Post-Christmas Hard Disk Management

If you've received a new Macintosh for Christmas or perhaps one of those terabyte hard disks, the task now is managing all that hard disk space. Managing is the key word here, because while Time Machine can help back it all up, a schema for intelligently assigning years of files and directories to all that new storage is vital.

Even though Macs are easy to use, for most users, simply plugging in massive hard disk isn't a solution, rather, it's just the beginning of what can be a frustrating management experience, especially if there are other drives using different connection protocols. Here are some tips I've learned throughout the years that may help.

Step 1. Getting Backed Up

A New Mac. If you've received a new Mac for Christmas, chances are the internal hard disk is substantially larger than before and the external drive you've been using for Time Machine is no longer adequate.

My rule of thumb is to have the external drive at least twice as big as the internal drive. That's because I don't totally trust Time Machine, and so I also do a Finder copy of my entire home directory. Add some miscellaneous files, and the disk utilities that came with the drive and a factor of 2 is just about the minimum.

Just dismount and turn off the old external drive, connect the new one, and tell Time Machine, in its preferences, the name of the new external drive. (The Change Disk option.) After Time Machine has backed up your internal drive completely, the old hard disk can be used for something else.

Multiple Internal Drives. If you have multiple internal hard disks, say, on a Mac Pro, they'll all be backed up automatically to your single external drive with Time Machine. If there are other external hard disks that you don't want backed up, you can identify them in the Time Machine Preferences -> Options.

Step 2. Management Concepts

Now that you have everything backed up with Leopard's Time Machine, and I really do recommend using it, here are some concepts to consider.

Space. Freeing up space on your internal drive is often a problem. If you have a monstrous iTunes library or documents directory, and your internal drive fills up, system performance will be degraded. Mac OS X needs swap space, and I try to keep a least 5 GB, preferably more free on my internal drive.

Moving Directories. There are directories in your home directory that can be moved anywhere, like Documents and Movies. Then there are directories that should not be moved, like Library and Music. Then there are directories that can be moved, like iTunes Music, but you'll have to let the iTunes app know where you've relocated it. Jeff Gament has written the definitive guide to moving an iTunes library to another disk.

I used to keep a directory called Installers in my home directory. It's a perfect candidate to move to the second internal drive on my PowerMac G5. I just place an alias to it in my Home directory. That second internal drive is backed up with Time Machine.

Speed. Inevitably, you're going to end up moving directories around wholesale. By default, dragging a directory to a different volume copies it rather than moves it. That's helpful because you can verify the copy in a cursory way before deleting the original directory.

Lots of copying suggests that the fastest available protocol be used. A long time ago, I settled on FireWire 800 as my standard because it's a lot faster that USB 2, about twice as fast overall. For multiple attached disks, I use a Belkin FireWire 800 hub.

If you have some older external drives with only FW400, now is the time to move all that data to a drive that has FW800, eSata, and USB 2 connections in order to ensure fast migratability of the data in the future.

Speed is important because attending to good organization takes time, and if you get impatient because of slow file transfers, the job won't get done. That's another reason to take advantage of the modern, large, cheap drives with triple interfaces.

Duplicates. Before Time Machine, I cross duplicated important directories to multiple disks. With new drives, the duplication got out of hand. It's a good idea, I think, to identify what needs to be backed up and let Time Machine do it's job.

An exception to this might be if you're maxed out your internal drive(s) and the external drive for Time Machine, and you need extra room for an archive of older files that just won't fit. Then, creating a duplicate on some other drive makes sense.

If the Time Machine drive fails, it's unlikely the internal drive will fail before you can buy a new external drive. And vice versa. As a result, backing up only once, except for an offsite storage copy, should be adequate and avoids the problem of wondering which duplicated files are the latest.

Documentation. To my knowledge, there is no software that assists the user with the assignment and tracking of storage. As a result, it's up to the user to develop a schema of what's going to go where. I label my drives with the names of celestial stars (Altair, Deneb, etc) and I create a hierarchical listing in BBEdit of the names of those disks and what I want them to contain. Then I print it out.

When it comes time to develop a new category of data, say Recipes, I can look at the hierarchical map and decide where that data should go. For example, /Users/john/Documents may or may not be the right place, depending on how big I expect that directory to become. Whether it should even be backed up at all is also a consideration.

Partitioning. In general, I don't partition my drives. If the unit fails, both partitions will be lost. The only time I partition a drive is when one partition has another copy of Mac OS X for emergency booting. That way, I can wipe out the partition if I need to, change the volume format if necessary and reinstall a new OS copy without affecting the data on the other partition.

Offsite storage. It's wise to buy a drive, even larger than your Time Machine drive, to back up every thing you have, say, once a quarter, and keep it in a safety deposit box. If there's a disaster with all your drives at home, you won't have lost everything. Simple Finder copies are good for this to make sure that master archive is easily readable for all time.

The cheapest way to back up a hard disk is with another hard disk. It's probably a waste of time and effort to back up 500 GB drives on DVDs that hold 8 GB. Even with Blu-ray discs that hold 50 GB. In addition, the data cloud for home user's isn't going to get it done. Don't depend on a third party to have the only backups of your family's data. Broadband speeds for home users are still too slow, in any case, to properly manage large data sets.

Final Thoughts

With terabyte drives costing about $200, storage is insanely cheap. However, that can lead to careless, bad practices and a disorganized personal archive. You are the IT administrator of your home's computers, and it's a great idea to have a well thought out master plan for what gets stored where and how it all gets backed up. Some pre-planning and fast drives will eliminate home computer disasters and treasured data, photos and videos that become lost forever.

The key is periodic attention and maintenance That's what the IT managers do every day, and now that your household is moving to terabytes of storage, that's what you'll have to do to.