Blog Post

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?

30 Responses to “My Multilayered Backup Strategy”

  1. git.

    Anything worth saving is in a git repository and is synchronized with a remote git repo on a server. Since every git clone is a full and independent copy of the full history, if your machine crumps out, you can just make a fresh clone.

    Of course, I have a Time Machine backup too :-)

  2. Geese where do I start. Being in and around the development business for 15 years, I lost enough of my work enough times that I vowed to never let it happen again. So backing up my computers has become like changing the oil on my car (routine). Piece meal works fine. Local hardware backup is the first line of defense. My videos, pictures, music, websites and old code go to a shared terabyte hard drive, important files that I may need quickly or share end up on Flash Drives. The hardware method of backup works fine, but I never really felt comfortable with my backup plan until I added online backup. Like others I do share this over multiple online services, where I put some stuff with one service and some with another. I use a syncing service (SugarSync which has a Mac Client and iPhone access) for document folders and code folders for constant instant backup, and scheduled backup services for my bigger stuff (iDrive, Mozy, Backblaze). I have tested restore from these remote backup services (although not a quick way to restore they all restored successfully), so finally I feel like I can rest without worry of data loss.

  3. My macbook can not find my time machine.
    I try to back up stuff on a WD, but it does show it.
    it does not appear on my desk top. It used to be there and now it is not.

  4. Like Chuckie, I use an ioSafe ( coupled with online backup. Online backup solutions are great for small amounts of data, but not so good for large amounts of data. So, I keep images on the ioSafe and backup docs, etc online. The most important thing, of course, is not to put all your eggs in one basket.

  5. @ Justin Noel

    Cost? Free

    How much disk space? “up to 20 synchronized folders (formerly known as libraries) with up to 20,000 files in each one”. Note that Live Sync doesn’t provide offline storage. It simply automatically syncs files between two computers that are on the internets. SkyDrive is the Microsoft service providing cloud storage.

    Has a marketer in MS ever bothered to look at that page? It’s truly terrible. A better source for info is the Live Sync team blog at Though that’s not very good either.

  6. I’m not sure if I was clear, I have a 1TB TimeCapsule, and an additional 1TB external drive. I have a third 1TB external Hard drive, for the videos. Thanks, I am lost, (and Jack and Sawyer aren’t around for help!) ;-)

  7. I need help. I have been asking this question, but have not been getting answers. I am not very computer literate. Sure I have been using a mac and a pc for years, but don’t really know about the nuts and bolts.

    I have a macbook pro, with bootcamp. I back up the mac side with timemachine, using time capsule. How can I simply backup the windows side automatically. I have a 1TB usb/sata external hard drive, wanting for a “mission.” If someone can give me a step by step on the easiest way to back up the windows side. I would be eternally grateful.(either on the same drive as time capsule, or on the separate hard drive).

    If I can press my luck, on the windows side, I also store video on still another hard drive. At this time I have to write to that hard drive through a usb cable. Is there a way I can do it wirelessly using my present hardware? Or do I need to do something else.

    Thanks, I have tried support through apple, but they are no very good when it comes to a “mixed marriage” I don’t know who to ask. Thanks in advance for any help may render.

  8. Both Mozy and Backblaze (mentioned in the comments) are great off-site backup products for Mac. Carbonite also has a Mac client, and receives good reviews. I’m currently using Mozy on my 3 PCs, but don’t have any local backups in place. I have an IDrive here, which is a 300 MB USB disk that handles local backups, but haven’t configured it yet.

  9. Great job Mark. My strategy is almost identical. Time Machine for primary backup, Mozy for other backups. I use SugarSync to sync my critical work files between my PC and my Mac. MobileMe backups up some other files using backup: my preferences and keychain. It also backups my iCal and Address book 3x a day (since I have all my client data on there).

    We also have a hard drive attached to the airport extreme and my user folder is backed up to it.

    Once a month, though I often forget, I manually burn DVDS of my user folder and then take those offsite.

    Hmmm….saturday morning reading blogs and relaxing. First Saturday of the month…gotta burn those DVDs.

  10. Herman

    I have three FireWire LaCie Rugged disks 500GB for my backup/cloning habits (via SuperDuper). All work very well, I check my external disks regularly with TTPro (running from an e-Drive partition on a smaller FW disk (320 GB), kept for music and photos backups only (and a partition where I put disk images when I need/want to)).

    I work on a new iMac at work, and at home use an older MBPro. My rugged FW disks travel quite a lot.

  11. I used DropBox on my Macs and work PCs.

    I’ve be interested in looking at Windows Live Sync. However, that site is horrible. It gives you no information unless you sign up. (

    Questions :
    How much disk space?

    Has a marketer in MS ever bothered to look at that page?

  12. Terry

    I use Windows Live Sync. There are Mac and Windows clients. Although it was intended for syncing working files between machines, I set up an external drive on a work machine that serves as an offline sync’d backup of important files from my home computers. (It would be just as easy to set up a similar system at a friend’s or relative’s place.) Using this system I had 750GB of personal files in a real-time off-site backup.

  13. I am probably a little overboard on my backup solution, here is mine….

    Timemachine to local LaCie 1TB drive (dedicated 250GB partition)
    Carbon Copy Cloner to local 120GB USB WD drive. I have it scheduled at 12 hour runs
    BackBlaze for offsite backup
    Spideroak for my preferred offsite, and sync between my wifes MBP, my nix boxes etc.
    Dropbox for non crucial things

    I lost about 9 years of data 3 years ago, and since then it has been mass overkill for me. I am not a huge fan of timemachine, but it works. Carbon Cloner though has been a lifesaver for me. I love that I can go over to my wifes machine and boot off the clone and use the edrive to help repair things. Again, lifesaver.

    Cloud storage is still not totally mainstream. I have tried them all. Heck, I keep all my wordpress and joomla templates, plugins etc in a dropbox just in case. SpiderOak in my opinion is the most mature of them all, and since it supports all the major os’s it works in my house. The sync is the best part for me, since my wife is not into being bothered with backup. Little does she know that Carbon Cloner is running each night while she sleeps.

  14. All my family’s computers use CrashPlan, which works in a similar fashion to Time Machine as far as versioning backups but has several advantages: it does not require the backup drive to be mounted; it works remotely if you allow it through your firewall; it is cross platform with versions for Mac, Windows, Linux, and VMWare; and I have NEVER had a single error in the 2 years or so I’ve used it. Restores are dead easy (my wife can be pretty rough on her computer). It does cost money but their customer support is also excellent so I don’t mind paying.

    That gets all the data to my backup Mac, which I also back up once a week to a USB drive using Carbon Copy Cloner. That drive then gets swapped out with another I keep locked in my desk at work.

    Am I paranoid? Oh yes. But I once lost an entire year of creative work to a hard drive crash and I don’t ever want to go there again.

  15. My scheme is pretty similar to what you’ve written – we have a Time Machine for primary backups and each computer in our house also has Backblaze running backing up everything offsite. I also occasionally backup my Windows VM and other important files to a Western Digital 350GB hard drive. About twice a year I also burn important stuff to CD and keep it in a fireproof lockbox in my office.

    I learned my lesson the hard way in October 2005 and lost about a months worth of important work and data. Since then I’ve not had any problems (knock on wood) but if my machine were to crash today I’m happy to say it wouldn’t be a complete catastrophe.

  16. Monster O'Connell

    I use Time Machine, and SuperDuper for a nightly backup, I also use ChronoSync & ChronoAgent to keep several folders in sync between my wife’s Mac in her office, and my Mac, among a few other uses.
    I use Microsoft’s Live Mesh to keep files in sync between several computers (Mac & WIndows) in various geographic locations.
    If I’m away from my Mac, my wife’s or others, and there is a problem (maybe a sync didn’t take place [rarely] or a new file wasn’t placed in the sync folder, I can use my iPhone to gain access to the computer to take care of that problem (using Jaadu, or I VPN in and use VNC or RDP apps), as long as it’s up and running and has an internet connection that is.

  17. Mark Crump

    “What do you do for any files you keep on external drives?”

    I pray. Actually, all that I keep on the external drives are movies I’ve ripped from my DVDs. If I lose an external drive it’s not a big deal. Well, except for the Time Machine.

    To the person who had an issue with Mozy backing up stuff it hadn’t selected: I’ve had a problem at one point where if I excluded a nested folder, it’d back that up anyway. Since the only file that seemed to do this was my Parallels folder, I ended up moving that. Now that you mention it, I wonder if it’s still ignoring my Entourage Database.

  18. I use timemachine and a monthly offsite with superduper incrementals of my external drives (1 TB external storage) and incremental of my laptop, all in encrypted DMGs (I keep it at work).

    What do you do for any files you keep on external drives?

  19. I back-up to a WD MyBook Studio. It runs WD’s Memeo software which copies any changed files as soon as they are saved. I also use the excellent Jungle disk for offsite back-up (it’s Mac and PC compatible too). I found Mozy a bit buggy and it backed-up files I hadn’t even selected. I use Dropbox too but it isn’t really a back-up solution, as it syncs files between computers. So if you cock-up a file on one Mac it’s cocked-up everywhere.

  20. 1A Freewill

    My current backup plan includes wireless Time Machine backups to a 1TB drive connected my Airport Extreme. Additionally I use Backblaze for online backup, so offsite is covered. Dropbox for those crucial files that need to stay synced between my computer, the wife’s and our media center (I’m thinking 1Password database, etc.). MobileMe/iDisk is used occasionally if I’m working on something important, as I can access it from my iPhone using Air Sharing Pro.

    Finally, I use SuperDuper! to create nightly bootable backup to a portable hard drive. This is used in the event of a drive failure in my MBP. I can plug this cloned backup into the 1st gen Macbook that is our media center and use it like my Pro. Using a portable hard drive also allows me to take the macbook on the go, resulting to little to no actual downtime.

    I’ve gotten quite paranoid about backups since a drive failure a few years ago.