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.


Timothy Griffin

Since owning my iMac I’ve been backing up to a DVD-RW once a week using Apple’s Backup 2, but I do intend to get an external drive in the near future. It’s my birthday soon and the missus is quite savvy on what I want so who knows … ?

I’ve always been careful with my data. Why? Well, my previous computers have always been Windows machines and many, many re-installs have taught me to keep copies of anything and everything. I am in love with OS X, quite literally!

nick santilli

Joe, feel free to link or use whatever from this post and write up the full piece you feel necessary. It’s out there for the taking.

I guess some people may not know what to backup. IF you use mail, your comment is a valid place to backup (I don’t). I just backup my entire home folder, so I don’t risk missing anything in particular among my regularly used files.
Then I run CCC to image my entire system in case of real catastrophe.

Joe Weaks

Nice tips. I was going to include a link to it on my blog, but it’s still rather incomplete. Itreally needs some comments on “what” to backup. Places to think about include:
Mail folder (the only content thing in the Library folder I make sure to backup).
Documents (whether you keep them in the system Documents folder or not)
Download folder
Well, someone should do a more complete list.


I only recently got round to a really thorough backup routine, but I’m very glad that I did (too many friends and colleagues have lost data recently for comfort). I have my main data stored in a RAID on a linux box and I backup to an external firewire disk connected to my powerbook each night across the network.

I simply use rsync as my requirements are quite straightforward (backup everything on this volume across into this folder, refresh all files) and it minimises the amount of data transferred. Only took a few minutes with the man pages to figure out.

Then once a week I swap over my two firewire disks (one of them lives at my office) so that there’s always a recent backup available off-site. People call me immensely paranoid (after all, with RAID and two backups I end up with 4 copies of all my data) but I know that when the inevitable happens I’ll have far less heartache putting everything back together…

chris holland

good stuff Nick :) Carbon Copy Cloner is indeed a really cool tool. Not only does it allow you to clone your hard drive onto another one, it also allows you to create disk-image snapshots of your hard drive, and store those instead. I’ve been mulling over various back-up strategies and earmarking some money this year to buy me more external firewire storage. I’ve already got two. heh.

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