Backup Today or Suffer Tomorrow - You've Been Warned

Dr. Mac's Rants & Raves
Episode #135


In technology there's only one thing I'm absolutely certain of: Your hard (or solid-state) disk is going to fail. I promise you it will cease to function some day. Note that I chose my words extra carefully -- it is going to fail. Not maybe, or possibly, or perhaps; I can tell you with absolute certainty your drives — every single one of them — will grind to a screeching halt someday (usually figuratively but occasionally literally). You won't know when that day will come, but when it does, all the files you've ever saved on that disk could cease to exist in an instant.

I know you've heard this all before, but apparently some of you aren't listening so I'm trying it again, this time with different words. Here's the deal: Over the past few weeks I've heard far more tales of data-loss woe than usual. So allow me to offer what I consider best practice backup strategies for backing up data in today's world. Then, next week, I'll tell you about three excellent backup applications I use daily and recommend without hesitation.

First things first: I'm a fan of OS X's built-in Time Machine backup technology, which runs on every Mac in my house. It's easy to set up and use, and mostly reliable as your first line of defense. Sadly, a single Time Machine backup is not nearly enough protection. For example, if your Time Machine backup disk becomes corrupted (as they sometimes do), you're toast. Worse than that, you may not realize your Time Machine backup is toast until you try to restore an important file. Furthermore, since the Time Machine backup disk is probably sitting next to your computer, both the computer and the backup disk would be toast in the event of fire, natural disaster, or burglary.

That's why any backup system worth its salt includes at least one complete backup stored in a different location. I keep my offsite backups in a safety deposit box at a nearby bank, but you can store yours with a friend or neighbor, or at the office (for your home backups) or home (for your work backups). The idea is they should reside anywhere but where your computer lives. About once a month I perform a complete backup and bootable clone, take those backup disks to the bank, and retrieve the previous month's backup disks to eventually erase and reuse.

As far as backing up to the cloud goes, that option is fraught with drawbacks. The only benefit is that online backup space is reasonably priced these days. The drawbacks are that it takes a really long time — we're talking days or even a week or more — to restore a large disk from a cloud-based backup. And, of course, cloud backups rely on having a decent Internet connection; if you don't have a good connection, you can't restore your files.

So remember that you need at least two complete backups of all of your important files — one stored locally and the other stored offsite or in the cloud. That may be all you need, but if your work includes deadlines (as mine does), you'll want to make a third backup — a bootable clone of your startup disk — every night.

Why do you need a clone? Think of it this way: When your Mac's hard drive goes south, you can spend hours troubleshooting or restoring files, or you can connect your clone to almost any Mac in the world and be back in business within a few minutes. For me, that's far better than wasting hours or days trying to restore from a backup. When you have time, you can fix or replace the dead disk; in the meantime, you've got everything you need to get your work done on time.

Tune in next week when I present the software I use and recommend for backups and clones.

And that's all he wrote...