Create system backup images for emergencies

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When you use your Mac to make a living you can’t really afford to have much downtime. If your main hard drive—the one with your system software and your programs—were to die, how long would it take you reinstall all that software? How long to reinstall Final Cut Studio, with its seven DVDs of data, and reapply all the system and endless program updates? The more downtime you have, the less money you can make. So having a plan for catastrophic hardware failure is essential.

Luckily, being prepared can be easy and won’t hurt your pocketbook, beyond the cost of additional storage. The software I’m going to show you is free and very reliable. I use it to keep over 40 Mac systems up and running. One program is Mike Bombich’s Carbon Copy Cloner (free, but donations accepted), and the other is Apple’s Disk Utility, which ships with every Mac.

Carbon Copy Cloner

When you open Carbon Copy Cloner (you need to have a FireWire drive attached), you’ll be greeted by a window that lets you pick which hard drive you want to clone and where you want to clone it to. To make an Apple Software Restore (ASR) image you’ll need a drive that has twice the amount of available space as is currently used by your startup drive. It goes without saying that this process is best performed as soon as you build your system: when you’ve just finished installing your core programs, but before you start working with it and adding media. You want to have the system as tight and finely tuned as possible. The smaller the ASR image, the faster you can rebuild your system later on.

Another good reason to make the ASR image from a fresh system is that you don’t have to worry about software corruption. How many times have you had your computer act strangely after installing some kind of software? If you have an ASR image of your system from before the time the problematic software was installed, you can easily take your computer back in time.

Once you have picked your boot (startup) drive as the Source disk and the FireWire drive as the Target disk, click on the Preferences button. To create an ASR image you need to click “Create a Disk Image on Target” and “Prepare for Apple Software Restore.” I also usually repair permissions on the boot drive before cloning it.

Carbon Copy Cloner permissions

Incidentally, if you want to create a bootable drive, you can do that also with Carbon Copy Cloner, just disable “Create a Disk Image on target” and choose “Make Bootable.” Remember, however, that Intel Macs cannot start up from PowerPC boot drives and vice-versa.

Once you click the Clone button, Carbon Copy Cloner will create an Apple System Restore image for you.

So, once you’ve made your backup image, how do you use it?

Let’s say your hard drive died in your Power Mac G5. You can replace it with a new Serial ATA drive. Since your computer doesn’t yet have Mac OS X installed, start up with the OS X installation disc that came with your computer (holding down the C key after you hear the startup chimes) and choose Disk Utility from the menu instead of proceeding with the OS X install.

Disk Utility

Once you have launched Disk Utility, find your new hard drive and click it. Go to the Restore tab. This is the Apple Software Restore section of Disk Utility. Choose the ASR image you created from the FireWire drive by clicking on the Image button next to the Source field. Then, drag your new hard drive to the Destination field from the pane on the left side of the Disk Utility window. Click the Restore button and you’ll be back up and running in no time.

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