Backups

Having a backup of your precious data is one of those things that everybody knows is a good thing, but almost everybody says that it is too hard to do, or remember to do. As you can see below there are more options than can be easily digested by a non-geek so having Graham help you get an optimised backup solution for your particular situation can save you lots of time and angst.

You must have a backup strategy!!

It is no longer such a hassle.

  • External hard drives are now both capacious and cheap.
  • Online services offer significant storage for backed up or replicated data at zero or very low cost.
  • Consumer internet connectivity plans often allow unlimited data transfers.
  • More software is available that allows "consumer friendly" set and forget configuration.

My recommendation for Apple OS X users, based upon years of both personal and corporate experience and taking into account the options listed further down, is:

  1. Set all your computers to use Time Machine to create hourly backups.
  2. If you have an "always on" machine such as an iMac or Mac Mini, connect your external backup drives to that machine and make them accessible over your network for all other Macs to backup to. Otherwise purchase a network storage device to provide a network "share point" for your computers to back up to.
  3. Use an online backup service to back up your important and non-static documents at least once a day, even when you're travelling.
  4. Once a week update, or recreate, a bootable backup drive of each machine.
  5. At least once a month rotate your bootable backup drive to another physical location. ie. you'll need two of these drives.

More Details

External Hard Drives

The cheapness of disk drives means backups, and multiple backups, can be stored on a single piece of equipment. Consumer stores now offer 2TB (two terabyte) drives for less than $120 with USB 3.0 connections. 3TB drives are also becoming more common. Of course these drives can suffer a failure in the same way as the hard drive on your own computer, so getting just one of these generally won't be the "final solution" - you may want to have 2 or 3 and have the extras stored off-site.

USB "Thumb" Drives

These are now also very cheap for sizes up to 32GB or 64GB. You'll find 8GB & 16GB versions can be bought for less than $10. This makes them a good option for storing copies of any information or files that are unique and unable to be recreated. For instance all your tax records for the last 7 years could be copied onto one of these after you've completed each financial year and the drive then put away somewhere safe (with your accountant perhaps?) until you retrieve it do the same thing next year.

Online Storage

The low price for hard drives is also driving the trend for enormous amounts of online storage space to be made available online for very minimal cost. The great thing about online services is that they can be used no matter where your are which is a definite plus if you're carrying a laptop around the world. If you've got "really sensitive" data you will need to consider whether you should be giving it to somebody else to look after before using any of these services.
In general the services come in 3 flavours, though there are many add-on products out there that can blur the distinction.

Fully online editing and storage - where the only copy of the document is kept online and you can then view and edit it from any internet connected device that has a modern web browser. Google Docs is an example of this model. With only one copy stored you can be certain that what you are seeing is the most recent version, but in terms of backup what you're doing is delegating the task to the service provider. ie. you're hoping that their backup policy is effective. Be aware that the service might not keep previous versions of your document which would limit your "rollback" options.

Synchronised online storage - where the online service coordinates copies of the document between itself and one or several devices. For instance ensuring that a document edited on your laptop is updated for viewing on your iPad. Dropbox is an example of this model. The service will do it's best to ensure everything is synchronised properly but there is always the chance that updates from one device don't get applied, or are overwritten by an old version. Depending on the provider you may get a reasonable amount of version history with such a service, but remember that it is going to be limited by the amount of storage they have given you, or you have purchased.

Online backup service - where your computer runs an automated backup that stores the backup in an online repository rather than in a hard drive on your premises. Mozy is an example of this model. One of the benefits of this type of service is that because the data is not being shared with any other devices you can configure your machine to strongly encrypt the data before it is sent online. This means that nobody else, including the provider, can read the contents of your files.

Backup Software

Note: Any backup software may have a problem backing up a file that is still open, or being used, by an application. This includes databases (such as used by Microsoft Entourage) and disk images. If you have files that are kept open almost all the time then you need to carefully check under what conditions they can be reliably copied and then make sure that those conditions can be satisfied on a regular basis when your backup software is running.

Instantaneous Backup

Dropbox is an example of software that runs constantly in the background on your machine. It monitors the folders that you have told it about and as soon as it sees a file change in one of those folders it replicates the file up to its online central storage. Bear in mind that when you're editing a file (eg. a Word document) it is actually only updated when you click on the "Save" button. Generally you'll only have this software monitor your working documents folders.

Hourly Backup

Time Machine is a piece of software that comes with the OS X operating system that allows a very easy way of keeping an historical set of snapshots of your data. It saves hourly backups for the past 24 hours, daily backups for the past month, and weekly backups for everything older than a month. This means it is good for retrieving a document from an hour ago after you've been editing it and discover it has become corrupted, and it is also good for recovering things that you deleted and then a few weeks later discover you shouldn't have. Just as importantly it can be used to restore your entire system in cases such as a hard drive failure.
It has a simple interface for navigating the historical snapshots and restoring the files you want. It also automatically manages the disk space that is available on your backup drive by deleting old snapshots as required. I use Time Machine in my house for 4 laptops and a Mac Mini. It "just works"!

Daily Backup

Mozy is another piece of software that runs in the background but in this case it runs at defined intervals and uploads to its online central storage the files that have changed in that interval.

Weekly Bootable Backup

Carbon Copy Cloner and Super Duper are 3rd party products that allow you to create a "byte for byte" replica of the internal hard drive in your computer. The big thing about this is that if your internal drive has a hardware failure you can use the replicated drive in it's place to startup and run your machine. That could mean it only takes minutes to be operating as normal again, as opposed to the hours or days it might take to replace the internal drive. All you will be missing is any changes that have happened since the backup was last run - and you'll be able to use your other backup products to help with getting those back. Once your internal drive is replaced you then replicate back in the other direction and return to normal operation. Both products allow you to automate when they run so you can choose to do so more frequently if your situation requires it.

Off-site Backup

If all your different backups are stored within the same building there's a chance that a disaster scenario such as fire or flood may destroy all of them at once. So storing at least one backup "off-site" is an important part of an overall backup plan. Traditionally this involves physically moving one of the backup types listed above to another location - perhaps nightly, perhaps once a week. Combined with an online storage service that looks after your "day to day" documents you can load a new machine with the off-site data then load the online data over the top.

A reasonably new development in this space is the CrashPlan service that allows you automate a regular backup of your files to a second computer anywhere in the world. ie. it creates that off-site backup without you having to physically move a tape/disk/drive. For home users the way to do this may be to agree with a family member who lives elsewhere to have your off-site data go to their computer, and their data go to your computer. (CrashPlan also provides online storage on their servers.)