Matt Gemmell

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Backups

Tech & Productivity 4 min read

I recently made a pledge to keep my work available permanently, and a key aspect of that is to ensure I have good backups. I’d like to very briefly detail my backup strategy, and list the tools and services I use.

It frightens me to think that many people probably don’t have any backups at all. “My computer crashed” is so far from being an acceptable excuse for data loss in this day and age, yet I hear it frustratingly often. If your data is only in one location, you’re being an idiot.

Remote backup services are incredibly cheap. External drives are incredibly cheap. Backup software is incredibly cheap. The only thing that isn’t cheap is your time, and the amount of effort and agony involved in recovering (or, worse, recreating) lost data.

I don’t want to have to even think about the possibility of data loss, so I have multiple backup systems running all the time.

Continuous local backups

On Mac OS X, this is as simple as plugging in an external drive (like a USB, FireWire or Thunderbolt disk). OS X will ask you if you’d like to use it for Time Machine.

Say yes, and thereafter your machine will be backed up on a regular basis (every hour). Time Machine keeps hourly backups for the past 24 hours, daily backups for the past month, and weekly backups until your backup drive is full. It can back up to a physically connected drive, or to a Time Capsule on your network.

Here, we use physically connected external drives for each machine. My current drive is a FireWire 800 2TB volume, which has over 1.5TB free at the moment. I replace the drive every year, or at the very first sign of any weirdness whatsoever. I have spares ready to go. If the drive is behaving normally when I replace it, I keep it in its current state, labelled with the date I replaced it.

Daily drive clones

I have two other physically-connected external volumes that I use as backups of my internal SSD and HDD respectively. Every night (at two different times), SuperDuper1 automatically clones those drives to the external volumes. I replace those drives every year too, using the same rules as for my Time Machine volumes.

I also have another external volume that I use for ad-hoc snapshot clones, such as before a major OS upgrade. There have been times when I’ve been very happy I did so.

(As an aside, I put small sticky labels on my external drives, saying what they’re for: “TM” for Time Machine, or “SD” for SuperDuper, and so on. I also put sticky dots on each end of the cable, one colour per drive, so it’s easy to know which volume to unmount, and which cable to disconnect.)

Remote backups

I use Backblaze to continuously make remote backups of everything, including connected drives (but excluding those that are themselves backups, of course). My wife’s Mac is also continuously backed up with Backblaze.

At the moment, I also have a continuous (every 15 minutes) remote backup of everything via CrashPlan. I think my subscription runs out in October this year, and I’ll review whether to keep a second remote continuous backup nearer that time.

File sync

As an additional layer of security, I keep all of my active projects in Dropbox, which syncs them between machines. The contents of my Dropbox folder also go into Time Machine, SuperDuper, Backblaze and CrashPlan. For apps that offer the ability to save periodic recovery information, I tend to let those files go into Dropbox too.

Additionally, the entire contents of this blog are stored in a git repository which I host myself on a server elsewhere in the world, and I make sure that the local copies of that repository on my machines here are up to date every morning - a process that takes about ten seconds in total, and is the only manual action in my entire backup strategy. I could readily automate it too.

Prevention

I’m running Techtool Pro 7, with the Techtool Protection feature running, and Checkmate too. They both regularly monitor the health of my machines, will warn me about any impending problems, and will hopefully help me recover from them. At time of writing (25th June 2014), they’re on sale at a substantial discount.

I also naturally have the recovery functionality which recent versions of OS X provide.

Hardware redundancy

I currently actively use a 27” iMac and an 11” MacBook Air, either of which can become my one and only primary work machine at a moment’s notice. My wife currently uses a 15” Retina MacBook Pro. We both have at least one other machine that we can switch back to temporarily, if the need arises, as well as assorted iPads and iPhones.

We have up-to-date AppleCare Protection Plans for all our active Macs. Downtime of more than an hour or so just isn’t an acceptable option.

Back up now

That’s my backup system. It could be better, but I feel that my data is reasonably safe. At any moment, my active work will have been backed up to the cloud in the last minute or so, my data in general will have been backed up remotely within the last 15 minutes, and I’ll have at least one local, external copy that’s less than one hour old. I’m a compulsive file-saver, too; I usually trigger the Save command twice each time, without even thinking about it.

It’s worth noting that your backups are only good if they’re good backups, which means you must regularly verify their integrity and viability. I try to do random restores of folders from my remote backups, and boot from my clones from time to time, as a minimum.

You may not feel you need a backup system as elaborate as mine, but you do need something. As a minimum, at least get remote backups (like Backblaze). Your data will be off-site, continuously backed up, and it only costs $5 per month. If you need to do a full restore, you’ll obviously need to wait for a big download (or pay for them to express ship you a drive), but if you only do one thing, I’d set up Backblaze. If you can also stretch to a cheap external USB disk, get Time Machine running too.

The time to get your backups sorted out is right now. Everything you do is valuable to you, and data loss is an awful ordeal. You don’t need to spend a lot of time or money. The setup is easy, and then it’ll mostly take care of itself.

Hopefully, you’ll never have a catastrophic data loss. But if you do, a small investment right now can turn a future disaster into just a minor inconvenience.


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  1. Technically, it’s “SuperDuper!”, with an exclamation mark. Let’s just pretend otherwise.