if you store one off-site. Your default EasyScript script backs up all of your files. But you may want to back up only your Documents folder, for example. You can easily bend EasyScript to your will. Click on the Selecting button and choose Documents (or whatever's appropriate) from the pop-up menu.

You may wish to create a second backup script that backs up all your files but runs only once every few months. You can do this either with EasyScript or by duplicating and modifying the script you created (look in the Scripts window's Scripts menu). Then if disaster strikes, you'll be able to restore your applications, system files, and preferences from the older, complete backup and restore recent work from your Documents backup.

Also consider making a script that backs up your most important files to an Internet FTP site ( see a review of online storage sites ). It takes a while to transfer files this way, but it's a great means of ensuring you have an additional off-site backup of your essential data.

Look into the Future In the Automate tab, Retrospect provides two tools to help you confirm its intentions: the Check and Preview options. Check looks at a script to make sure it's valid and tells you when the script is scheduled to run next, and Preview shows you the list of all scripts that Retrospect plans to run. Both are useful for troubleshooting.

Step 4: Do Your Part

Congratulations! You've determined your backup needs, developed a strategy, and set up Retrospect Desktop or Retrospect Express to copy your critical files regularly. The one thing left to consider is the role you play. It's up to you to swap media, clean tape drives, verify that you can restore data from your backup sets, and generally keep an eye on the entire process. These aren't onerous tasks--especially if you've configured Retrospect well--but they are essential.

Swap Media No matter what device you use, you'll have to swap media at some point. The more sets you use and the more frequently you back up, the more you'll have to swap. Build a few minutes for media swapping into your routine, preferably at the same time each day or week so you won't forget. Figure out who'll take over when you're sick or on vacation.

With software such as the $50 PageNow from Mark/Space Softworks (408/293-7299, ) and an AppleScript included with Retrospect, you can even configure your Mac to page you when it needs new media to continue a backup.

Test Your Backups Many people don't learn until the worst possible moment that they've set up their backup system incorrectly or that their tape drive isn't working. The only way to verify that backups are working is to restore files from them regularly--and the more important your data, the more often you should verify backups. Consider scheduling tests and attempting to restore a few files every so often.

The Last Word

Creating and maintaining a backup strategy may seem daunting, and that's probably the main reason so many people don't do it. But you can devise a backup strategy as complicated or as simple as you need it to be. Once you come up with a plan, it'll take only a few minutes a day to ensure that you can quickly and easily recover from both minor mistakes and major catastrophes.

Contributing Editor ADAM C. ENGST is the publisher of TidBits and author of numerous books about Macs and the Internet.

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