Backup Regularly Or You'll Be Very Sorry Someday…
December 5th, 2003
Episode #7

I love Mac user groups and attend MUG meetings any chance I get. Last night I did a presentation in Chicago at the monthly TROU (The Rest of Us) meeting, held at Apple's new flagship store on Michigan Avenue's Magnificent Mile.

Now we don't have an Apple store here in Austin, but I've been to more than a few of them in my day, and let me tell you, folks, this Chicago store is a Flagship with a capital F. It's four or more times the size of most Apple stores, and has two stories. The upper level features the longest Genius Bar I've seen, as well as an awesome presentation theatre with stadium-style seating and spectacular video projection and pro-quality sound. (I know…what did I expect at a flagship Apple store? Chopped liver?)

Anyway, I absolutely loved presenting there and had a fantastic time afterwards with the TROU gang at my favorite pizza joint in the world, Pizzaria Due (619 N. Wabash; 312-943-2400), where massive quantities of deep-dish pizza and Goose Island Ale (at least in my case) were consumed.

But I digress. I actually have a point to make this week, so let me get back to the presentation…

…which, by the way, I prepared in Keynote. I don't usually use canned slides when I do live presentations. I prefer to just talk about stuff, and demonstrate some cool products. But with this being the flagship Apple Store's state-of-the-art theatre, I tried to gussy up the visual side of my show by creating a presentation in Apple's Keynote. I have to say, my slides looked great and the transitions were gorgeous, but things became awkward… I kept stopping the slide show to demonstrate software, then switching back to Keynote for a second, then back to another demo, then back to the slide show, and so on, as shown in Exhibit A…

Exhibit A
(Click the thumb for a larger version)

In the end I felt the slides were frivolous, but it sure was fun making the slideshow.

There I go, digressing again… Meanwhile, back at the story line, one of the user group members walked up to me at dinner and said, "What you said about backing up really scared me…I have never backed anything up but you've got me thinking, 'I ought to start backing up real soon now.'"

He was referring to the beginning of my presentation, when I do a little survey and ask questions of the audience to help me learn a bit about them and their Mac usage. More specifically, one of the questions is, "do you back up? Or not?" The response, by show of hands, looked to be about 50-50 so I made my usual snide remark about how those who don't back up are going to lose data. And how it's not an "if," it's a "when." I probably mentioned DriveSavers and their heart-stopping prices, too.

(Anyway, if you're interested in the rest of the questions I ask when I try to get to know a group, the whole slide appears below as Exhibit 2.)

Exhibit 2
(Click the thumb for a larger version)

I explained that I'm obsessive about backing up, because I've lost data and I hate it. For me, losing even an hour or two of precious work gets me annoyed. Extremely so.

Anyway, that brings us to the topic for today: Back it up or lose it forever. Not maybe, but for sure -- if you don't back that file up, someday it will be gone.

OK, maybe not forever; a disk utility such as DiskWarrior, Norton, or Tech Tool Pro or the aforementioned DriveSavers may be able to recover a file or files after your hard disk dies (which it will someday, without a shadow of a doubt).

The Obligatory DriveSavers Plug

For those of you about to disregard my advice and not backup, here are a phone number and URL you should keep handy. They are for a company called DriveSavers and if your hard disk crashes and you haven't backed it up, they're probably your last and only hope. They are the kings of Mac hard disk recovery. Scott Gaidano is their president. Say hi for me if you have to call them. He's a great guy. He says a lot of people read about him in my columns and books. Which is weird. Because I only mention him when I write about how important it is to backup. Go figure. Here's the deal: If you don't backup and something goes wrong with the only copy of that important file, or your entire hard disk, you're going to have to call Scott (or someone like him). And it's going to cost you a lot more than a good backup solution would have.

That is the bottom line.

Scott hates when I say this, but DriveSavers charges a lot to recover your data from crashed and otherwise damaged hard disks (hundreds to thousands of dollars). And, although they're mostly successful, they can't guarantee that they can save any single file. You pay your money and you take your chances. Did I mention that Scott drives a Ferrari?
The phone number is 415-382-2000. Although if you need it, chances are you're not doing much Web surfing, here is the URL for their Web site:

So there you have it. You can choose to adopt good backup habits now, or you can spend even more money with a drive recovery specialist later. Some decent backup hardware and media will almost certainly cost you less, you know? And, of course, there's the peace of mind you'll get from knowing your data is safe even if your home or office burns down (see chapter 2). And finally, you'll avoid that horrible sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when you see an error message every time you try to open your very-important document.

But my experience has been that repair and recovery software rarely work when you're in throes of a deadline crunch. For example, I walked in the office one Sunday morning to find my Mac totally crashed. I couldn't move the cursor, force it to quit, or use the keyboard. So I pressed the reset button and hoped for the best, but my Mac refused to even recognize my internal hard drive much less boot from it.

I tried all the tricks in my book(s) -- running Alsoft's DiskWarrior, Symantec's Norton Utilities, Apple's Disk Utility/First Aid, resetting the PRAM, disconnecting peripherals, and so on -- but all for naught. The drive was apparently hosed-to-the-max, but I didn't panic. This type of thing has happened to me so often I've become obsessive about backing up important folders several times a day.

Once I'd established that my diagnostic and disk repair utilities weren't going to resurrect the hard drive, I booted from an OS X install CD and used Disk Utility to initialize (erase) the internal hard disk, then restored the whole disk from my most recent backup. The entire affair took less than an hour (at least the restore took less than an hour. Unfortunately, I spent quite a bit longer than that futzing with disk utilities, pressing key combos at startup, and connecting and disconnecting devices). But once the restore operation was finished, my Mac was up and running as if nothing bad had even happened.

To me, that's nirvana. I hate to lose even an hour of work, so I've configured my backup software-of-choice for the past ten years, Dantz Development's excellent Retrospect (US$99.95 from the Apple Store), to automatically back up important folders and the files they contain every two hours, all day long. The backups rotate between three external FireWire drives to provide additional safety and security. And, just to be safer, at the end of each day Retrospect duplicates my entire hard disk, making a bootable mirror-image of it on a fourth external FireWire hard drive.

Here's the schedule for today's backups:

Exhibit III

I also have a fifth FireWire hard disk that lives at the bank in my safe deposit box; it contains a backup no more than a couple of weeks old.

In addition, I back up really vital stuff -- like my Work folder, iPhoto Library and iTunes Music folder -- to DVD-R discs, which also go into the safe deposit box. I probably don't need ‘em, but I'd rather be safe than sorry when it comes to my work, my pictures, and my songs. In a pinch I can take the duplicated drive to any other Mac, boot from it, and go back to work immediately. Or, if my crashed internal hard disk been totally dead the other day, I could boot my Mac from one of these drives until I found time to buy and install a replacement.

If it sounds complicated, don't worry. The point I'm trying to make is that if you're not doing something to protect your files, you're going to lose them forever someday.

Your backup routine probably doesn't need to be as sophisticated as mine. For many users, copying a folder or two onto a blank CD, DVD or to an external hard drive every so often is all the backup protection they'll ever need.

But chances are your backup needs fall somewhere in between.

In my humble opinion, Retrospect is the best backup software money can buy. For my needs, nothing else even comes close. But it's not cheap. So, since I realize Retrospect may be more program than you need, either in capability or in price, let me focus for a moment on other, less-expensive and less-complicated backup solutions.

Of course most Macs include an optical disc writer (CD or DVD or both), so you can always just insert a blank disc, copy some files onto it, then burn it, all without the need for any additional software whatsoever. At the very least you should be doing this for files you couldn't live without. Ideally, you'll have a second (or third) disc with recent copies of important files stored off site.

Another option that works great and costs nothing is Mike Bombich's Carbon Copy Cloner, a fabulous free program that makes a bootable mirror-image backup of your OS X boot disk with just a few clicks. Of course this requires a second hard disk at least as large as the first. But if you have one (it's almost worth going out and buying one…), you can't beat Carbon Copy Cloner for making a clone of your startup disk quickly and easily, and you can't beat the price -- it's free unless you care to make a donation, which you should if it comes in handy, which it will.

There are other options as well. ProSoft Engineering's Data Backup is the US version of the excellent Tri-Backup, from Tri-Edre in France. It's a very good US$50 backup program that's perfect for a single user/single Mac (it isn't designed for network backup).

Or, if you're a member of Apple's .Mac (US$99/year) you're entitled to a copy of Apple's home-grown backup utility, the eponymous Backup, which can backup folders to CDs or DVDs. Its claim to fame is that it can automatically back up files to your remote iDisk via the Internet.

There are also a bunch of useful shareware programs with the word "sync" in their names, which can synchronize two folders or disks automatically. As long as you're careful they can be used to create a backup routine of sorts.

But the software and media you use for backing up are far less important than remembering to actually do it. The best software/hardware/media combination in the world is worthless unless you use it regularly.

So there you have it… Figure out what files you can't afford to lose and back them up or I assure you, they'll be gone someday.