My Multilayered Backup Strategy


I’ve spent most of my career working in IT Operations, a good part of which I’ve spent thinking, “Really, what’s the worst that could happen?” A year or so ago, I asked myself, “What’s the worst that could happen if my MacBook died?” It was a pretty sobering question.

I work full time. I also freelance, go to school, and write fiction part time. The best case would be the failure was during a rare moment of idleness, and I could suffer the loss of a computer without breaking a sweat. But what’s the fun in that? Data disasters don’t strike in moments like this; instead, like a formulaic movie plot, they happen when you’re not only on deadline, but one you’re really late on. Planning for a system failure I pray never happens has led to what’s admittedly an overly cautious backup strategy. Most people think they’re being very cautious if they’ve got a secondary backup method; I’ve got a tertiary backup.

My primary backup is Time Machine, and it has served me well through the usual accidental data deletions. While the interface drives me a little batty, Time Machine is an excellent backup method. Hourly, I’ll hear my drives spin up and can smile knowing the drivel I’m writing is safely backed up. Every now and then I’ll get the dreaded Time Machine backup error, but either forcing the backup or just waiting for the next cycle works fine.

Time Machine, though, only works when I’m attached to my USB devices at home. I use my laptop at work and at school, so if I need to do a restore when I’m not at home, Time Machine is useless. Not only that, if my house burns down, I’m out of luck. As a secondary backup, I use Mozy. Now, the first backup is extremely long; depending on how many gigs you’re backing up, you could be looking at a week’s worth of time uploading data. Once that’s done, subsequent backups are very speedy. It only backs up changed files, so you’re not uploading hundreds of gigs of files every day. It’s easy to configure your backup sets — you can either tell it to grab your Documents, Pictures, Music folders, etc., or you can go deeper and tell it to backup (or exclude) specific folders. Mozy also runs in the background when your Mac is in an idle period.

My secondary computer is a PC. Each of these backup schemes work as long as my Mac is intact or I have another Mac to restore to. Time Machine obviously is Mac-only, but while Mozy works on Macs and PCs, the file that’s restored is a .dmg file. While I could find a way to break into the .dmg file, part of my worst-case plan is, “OK, my Mac is dead and the only way I can make this deadline is to keep working on my PC, STAT!” There are three folders (School, Freelance, Writing) that I have deemed Crucial National Assets. Without immediate access to those folders during a State of Emergency, I am completely and totally hosed.

To solve that worse-case scenario, I use Dropbox. Dropbox simply uploads what I want to a web page, where I can grab files from any other computer, Mac or PC. The one drawback is it likes its files to reside in a Dropbox folder on my Mac, but I got around that by creating symbolic links to those three folders I really care about. Dropbox grabs their contents and uploads them.

An important part of any backup routine is testing data validity. Periodically, I’ll do test restores from Time Machine and Mozy, and verify from my PC that I can access the data on Dropbox. While you’re likely to only need them in case of emergency, it’s important to know if you have to break the glass and use the tools they’ve been doing their jobs all along.

What is your backup strategy?

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