Back it up!

As we head towards the holidays, lots of pictures will be taken and lots of memories made. This will be one of my boring blog posts, but as you will see, it is something I believe pretty strongly about. Think of it as and early gift for the holidays!

Many people have different ideas when they think about backing up their files. There are different levels of backup and I try and break it down to the following:

  • If I accidentally delete a file, how easily can I get it back?
  • If my hard drive fails, how long until I am back up and running?
  • If my computer is lost, stolen or damaged, do I have a copy of all my files?
  • In the most extreme circumstance, if my house were to burn down, would I lose all my photos? 1

If you can already manage each of those situations, then congratulations. You can stop reading now and be happy knowing that you are well backed up. For the rest of you, if you can hang in there a little longer, I hope to show you that it’s not that hard to be ready for each of the above scenarios.

Here is my complete backup strategy:

  • Mac OS X Lion – The latest edition of the Mac operating system includes a versioning system that lets you go back in time to older versions of files or retrieve filed that are accidentally deleted. It’s a good first step but most wouldn’t even consider it to be a true backup. All the files are stored on the same hard drive, so if your computer is lost or damaged, so are all the versions of the files.

  • Time Machine – The easiest routers to setup are the Airport Extreme and the Time Capsule. The Airport Extreme allows you to plug any hard drive into its USB port and use it as a Time Machine backup. The Time Capsule is even easier in that the hard drive is already built in. Once you set this up, every hour, any Mac on your network will automatically backup your hard drive to the Time Machine disk. You don’t need to remember to do anything, it just happens. This is the minimum amount of backup anyone should have since if you lose anything on our Mac, it’s on the Time Machine disk. If you get a new Mac, or your old one is lost or damaged, you can restore the new Mac using the information on the Time Machine disk. This restore takes time though, so I would suggest you take other precautions to be up and running even faster. Also, in the unlikely event that the Time Machine backup becomes corrupt at the exact same time as you need it for a restore, then you will be wishing you had another strategy in place.

  • Dropbox – You can get 2 GB of storage on Dropbox for free, and increase it based on referrals. 2 Or you can pay for more space. I usually suggest that people keep their “active files” on Dropbox. This means any folders with files you are currently working on or need access to on the go should be in Dropbox. For some people, this might be all files besides photos and music, for others it might be everything. It all depends on your workflow and how often you access old files. The advantage to this is that now your files are accessible from any computer over the web. If your computer becomes unusable, you can use another computer to continue working, especially if you are facing a deadline.

  • SuperDuper – This is a Mac only utility and I’m not sure if there is an equivalent for other systems. With SuperDuper, you make an exact clone of your hard drive that is bootable. What’s the difference between this and Time Machine? A bootable backup means you can plug the hard drive into any other Mac, boot off the external drive and you have your exact system back up and running. Some people run this every night, so if their hard drive is damaged, they can immediately be back to where they were the night before. And since you’re using Dropbox, any changes to your active files will also stay up to date. Since I store everything in Dropbox, I personally run SuperDuper every 3-4 weeks or after making big changes to my photo library. You need to decide how often to run SuperDuper based on your individual usage patterns.

  • Multiple Backups – Don’t just make one clone of your hard drive with SuperDuper. Buy two hard drives. Keep one at work, one at home and switch them every month. This way if your house burns down, there is an off-site copy that will never be more than a month behind. Obviously, you can keep theses drives up to date more often depending on your level of comfort and how much you are willing to lose. The key is whatever interval you pick, set a recurring alert in your calendar to remind you to do the backup on a regular basis. Also, try booting from your backup every once in a while to make sure they work.

  • Online backup – This is the final step, keeping your files safe from a natural disaster that simultaneously wipes out your backups at home and work. (You never know!) There are many services out there depending on your level of paranoia. Personally, I would recommend keeping as many files in Dropbox as you can. Then, for the other files, I would use a combination of Arq and iCloud.

  • Arq – This allows for a similar strategy to Time Machine as above, but the backup goes to Amazon’s S3 servers which provides redundant backup around the world. You can chose which folders get backed up to S3 and you pay only for the storage you use. I use S3 for all my photos, and pay around $3 per month. The latest pricing is about $0.14 per GB per month. The initial setup of S3 isn’t difficult, but it is not exactly Mac like. Setting up Arq on the other hand is extremely easy and well worth the one time cost of the application.

  • iCould – Until this past week, I did not have all my music backed up online. I simply had too much music and I didn’t think the time required to upload it all to S3 was worth the time or money to store it all. But, this week, Apple released iTunes Match in Canada. For $27.99 per year, all of my music is backed up to iCloud and accessible from all my devices. The advantage to iTunes Match is that it only uploads files that aren’t in the iTunes store, even if your original files aren’t from iTunes. For me, this meant that less than 20 per cent of my music actually had to be uploaded which is a huge savings in time and bandwidth compared to backing it all up to S3. For the convenience of accessing the music from all of my devices and knowing its all backed up online, it is worth the $27.99 per year.

  • iOS 5 – If you haven’t updated your iPhone or iPad to iOS 5, do it now. The latest operating system allows for automatic backup to iCloud each night when your device is plugged in. No thinking involved. If the device gets lost or stolen, you can restore your new device online and nothing is lost.

Thanks for hanging in to this point! So, now you might be thinking, it will cost money to by hard drives and it will take time to set all this up. But I think you just need to ask yourself one question: If you were to lose your computer today, and lost all your photos, how much time and money would you be willing to spend to get all your files and photos back? When put in that situation, it would probably be a lot more than the time and money it would take today to protect everything. Just a thought.


  1. I stress photos here because for most people, these are the files that if lost, are truly irreplaceable. 
  2. Full disclosure – the link to Dropbox is a referral link. If you sign up after clicking through this link, we both get more space on Dropbox. 

2 thoughts on “Back it up!

  1. Hi Andy,
    Was the 27.99 you paid for iCloud a set amount, or was it tied to the volume you needed? Was that just for your iTunes Library (music / videos etc), or would it cover other mac digital purchases (iBook etc)?
    Scott

  2. The $27.99 is just for iTunes Match and is just for songs not purchased through iTunes. Things purchased through iTunes (aside from movies) can already be re-downloaded to other devices or if lost. Hope that makes sense. The price is a set amount for the service so the size of your music library doesn’t matter.

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