When to back up

What I really want is for my online backup systems to be smart. If I’m off of my home networks, I should be allowed to say, “Don’t back up again until I get home,” rather than having to look at the three services I now use and say, “Pause for N minutes.” I forgot this until just now, and I’ve been soaking the meager transfer capacity of the Cafe 153 network with my backups.

Why three services? I’m turning my knowledge of backups into a micro-business, and that means that I need to test all of the big players. Fun times.

How I Backup My Macs: January 2009

This entry has three parts: how I got to where I am now, software, and hardware. This might seem inverted, but I’m putting the important stuff up top for people who’ve read about how I’ve backed things up in the past. I will then close with some suggestions and a vision of the future I want.

How I Transitioned to My Current Setup

Recently I bought a Drobo and 4TB of HDDs; I originally thought this would go to my home file server, but my newer Mac mini is still acting up. [Grrr.] Once I brought the Drobo online on my iMac, I created three 1TB volumes: geoFstop media, iTunes, and Residual. I think they’re named appropriately and don’t need discussion. I made use of Apple’s instructions on moving one’s iTunes folder and this Flickr discussion on how to move Aperture libraries. I still need to migrate the vault and my residual iPhoto library, but this has me up and running. Simply put, I went from only 90GB free on my iMac’s HDD to 338GB at the time of this posting. Yeah, I had a lot of data to move. Why? Well, my concert recording and photography is chewing up data like nobody’s business [but my own, heh]. I got serious about jumping my HDD capacity up when I saw myself eating 10-20GB a month on the iMac, between shooting RAW and recording in CD quality.

Software I Use

I’ve posted about backups before, and as I did then, I love SuperDuper! It really is what its name implies. Having a bootable clone of my iMac drive protects me against that drive dying in one important way: if my iMac’s drive dies, I don’t have to wait for a GeniusBar appointment and a replacement HDD to be put in to keep using my machine. This minimizes any downtime to get a working drive back in the iMac. I’ve even thought about swapping to the external drive for my main drive, hoping that the drive that would fail would be the one that gets more regular use. After all, external hard drives can be replaced in the time it takes to swap cables out.

On my Leopard-running Macs [which is everything save the iBook I’m about to find a new home and my older mini, which I will upgrade from Tiger soon], I also implement Time Machine, which is native to the OS. I wouldn’t use Time Machine as my sole backup system because of the time involved in restoring from a backup, but it works very well and can save your hide when your hard drive dies. Apple deserves kudos for baking a solid backup solution into its operating system, and I think this is a major, major selling point of using Apple kit. If you’re running Leopard and not backing up, you need to punch yourself in the face … repeatedly.

Hardware I Use

In short, I am using:

  • My iMac’s base HDD, 500GB
  • A Newer Tech miniStack v3, sized 500GB, to clone the iMac HDD to prevent downtime from that drive’s data loss.
  • A Newer Tech miniStack v3, sized 750GB, to serve as a Time Machine backup for the iMac HDD in a belt-and-suspenders approach. This might seem like overkill until you realized that you deleted a file three days ago, which means your nightly-cloned 500GB HDD backup is going to be useless in saving your bacon. Time Machine has bailed my ass out several times, and it also made migrating to the iMac from my newer mini a very nice experience.
  • The aforementioned Drobo, which is a FW800-capable 2nd-generation box. This is primary storage, as noted above, and I get about 2.7TB out of the four 1TB Western Digital Green HDDs I have in there.

For those really curious, the FW800 chain is: iMac > Drobo > 500GB miniStack > 750GB miniStack. I also have a Lexar FW800-capable CompactFlash card reader chained off of the end of all that. I’m thankful that the 24″ iMac blocks the sun and my view of most of the cabling.


Remember the joke about punching yourself in the face, repeatedly? My friend Bryan is doing that right now. This entry is written in part for him and for other friends of ours who’ve been a part of discussing Bryan’s misfortune today.

Obviously, what I’m doing with backups is expensive: the Drobo setup ran me about $900 [$500 for the Drobo and $400 for the drives], and the miniStacks ran me about $350 when I bought them. Throw in the $27.95 for SuperDuper! and this ain’t cheap, but I bet that, right now, Bryan would pay $500 to not be facing full data loss, maybe more.

If you’re running Leopard and are on a budget, I strongly recommend getting an external HDD [obviously, I love the miniStack, as I own five of them] and use Time Machine. Buy what you can afford, but I feel that your Time Machine backup solution should have 150-200% of the space your primary drive has. So if you have a base MacBook with a 160GB drive, get at least 320GB of backup space. At this point, the major price breaks in drives start happening past 750GB, as 1.0TB and 1.5TB are the top line of the marketplace right now. As of this posting, the 250GB miniStack v3 is $135.99, where the 500GB version is $154.99. $15 is not too much to spend on backup—and if it is, well, you’re probably also the person who uses the cheapest car insurance that you can and spend your time hoping to not ever be in a wreck.

If you have a bit more of a budget, I recommend a belt-and-suspenders approach, utilizing SuperDuper! to create nightly backups and Time Machine to create the incremental backups. This requires at least two drives, as SuperDuper! makes a complete clone of your main drive and can’t be used for anything else. If you have this, use a drive close to the size of your main drive and a second that is at least twice the size of the first. I was thinking about going to a 1TB miniStack for my iMac until I realized that I needed far more space than that. Now that I’m down to only 125GB of data on my iMac’s internal drive, I’m good for quite some time with 750GB of Time Machine goodness.

If you’re a semi-professional or a professional, you need to be RAID-ing or using a Drobo, but you don’t need me to tell you this. And if you’re one of those, you’re probably thinking of something like what I want in the future …

Vision of the Future

I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want: encrypted, incremental, offsite backups. Ideally, I want small boxes [Linux or minis, I don’t care] that I take and put in my friends’ houses. I want to have an encrypted baseline backup when I place those machines in the field, and then I want to send encrypted incremental backups over the Internet to them. In return, I’m willing to host similar boxes for them. Here’s why:

  • Offsite: if a natural disaster befells my house, I want my data backed up somewhere else.
  • Incremental: I can back up offsite now [taking drives to a safe-deposit box, for example], but doing it incrementally means I’m never more than 24 hours out of date. Most of the time, I’m not generating large quantities of data—except, of course, when I go to a show and record. But you know, that’s the risk I take.
  • Encrypted: because someone who breaks into my house, or Jeff or Stephen‘s, doesn’t need to get my data and their data. Also, while I obviously trust these guys with my data, I don’t want to give them, oh, bank statements, passwords, etc. They don’t want to give that to me, either, and I wholly understand.

But this is still probably a few years away, yet, from reality. Yes, there’s Tarsnap, but he’s a single point of failure. Plus, I would rather host with people I know and trust than those I don’t.

Questions or comments? Love to hear from you on this.