DAILY FEEDING: Backing-up Your Data

In DAILY FEEDING, I’ll attempt to help you simplify some of the more daily and mundane tasks of computing. To kick things off, I’ll start with protecting your data through regular backups.

I consider myself somewhat of an expert on this topic – why? I’ve lost way too much data due to poor back-up practices. But the past few months have brought some break-throughs that will hopefully help you avoid my mistakes.

I actually lucked out about 5 months ago: I’d just run my first backup of my Home folder (after having my powerbook for almost 2 years), when I hosed myself the very next day. Thank goodness I’d made a backup the night before! And oh yes – the biggest issues arise from user-error, and I generally know what I’m doing on a computer…


Here are some tips and thing to keep in mind when trying to preserve and protect your valuable data. (Trust me, even if you don’t think it’s anything you’d miss – wait till it’s gone…)

  • Ideally, you would run a backup each week to an external (firewire or usb are most common, though network servers would do) hard drive. Most paranoid users and industry experts would probably say backup nightly, but I think for the regular user there’s probably not a whole lot of new data created on your system each day.
    Maybe I’m wrong, and if so, then go the daily route. It never hurts to be cautious!
  • I tend to prefer an external hard drive (whether you’re using a laptop or a desktop) for my backups. Why? In the most extreme cases, it’s much easier to grab a novel-sized hard drive from your desk and save it froma burning building, than carting your whole computer or server out the door. You could even keep it in a relatively small fire-proof safe with your other important paper documents.
    Additionally, external hard drives are usually used less than the internal, so they are less likely to be prone to data corruptions.
  • If you don’t have an external drive, and aren’t in a position to pick one up (though they are getting cheaper each minute), you [hopefully] have at least a cd burner, or maybe even a dvd burner. It’s more manual and time-consuming, but a backup nonetheless. (plus, even more portable than a hard drive!)
    Of course a downside to this medium is its shelf-life is relatively limited. Some studies say about 7-10 years…
  • Something else to keep in mind when making backups is to rotate them. It’s a good idea to preserve the last backup you made, in case something in the new backup turns out to be corrupt (whether from a virus – yeah, I know it’s os x, but still – or new application installation errors, or whatever).
    So every other week I backup to the older of the 2 backups on my external drive. I’ve never had to worry about it and hopefully never will. It’s insurance, ya know?
  • Outside of the regularly scheduled, it’s always good to run a backup (maybe even store it separate from your regular rotating backups) before a major software update to OS X, just in case something doesn’t go quite right…
    Also, if you ever send your computer in for repair someplace (even AppleCare), backup all your data prior to handing it over. Who knows what can happen when it gets our of your hands.

So what kind of software can you use to do this?
Well .Mac and Apple Backup 2 are Apple’s commercial solutions which you can pay for. Plus, for you Cd/DVD backup folks, Apple Backup will let you setup backups right to cd or dvd. (I’m sure there are others out there too, if you dig a bit.)
Many people seem to like .Mac, though I’ve not used it myself.

There are some open source unix utilities with nice guis (interfaces) that are available that many people in the mac community seem to love. PsyncX and RsyncX are the most popular I’ve seen. You can schedule regular backups and let it run while you sleep, and you don’t have to worry about it at all!
(I actually use PsyncX and love it!)

For full system restores (including your preferences and all those little things that you always forget), there’s Carbon Copy Cloner. You can create a disk image to boot from later and reinstall as necessary.
I’ve never had to do this myself, so can’t give much insight on the process, but from reading around the web, it’s the de facto standard for this type of thing.

As I’ve linked to before, John Gruber’s Daring Fireball has some good tips and information here.

Well that’s pretty much all I’ve got. I hope it’s been helpful.
Please share your backup configurations and any other tips you may have that I’ve not thought of yet. (Read: what spectacular data losses have you weathered and learned from that I’ve not done to myself yet!)

Note: DAILY FEEDING refers to the regular chores that you should perform to keep things up and running smooth on your system. It’s not meant to imply a new DAILY FEEDING article each day…Sorry if there’s any confusion there.

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