Mac Backup strategies for the really smart folks out there

As promised, I’m going to help you decide on a backup strategy that will offer protection for most scenarios for all but the most advanced users (videographers and professional photographers might need more storage space, businesses might need more complex solutions for servers and a office full of networked computers, please call or email if you are in one of those categories).

First of all, let’s be really clear: dragging some files to a thumb drive, Dropbox, or Google Drive is absolutely NOT a backup strategy. It can be part of a strategy to ensure your data’s safety, but by itself, it’s not enough. And for your computer, iCloud is NOT a backup strategy either, not really even part of a backup strategy. To see what iCloud backup can be used for, read this Apple knowledge base article.

A backup meets at least the 4 following criteria:

  1. It happens with a bare minimum of human agency, preferably none. If you, excruciatingly busy person that you are, have to remember to plug in the drive and start the backup, it is MUCH less likely to happen regularly.
  2. That segues nicely to the second characteristic. Backup happens on a schedule. That schedule may be every 5 minutes or once per week, but it happens on a schedule.
  3. At least 1 component of your backup happens incrementally, i.e. the first backup is a complete backup of what’s on the drive, but subsequent backups record only data that is new or has changed since the last backup.
  4. The time it takes to recover is proportional to your need. In other words if you’re a SOHO business and your computer’s hard drive dies, you need to be back up and running in hours if not minutes. If you use your computer to check your email and browse websites in a personal capacity, speed of recovery might not be such an issue.

So what IS a backup strategy. A good plan for you can range from a 1TB portable, external drive attached to your MacBook Pro laptop, sitting on your desk, running Time Machine, to 2 6TB external drives set up as a RAID (redundant array of independent devices) running Time Machine + a smaller drive running a cloning software making a bootable backup every week + Crashplan backing up user data every 15 minutes and saving it forever (as long as you pay the rent) to the cloud (NOT iCloud, forget iCloud for this discussion).

So let’s review the components of a backup system that will work for you.

The most basic backup requires Time Machine and an external hard drive that sits on your desk (your physical desk) and attaches to your computer via USB, Firewire or network (NAS – ethernet or wifi, that category includes Time Capsule). This drive’s storage should be sized relative to the size of the hard drive in your computer. If you have a 1TB drive in the computer but are not using more than 200GB (how to find out how much capacity, available and used space you have on your hard drive), a 1TB external drive (such as this hard drive from Otherworld Computing) will be enough for some time to come. If you have an almost full 3TB drive in the computer, then you will likely need a 5 or 6TB drive (like this Otherworld Computing unit) to have plenty of room to backup your data for a reasonable amount of time. Or you will have to make decisions about what data should be excluded from the backup or removed from the computer. Time Machine does not create a bootable backup, but a restorable backup, meaning that you can restore the contents of the drive to another drive (or back to the original) and create a bootable drive, so you’re back up and running in less than an hour (depending on the amount of data).

From there, you can add online cloud based backup (I told you to forget iCloud – won’t work, and even if it did, it would be prohibitively expensive). I’ve used and recommended Crashplan for years. It’s affordable, reliable and secure. In the years I’ve been using it I’ve only seen a failure once, and that failure is why I recommend multiple redundant systems. This is what you will resort to if your equipment is stolen or destroyed – it’s not onsite and this makes it more resilient (ooh, there’s one of those buzzwords – more about this in a future post). However, Crashplan is not a good choice for quick recovery. That said, it does do incremental versioning, so multiple versions of a file are available, useful if you accidentally overwrite an important file. Funny story. I created this huge presentation, many pages of text and pictures, carefully formatted, carefully saved. Next day, I started a different presentation and as usual went to save it first, and a series of actions during which I was not paying attention to what I was doing caused me to overwrite the previous document. I almost cried. Then I remembered that I had Crashplan backing up every 15 minutes and went and got the old doc down from the cloud (STILL not talking about iCloud). Life saved. Crashplan paid for itself in that moment.

If your business requires instant recovery if a computer’s hard drive fails then you need a separate hard drive sitting on your desk to which cloning software like Carbon Copy Cloner or SuperDuper will make a block by block duplicate of your computer’s hard drive. Then if the internal drive fails, you can boot from that drive and be back up and running in minutes, giving you time to get a new hard drive to install in your computer, on your time schedule. Either CCC or SD can schedule backups, but generally don’t do incremental backups, so this choice is a supplement to Time Machine. If your clone is a few days old, you can recover files from your Time Machine or Crashplan backups.

Of course, backup is a very complex topic with many possible components depending on many variables in your system, but this is a brief overview of some of the decisions that go into a backup strategy for your Macintosh.

[architect backup-table]

For more information about a plan for your computer system, call or email.

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