Take Control of Mac OS X Backups: Part One

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Editor’s Note: The following article is an excerpt from Take Control of Mac OS X Backups (version 1.1), a $10 electronic book available for download from TidBits Electronic Publishing. In the first part of this two-part excerpt on backup strategies, author Joe Kissell looks at the different approaches you can take, examines what duplicates and archives are, and explains why an ideal backup plan includes both.

I know a number of people who have made decisions about how to back up their computers based on what hardware or software they already own. Others buy a product that’s received good reviews and then figure out how to use it for effective backups. I believe these approaches are backward. If your data and your time are truly important, it makes sense to think about your needs first, then develop a strategy based on those needs, and finally choose hardware and software that fits with your strategy.

After the first edition of this book was published, several readers commented that the strategy I suggest here, while perfectly reasonable, may be inappropriate for “low-end” users because it presumes a significant expenditure of money and effort. Less-advanced users, the argument went, just want a backup system that’s inexpensive, easy-to-use, and effective. Don’t we all! Unfortunately, there is no such thing. You know the old saying: “Cheap; good; fast—pick any two.” The same goes for backups. I can tell you how to do them effectively or how to do them quickly and cheaply, but the less time and money you’re willing to spend, the less safe your data will be.

With that in mind, I want to begin this strategy section with a quick, high-level overview of several approaches you might choose to take, depending on your tolerance for cost, effort, and risk.

Backup Approaches

Major Objective Suggested Approach Risks and Trade-Offs
Saving Money • Hardware: Your Mac’s built-in SuperDrive.
• Software: Impression ($25)
• Strategy: Scheduled weekly duplicates and daily archives stored on DVD-RW or DVD+RW.
• You will not have a bootable duplicate, making it more difficult to recover after a hard drive failure.
• You must be present when backups occur to swap media.
• Restoring files from an archive will be time-consuming.
Ease of Use: Approach A •Hardware: A single Maxtor OneTouch FireWire drive.
•Software: Retrospect Express
• Strategy: Just press the button for instant (duplicate) backups whenever you wish.
• No archives to protect you against file changes and deletions, unless you set up such a script manually.
• Without redundant, off-site media, you risk data loss due to theft, fire, etc.
• You must remember to press the button.
Ease of Use: Approach B • Use an Internet backup service such as BackJack, which provides its own software and requires no hardware. • No bootable duplicates.
• Extremely expensive if you archive all your files; significant risk of data loss if you do not.
• Your data is unavailable if you lose Internet connectivity.
Data Safety • Hardware: Three external FireWire drives.
•Software: Retrospect Desktop.
• Strategy: Scheduled weekly duplicates and daily archives, alternating among drives; one drive always stored off-site.
• Optional: Archive mission-critical and active files frequently to your iDisk or an Internet backup service.
• Significant hardware and software costs.
• Learning curve to set up and use Retrospect software.
• Inconvenience of moving drives around each week.

While the approaches I outline are just a few examples of the many paths one could take to performing backups, I personally feel the importance of protecting your data trumps all other concerns. Therefore, in the above table, I highlighted the Data Safety approach in red, because I believe it is the best approach for the majority of readers. If your data—your e-mail, one-of-a-kind digital photographs, important documents, and so on—is not worth some time and money to you, then you probably don’t need backups. Keep in mind that you get out of a backup system what you put into it.

Do You Need Duplicates?

Let’s begin by assuming you have original (CD-ROM or DVD-ROM) copies of your operating system and all installed software. Now consider this question:

If your hard drive suffered a complete failure, how much time could you afford to spend restoring it to working order?

If you use your computer to run a business, do your homework, or trade stocks, for example, your answer may be “a few minutes at the most.” If no critical projects depend on a functional computer, you may be able to afford several days to restore it after a failure. Most of us are somewhere in between.

In the best case, it will take you several hours—and possibly a day or more—to reinstall a typical set of software onto a new or reformatted disk. However, if you do not have original copies of all your software, if you have a large number of third-party applications, or if you’ve customized your computer extensively, returning your computer to operation could take much longer.

The more you need to avoid that potential loss of time, the more you need to maintain duplicates (for more info, see “The Duplicate” section ahead).

Do You Need Archives?

Regardless of your need for duplicates, consider your answer to this much different question:

If your computer were stolen, how difficult would it be for you to live without the data on it?

Do you have years of bank records, email, poetry, academic papers, photos, movies, and so on stored on your computer? If so, chances are your answer is “extremely difficult.” On the other hand, if you use your computer only for casual Web surfing, playing games, and listening to music, living without the data on your computer may be nothing more than a minor inconvenience.

Many people, when asked what one item they would try to save if their house were burning down, would answer “my photo album”— because furniture can be replaced, but memories cannot. The same thing is true of the memories stored on your hard disk in the form of messages, graphics, and other documents you’ve created—not to mention all the pictures you’ve taken with your digital camera. Although hardware and software can be replaced, data cannot. And keeping your photo album on the computer only makes it that much more important to back up your data safely.

Although a duplicate includes a copy of your data, an archive includes many different versions of your data, making it much more likely that you’ll be able to retrieve the information you need in the event of a problem.

The greater the amount of personal data on your computer—and its importance to you—the greater your need to maintain archives (for more info, see “The Archive” section on the next page ).

Though there may be some exceptions, the ideal backup strategy for most people consists of both duplicates and archives.

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