Blog Post

Backup Strategies For the Paranoid

When was the last time you backed up all of that precious data you carry around on your laptop or have stored away on the desktop? What if your house or office burned down — would your backups go up in flames, too? For many of us, making backups is like making a will: we know we’ll eventually need one, but we don’t really want to think about it, so we keep putting it off. It sometimes takes a catastrophe before we get our act together and come up with a backup strategy.

I started my career as a UNIX sys admin, so I know the importance of having good backups, and I’ve seen so many horrible things happen to good data. As a result, I’ve learned to be pretty paranoid about backups. I even had my own little catastrophe a few years ago, when I was using Mozy to back up my data. I was taking frequent backups, and I had even tested my solution by restoring a few files; however, when it came to doing a full data restore, Mozy failed me. I was eventually able to get my data out of Mozy, but it wasn’t an easy process, and it took too long to get my data back. Now I have a two-pronged backup strategy that even the most paranoid among us should appreciate: a combination of on-site, full system, incremental backups, coupled with cloud backups.

On-site, Full System, Incremental Backups

Your full system, incremental backups should be a way to quickly recover from a complete data loss due to hard drive failure, computer theft, flying computer knocked off of a tall table or porch, small child who dumps a whole glass of orange juice into your laptop, etc. Since I have a MacBook (s aapl), I use Apple Time Machine to back up to a terabyte hard drive sitting on my desk. It does hourly backups whenever I am at home and hooked up to the drive. This is my solution for when I need to do a full restore of my entire computer. By having it on a local hard drive that I control, I can quickly do a full restore without having to wait for anyone else to find my data or deal with any network-related slowdowns.

However, this solution has some serious limitations. If I have a home disaster (fire, flood, volcano, earthquake, etc.), I could easily lose my computer and my backup at the same time. I’m also highly mobile and often working on local files from business trips, vacations and coffee shops between meetings, so I don’t want to rely on a hard drive at my house for backups when I’m on the road.

Cloud Backups

Now that the full backups are taken care of, you need something that will back up all of those critical files even when you are away for a week at a conference, at a client site, or even just working remotely from coffee shops all day. My second backup solution is using JungleDisk, which backs all of my important files up to Amazon S3 (s amzn) every six hours. I only back up my documents and a few other critical files. In a pinch, I can restore my operating system and applications from other sources, so to keep costs down, I only back up the things that I create and that could not be easily recovered by some other means. Because I’m careful about how much data I back up to the cloud, the whole solution only costs me a few dollars a month and only takes a few minutes to complete. In addition to being able to save my data from some terrible catastrophe, I can also save myself from silly little mistakes even when I’m on the road. If I accidentally nuke a file, I can still get an older copy from my backup.

Yes, I could always be a little more paranoid, but I have a backup solution that is practical, relatively easy to maintain and seems to cover all of the most likely data loss scenarios. On the other hand, I also find that backups are becoming a little less important as I move more and more of my information into the cloud. Gmail (s goog) and other online data storage mean that I have less on my hard drive, but what I do have is important, and I want to be confident that I can recover it.

How do you back up your valuable data?

Photo by Flickr user gregw66, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

28 Responses to “Backup Strategies For the Paranoid”

  1. I like the idea of using Amazon. I also tried to set up a system through a third party. I am sure JungleDisk does everything anyway without one knowing and that’s fine.
    I have been looking at various options over the past +-6 months and came across a very sophisticated system(I think)when I started using SOS Online Backup. I have since become a Partner of SOS. There may be very similar products, but their main key points are unlimited versions of one file, “Live Protect” of files: backed up as soon as they are saved, Backup of open files, Top grade encryption, No archives ever deleted. Works for me.

  2. I also use Time machine on an external disk, but also use BackBlaze to back up to the cloud. I did find that when Backblaze was running in the background, my Macbook pro would slow down in an annoying way, so I now schedule the back up for the middle of the night.

  3. I backup my Mac data using Time Machine to one HDD at office every 1-3 days, and one HDD at home every few weeks (3 copies total). My important work is sync’d with my home Windows PC via Live Mesh/Dropbox–I have both installed for 7 GB of data–this is in addition to the two Time Machine backups (5 copies total). For my mission critical source code and text/latex files (<10MB of data), I use the Git version control system–1 additional copy in the cloud, and 1 on an Ubuntu box at office). To compile & run my codes on the 2 servers at my office, I use rsync… plus I have a Unix script to send the .tar.gz file to my gmail account (10 copies total: 2 on Time Machine, 1 on Mac, 1 on Windows PC, 1 on Live Mesh/Dropbox, 1 on Project Locker, 1 on Ubuntu, 2 on the servers, 1 on Gmail). Of course, this is an extreme example, but I’m doing this since my career depends quite a bit on my code.

  4. For people who have several hundred gigs to backup. I highly recommend using I-Drive as a secondary online backup. Its only $150/year for 500GB and up to 5 computers. Also, I-Drive is one of the few that can backup files that are in use, like Outlook Data Files.

  5. I run three different hard drives in my computer. One is the operating system hard drive plus applications. The other two are running as a RAID1 which stores all my actual data. I don’t consider applications to be data since they can be replaced/reinstalled so easily.

    In addition to this, I take monthly (or weekly, if I’m motivated enough) images of my operating system drive with Norton Ghost. I store the images on the RAID1. I then, on a weekly or monthly basis, back up the most critical of that data to an external hard drive (which includes my two most recent images).

    I haven’t had any failures yet, but I know I’ll be prepared for when I do. All my backups may be liable to fire or disaster; however, with that said, if my house burns down or is destroyed, my computer isn’t going to he high on my priority list.

  6. The solution to the risk of “sharing it forever” with a cloud-based backup is to use your own complex encryption code (letters, numbers, and symbols, at least 20 characters); don’t take any default that the service may offer. That means that NO ONE can ever retrieve your data without your encryption code (which you don’t store in any machine-readable form, and preferably not in written form short of a piece of paper you keep in your safe deposit box). There’s still the risk, though, that the service will go down (or out of business) and you’ll be unable to retrieve your data, so an onsite backup is also essential. I’m not paranoid enough to worry my computer, cloud backup, and local backup will all fail at the same time, though there are some rarely-changing things, like pictures, that I’ll also stick onto a DVD and put in a media-friendly safe.

    I also had problems with Mozy losing my data; I’ve switched to iDrive. What I love is that it keeps up to 30 versions of files. That’s saved my bacon more than once as a software developer–I can go back to prior versions from several weeks ago when I’ve gone down a rabbit trail. And $5/month for 150 GB is hard to beat.

    1. keep installer of programs so i can do a clean install, if something ugly
    2. keep recent docs in a close by folders, so i can backup recent or relevant stuff by just burning that folder in a cd/dvd (depending on size), and recover/browse without using a specific tool
    3. day to day work, relevant changes and that kind of stuff, mail to myself in an encrypted .rar
  7. How can you be “paranoid” AND trust an Internet-based backup solution? Instead of the possibility of losing the data forever, you chance the possibility of sharing it forever! It sucks just as much!

    We use Acronis at my company and it has saved our butts many times. It takes an entire hard drive image, while the server is running, and dumps it to the target location of your choice. We have it backing up all of our servers to a large file server at night, and then that fileserver dumps the images to tape during the day.

    If a server goes down, we simply restore the most recent image after repairs are complete. If the server is toast, the Acronis image can be brought up in VMware! If we don’t need the entire OS, we can simply mount the backup image as a drive letter and retrieve the files we need.

    For the money, I think it’s the best way to back-up a server. Using it and seeing it in action at work forced me to buy the home edition for all of my personal computers. However, instead of dumping my images to tape, I dump them to a USB hard drive and rotate it out to my safe deposit box once per month.

  8. WHY on earth would anyone backup their personal data to some “cloud” is beyond me. I dont even want to hear the whining “because its convenient” cries. Its NOT secure. With all of these companies losing our personal data, credit card info, health records getting exposed – just DONT DO IT. Save yourself from another disaster. Just back up your data and take it to your safe box at your bank every few days. Dont have one, then get one. To “inconvenient”? Then you deserve the disaster that will eventually happen with your data.

    NEVER allow your personal data to leave your possession, EVER.

  9. I back up my MacBook to two external hard drives, alternating them. One of those drives lives in my purse when the backup isn’t in progress.

    On the software side, I’m using SuperDuper to create a bootable hard drive. When The Apple Store had to reinstall the operating system, I got all my files (data, applications, etc.) reloaded from that external drive in about an hour.

  10. Here is what I do (Windows):
    A) Onsite protection:
    – My computer use a RAID 1 array. (Disk crash, disk sector error (that can corrupt files), etc.)
    – Backup to RAID 1 NAS. (to retrieve quickly files or old files)

    B) Offsite:
    – Mozy

    A few weeks ago, Mozy had a major outage that affected arrays of customers (including me). During 3 weeks it was not possible to access the service. When I could access it… about 50% of my data… was lost !!!!!
    So, during 3 weeks (+ reupload time), I was not protected against common issues (burglary, electricity over tension (thunder, etc.), …) that would have been a disaster.

    That day, I understood that:
    – offsite backup trough online service is a SPOF (Single Point Of Failure) so it is better to use 2 offsite methods in parallel.
    – mozy is slow and not reliable.
    – data must also be divided into categories for recovery urgency (depending of the backup method, recovery can take an eternity…).

    Question about Jungle disk:
    Jungle disk has been bought by Rackspace who sells a service in direct competition with Amazon S3. What will happen??

  11. I used to use Jungle Disk but once I got to the point where my backups reached 500gb, it became a bit too expensive.

    What I do now is do a full backup to an external HD on the first of each month, and then incremental backups everyday. On the last day of the month I move that drive offsite (either my workplace or a safe deposit box).

    Then buy a new HD and repeat for the next month.

  12. Carl King

    I find that most people try and backup everything which is ridiculous. Why backup your whole OS ? It’s costly and you can re-install it in under half an hour.

    The most important thing for me are my document folders and photos. I backup my photos to two online photo services and cut to DVD so I am happy about their availability.

    For Documents I use Amazon S3 and I ensure they are highly available by using SMEStorage to sync them to a backup cloud, in my case, Microsoft SkyDrive. Again I also cut them off to DVD.

    This combination is fine for me and inexpensive.

  13. Im probably more paranoid than this. My routine.
    1. I keep all project files on a mirrored raid NAS.
    2. I back up that nas to jungle disk (change / new every 6 hours)
    3. I manually archive that NAS to a 1tb external bi-weekly, that i keep offsite, in a firesafe.
    4. i use time machine to autobackup my macs stuff. Small docs, mail, settings, etc. Remember no actual projects love on my mac.
    5. Manually backup important files from my mac to drop box
    6. All photos from iphoto live on a separate external USB drive, that is synced with flickr.

    Sounds like a lot, but its pretty automated, and easy to maintain. The hardest part is to remember my bi-weekly offsite manual backups.

  14. Time Machine is highly unreliable. I’ve had too many corrupt sparse bundles and had to erase and start all over again. After the 4th or 5th time I purchased Chronosync to create bootable backups on one network drive and incremental backups of my home directory on another drive. Said goodbye to Time Machine and never looked back!

  15. I was looking at several options and chose a cross-platform (linux/Mac/Windows) solution: Crashplan ( So far, so good. I can even invite others to store their files remotely on my server. It is encrypted, and I can limit the bandwidth/space on my machine.

  16. I use a similar approach but I’ve never liked TimeMachine on my MacBook Pro. Instead I use Carbon Copy Cloner which backs up all my drives onto a LaCie terabyte drive. AND I use a service called BackBlaze to backup to the cloud. Having FRIED several hard drives (I just don’t know how I do it!) this combined solution has proven to be perfect for me.

    Of course, I make it a point to use DropBox for really VITAL files that I need to access frequently. Plus most of my documents are in Google Docs.

  17. I heard good news about Dropbox too..

    But do not trust untrusty data storage services!

    That’s why we do backups offline too.

    Paranoid would use different strategies like
    -File catalog
    -disk image
    and mix of other techniques

  18. Lexi Rodrigo

    I have exactly the same backup system as you: time machine on an external drive plus jungle disk. In addition, I use Dropbox to share files with my cluents and keep those files synched and backed up.