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Summary:

Whether you backup via an online service, Time Machine, a cloned backup or manually, you’ve probably forgotten something critical: testing. A good backup strategy is generally something simple and automated. You “set it and forget it,” but you really shouldn’t.

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Whether you backup via an online service, Time Machine, a cloned backup or manually, you’ve probably forgotten something critical: testing.

A good backup strategy is generally something simple and automated. You “set it and forget it,” but you really shouldn’t. In my day job, I see too many teary eyes from people who thought data was backed up but it wasn’t. Just this week I had my own little panic attack when I realized Time Machine hadn’t run in a week. Somehow I accidentally unplugged the FireWire cable moving things around and my Mac really didn’t warn me Time Machine wasn’t running. Ouch.

Too often I see backup systems “glitch.” Maybe the hard drive was corrupt or a folder was moved. Unless you check backup logs way closer than everyone, you don’t find out the backup failed until you try to do a restore — and the time to do that restore isn’t when you are missing data. Even reviewing logs is no substitute for testing.

Ultimately, backing up your data isn’t important, but restoring it is! If you don’t know how, now is the time to open up the manual or call tech support and find out. Time Machine, of course is built into Mac OS, so no additional software is necessary, and Apple’s tech support can help you with it. If it’s an online backup service, do you remember your password? For local backups, do you have the software to do the restoration? Does someone else in your family or organization know how to do the restore in your absence?

Once you know how to do a restore, the key is to actually try it, and do it regularly. This is no matter how bulletproof you think your strategy is. No software or process is foolproof and do you really want to pay for forensic-style data recovery like Drivesavers? I recommend creating a short list of files to restore. Mine usually includes the following:

  1. Absolutely mission critical files. The files you are least willing to lose. For me that’s my financial data, my customer list and my calendar. Each time I test a restore I choose one of these. Most people also choose their pictures, but I leave pictures to the spouse.
  2. Critical folders. These can be broad. I use my main business folder as the test restore. When doing a restore, I always restore this folder.
  3. Important stuff. These are files that would be nice to have, but you could live without. For many, this may include their iTunes data. You could repurchase or re-import these items but it would be a pain. For the important stuff, just pick a few files at random.

When you do a test restore, you’ll want to make sure to restore the files to an alternate location — don’t accidentally overwrite your current version.

How often to test? That’s a difficult question and ultimately is answered by “how much data are you willing to lose?” Testing too often becomes tedious and is quickly abandoned, but waiting too long to test could lead to data loss. For no particular reason, I’ve determined once a month is a good strategy for me. Because my most critical data is financial, I run a test backup each time I do a reconcile. The process usually takes less than five minutes and I keep a quick spreadsheet of which files to test.

What have you got to lose by spending five minutes a month testing your backups by doing a restore? Just your data…that’s all.

  1. I think the default time limit is 10 days. You will get a dialog box saying that time machine has not run in 10 days. But I agree it should be less than 10 days if a backup fails to run. Perhaps this value can be changed, I’m not sure.

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  2. Thats a really good article on backing up! I think i read something similar about apple iPhone back up at http://www.uprighttechs.com

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  3. I use “TimeMachineEditor” to create custom backup schedules for Time Machine, and in case my house burns down, I also use an off-site storage service: BackBlaze.com. My mom’s house almost burned down (fire got very close to her house), and the next day I started looking for a good off-site service. They’re very responsive to support questions (sent in some questions before I bought asking how they could be so cheap to use and cheap to restore, and got a response from the CTO!). They’re only $5 a month for unlimited backup (well, they don’t backup your apps or system files, but do backup all data files, including music, videos, etc. Right now they’ve got 361GB of my data, and if I ever need a few files I can download them… or if I need it all, they’ll copy it to a hard drive and mail it to me for just the cost of the drive itself. These are good folks, so if you’re only relying on local backup storage…check out BackBlaze. (No, don’t work for them. Just really love having cheap & reliable backup storage off-site … just in case.)

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  4. I wouldn’t solely rely on Time Machine. I do Time Machine, Super Duper (bootable drive) and Amazon S3 for critical files. This covers local loss, hard drive failure and offsite availability.

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  5. Mirrored drives, time machine, BackupPC to offsite.

    Belt, suspenders and pants stapled to my body.

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  6. Excellent review Dave, I thought I’d check how my time machine back up are doing after reading your article, TM has been backing up my mac for 2 years now and occupies 40% of my hard drive and I use another back up solution to back up my media which takes the total to 98%. Does anyone know what happens once it reaches 100%?

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  7. That is why we at SOS Online Backup, send backup reports for each and every backup. Having said that testing your backups is a great idea. Our customers love the notification, with the number of files backed up on each backup.

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