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Multiple-Mac backup server

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If you have several Macs at home, consider putting an old PowerPC system to work as a backup server. Rather than stocking up on DVDs or installing second hard drives, you can use one machine to back up everyone over the network.

Get equipped

Since the only thing your server will do is receive files, it doesn’t need much memory or a fast processor. In fact, any machine that can run OS X will work. Here’s what you do need:

Loads of Storage Estimate the size of all users’ files that you’ll be backing up, and then multiply by two. That’s the approximate amount of hard disk space you’ll want to have on your server. If you don’t have enough storage, you can connect an external FireWire drive, add a second internal hard drive (on tower Macs), or upgrade the hard drive. These days, a 320GB drive will cost a little more than $100.

Fast Connection Network bandwidth is a must. If you’re using a wireless network, you can install an AirPort Extreme card (most Macs from the past few years should be compatible). If not, you can connect your backup server directly to the network via Ethernet. And if all your Macs are close enough that you can connect them with Ethernet cables, your transfer speeds will be even faster.

Backup Software While you can manually copy files to the server, life will be a lot easier if you install backup software on each user’s Mac. For one thing, you can set backups to run automatically. Also, most programs can back up incrementally—they copy only files created or changed after the previous backup, which makes backups much faster. Since you probably don’t want to spend a lot of money outfitting your old Mac as a backup server, I recommend Econ Technologies’ ChronoSync (   ), but any number of programs will work (see “Backup Options” below).

Configure the server

Your server’s setup will depend on whether you’re backing up to a single disk or using a second hard disk (either internal or external).

Single-Disk Backup If you’re backing up to a machine with a single drive, create accounts for all users who will be backing up files (via the Accounts preference pane). Either administrator or standard accounts will work, but it’s probably best to use the same user names and passwords that your household members use on their own Macs. Create a Backup folder at the top level of each user’s Home folder so it’ll be easy to find backed-up files.

Secondary-Disk Backups If you’re using a secondary hard disk, you should give each user administrative privileges, since standard users can’t access locations other than their Home folder and other users’ Public folders over the network. (In the Accounts preference pane, select each user and then enable the Allow User To Administer This Computer option.) Create folders for each user at the top level of your secondary disk, to keep backups separate.

Protect Your Files: ChronoSync lets you back up to another Mac on your network.

Start your backup engines

Install ChronoSync on each user’s Mac. Make sure that both your backup server and the Macs you want to back up are connected to the same network, and make sure that Personal File Sharing is enabled on the server (in the Sharing preference pane).

Configuring Your Backup Launch ChronoSync. From the Operation pop-up menu, choose Backup Left-to-Right. In the Left Target tab, click on the Choose button and select the folder you want to back up. ChronoSync doesn’t let you select multiple folders, so it’s best to choose one that contains everything you want to copy, such as your Home folder. (You can also create different backups—or documents, as they’re called in Chrono- Sync—and run them separately.)

To select your backup destination, click on the Right Target tab’s Choose button. You’ll see a standard Open window; click on Network in the sidebar, and then connect to your back-up server and mount the correct volume (your Home folder if you’re using one disk, or the secondary drive). Return to the sidebar and select the volume you just mounted; then navigate to your backup folder and click on Choose. Save your backup document (File: Save) and click on Synchronize to launch the backup.

Scheduling Backups You can automate your backups by selecting Actions: Schedule and then choosing a frequency and time. By default, ChronoSync will copy only new or changed files on subsequent backups. To ensure that the program runs its backups even when it’s closed, go to ChronoSync: Preferences and enable the Use Background Scheduler option.

To have ChronoSync mount the server whenever it performs a backup, click on the Options button under Right Target, select the Attempt To Mount Server option, click on Login As, and then enter your user name and password. Also select Dismount Server After Synchronization so the volume will eject automatically after the backup is finished.

Restoring Backups Restore backed-up files by mounting the server (from the Finder, choose Go: Connect To Server) and copying any files you need.

Cut power usage

Your server must be awake when you back up, but it certainly doesn’t need to be on all night. Go to the Energy Saver preference pane’s Options tab, click on Schedule, and then select the days and times you want your server to run. A good time to run your backups is at the end of the day, just after 5 p.m. In that case, you’d set the server to wake up at 5 and then go to sleep an hour later.

Backup options

Econ Technologies’ ChronoSync isn’t the only backup program out there. Programs such as Prosoft Engineering’s Data Backup 2.1 (   ; $59) and EMC Insignia’s Retrospect for Macintosh Desktop Edition (   ; $129) offer additional features. See an overview of these and other backup programs.

What you’ll need

  • Mac running OS X 10.3 or later with plenty of hard disk space
  • Econ Technologies ChronoSync 3.3.4 ($30) or an alternative (see “Backup Options”)
  • Apple AirPort Extreme card ($49) or Ethernet cables and hubs (as necessary)
  • [ Kirk McElhearn is the author of many books, including The Mac OS X Command Line: Unix Under the Hood (Sybex, 2004). ]

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