The Perfect Backup Strategy for Your Mac

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of a tried-and-tested backup solution. One that ensures all your data will be safe – whether you suffer a simple hard drive failure, or your house burns down. This type of system gives you immense peace of mind, and removes that guilty feeling in your subconscious caused by not backing up.

Today I’m going to walk through a few options for creating what I would consider to be an “ideal” backup solution for the Mac. This is by no means the only way to handle the safety of your data, but one that’s particularly robust and cost-effective.

Three Key Ingredients

There are three things that you’ll want to consider in an effort to reach backup-nirvana, and each is equally important:

  1. A redundant copy of all your data – You’ll want to be certain that every single piece of information on your computer is safely copied elsewhere. Not just your important documents and family photos – all the more cumbersome files such as music and video as well.
  2. A bootable backup – To get back up-and-running quickly, having a bootable backup is something to strive for. One that you can plug in, and within a few minutes be back to work as normal.
  3. An off-site backup – Storing files on an external drive is great, but what if the worst happens and someone steals everything in your house. Or something even worse. Storing files off-site, in more than one location, is important.

Security

Another consideration that should run through any solution you choose is the level of security. The whole point of backing up is to protect against data loss, but you also don’t want anyone stealing your information. The contents of your hard drive can tell someone a lot about you, and it’s information that is best kept to yourself…

With that in mind, a backup solution should protect the various copies of your data from physical or virtual theft, and ensure security is given high priority.

The Proposed Strategy

So here’s a solution that I’d propose. It might not be ideal for everyone, but it works for me!

1. Dropbox for Off-Site Storage of Critical Files

First up, I’m going to fall back on everyone’s favourite cloud utility – Dropbox. This is particularly useful for storing a remote, versioned backup of your critical files. Not only can you access them from any computer, but Dropbox stores a copy of each individual version you save (so you can revert back to a previous file state at any point).

Dropbox is a great solution for syncing and backing up critical files

Dropbox is a great solution for syncing and backing up critical files

Why not use Dropbox for backing up your whole machine, you ask? The nature of this service is that every file is updated in real-time, as they change. This is perfect for documents that you might save every five minutes, but turns out to be a nightmare for complex system files that change very regularly.

For most people, Dropbox’s free 2GB of storage probably won’t be enough. It’s a service well worth paying for, and $10/month is a bargain for 50GB of off-site, versioned storage.

2. SuperDuper! for a Bootable Backup

Next, we’re going to tackle the need for a bootable backup that can swapped out immediately if your main drive fails. There are plenty of utilities for doing this, but the one that comes highly recommended from myself is SuperDuper!. It’s a tried and tested app, that makes creating an exact copy of your computer’s hard drive a simple process.

There's nothing better for cloning your hard drive...

There's nothing better for cloning your hard drive...

The best way to use it involves buying a hard drive that’s identical to your internal storage, then plugging it into an external “caddy” (that essentially turns it into a USB drive). That way, if your internal drive fails in your desktop or notebook, you can just swap it out for the cloned drive.

This used to work across the board, but is more difficult nowadays as hard drives become more difficult to replace. For instance, this wouldn’t work in a MacBook Air or the new iMacs, neither of which have user-servicable drives.

Still, if your internal drive fails, you can still boot from a USB or Firewire drive attached to your Mac.

3. CrashPlan for Off-Site Storage of Everything

Finally, we’re going to tackle the most difficult issue – an off-site copy of your entire hard drive. The simplest solution to this would be to to keep two bootable clones of your drive – one locally that’s backed up nightly, and another that’s stored in another location. You’d then alternate these each week, so that the off-site drive is never more than one week out of date.

This might work perfectly for you, but I’d struggle with the general “faff” involved. Another option is to keep a remote copy of your hard drive that’s backed up over the web. For this, I’d recommend CrashPlan. It’s a unique service that intelligently handles remote backups. You can either use their own servers, or backup remotely to a drive stored somewhere else (maybe at a friend’s house) – everything is encrypted, so security isn’t an issue.

Frightfully tanned woman not included...

Frightfully tanned woman not included...

CrashPlan is definitely worth taking a look at, particularly if you’ve never considered an off-site backup due to the time and frustration involved. And their prices are pretty great, topping out at $120/year for a fully-fledged “family unlimited” plan.

What’s Your Strategy?

I’d be interested to hear what you think. Does the above sound like a fool-proof plan, or would you have a suggestion that could improve it? I’d be happy to update the guide based on suggestions from readers, so feel free to voice your opinion!

Happy backing-up, and I hope that this quick guide will spur you into action if you don’t already have a fail-safe backup strategy…


  • http://blog.jesusyepes.com chux

    Web developer here.

    All webs im currently developing goes in dropbox. I have versioning and a safe backup of all my “current data”.

    I have allready configured time machine. This backups most of things, and that’s eneought to me.

    Dropbox is great because i switch betwen imac in home and office, and a mbp in both. So files are allways in sync

  • Chris

    Your article doesn’t mention Apple’s built-in Time Machine. While some consider it “less flexible”, it has something that your proposed strategy neglected: versioning.

    While cloning your drive is great for instant complete system recovery, it doesn’t allow you to “go back in time” to locate a different version of a file, or even a file that you deleted awhile back but need to refer to again. Time Machine offers that specific significant benefit. And, it’s free and comes with your Mac, and generally needs no special configuration to do exactly what it’s designed to do.

    Augmenting it with other additional backup methods helps round out one’s overall backup strategy.

    • http://davidappleyard.net David Appleyard

      Agreed, Chris. Time Machine is great for versioning, but I did mention that in the form of Dropbox. I find this to actually offer a versioning system that is far easier to use, with considerably less visual fluff. I do use and have a Time Machine backup, but I consider it one of the least important parts of my system.

    • João Oliveira

      Agreed. The only thing I don’t need on a backup is the exact copy of my OS’s files, but what the OS works with. Time Machine does just that, added to what you said about versioning which is its major advantage.

  • http://www.boastboy.com Marcel

    My strategy is this:
    Time Machine, both for quick retrieval of items that I might have deleted etc and for full system back-up
    Carbon Copy Cloner for a bootable disk
    Dropbox (oh, you got to love dropbox!!!) for my documents
    & Carbonite for cloud back-up

    I think I’m covered!

  • AllanB

    My backup strategy is like this:

    1. Im a Photographer. Hundreds of raws, jpeg tiffs and so on.My backup plan is a Fire and Forget setup. My lightroom files, raw, dng, psd, etc. on my osx HD is monitored by FolderWatch2.0. FolderWatch is constantly monitoring any changes to files and folders, and mirrors the files to a share I have on a windows server. (could be osx). On this windows server I have crashplan running. Making backups of the shares to crashplan servers every hour. Its a 1-2 3 setup. Local HD, Local in house server and offsite storage. All automatic. 100K files and 150 GB, never failed me when doing random restore tests.

  • MMNW

    I’m also one of the happy Time Machine users. I keep the time-machine at home, but once a week I make a copy of the most recent Time-Machine backup and store it at work in a safe.

    Personally I think the bootable drive cloning to be a bit over the top. I personally had two crashes I needed to recover from. One was a destroyed laptop (liquid damage), one was a hard drive failure. In both cases I was back in working condition in less than a day, and that included acquiring a new laptop/hard-drive, which took longest. I figured playing back the time-machine backup didn’t take that long, compared to other issues, like replacing the hardware.

    About the Dropbox backup. I do use Dropbox. But only for my most recent projects. The bottleneck here are network speeds. I don’t always have the fastest speeds available, and sometimes it takes forever to upload the changes. This has to be considered with all internet based backups.

    • http://about.me/jonnocohen Jonno

      The bootable clone is far from over the top. I’ve had my machine become unusable (my fault, not a crash) in the middle of a bunch of tight deadlines.

      I couldn’t afford to wait as long as a day to restore everything, so I just restarted my machine, booted by USB off the clone and carried on working – took about 5 minutes.

      Later on when I had a little more time I restored my drive from the clone in under 2 hours.

      On offsite backups: I have drives at home and at my office, but I’ve been considering moving my work files into Dropbox. Like you, the biggest issue is upload speed/bandwidth – here in South Africa, that’s a serious consideration. But we’re slowly catching up, and I’m getting closer to making that jump.

  • http://www.handlungsplan.net to

    Web and Multimedia Developer…

    Time Machine for OS X, all working files go to a Synology-NAS over local network. My NAS is also setup to provide internet access from any computer anywhere, given you have a password.
    Some files of minor importance go into Dropbox for quick exchange with clients and friends.
    I still don’t really trust any cloudservices…

  • Barry

    Grammar Nazi here – it’s pfaff, not faff.

  • http://www.reinkefaceslife.com/ reinkefj

    Dropbox and carbonite. Waiting for the Chrome Notebook and then move everything to the cloud?

  • http://digitalformula.net Chris

    Web designer (wanna-be) and data security professional here (I run Enterprise SANs for a living).

    At home I use Time Machine to a Time Capsule for the backup of everything. For the really critical stuff i.e. configurations etc, I use an AppleScript that I wrote myself … it archives a configured list of folders using ‘zip’ and encryption, straight to Dropbox. The AppleScript is scheduled to run each day using iCal. Simple, yet effective.

    http://digitalformula.net/articles/applescript-backup-system … if anyone wants to read about it. Not trying to plug but hey, if it’ll help someone, feel free to grab the source. :) Email me through the site if you want help or have questions as it’s changed a bit since that article …

  • Ian

    Time Machine on a Drobo
    Weekly bootable Carbon Copy Clone to a firewire drive kept in a fire safe elsewhere in the house;
    Carbon Copy Clone to two off-site drives on a daily rotation;
    BackBlaze for cloud-based. (Used to use Mozy until their prices went silly. Tried Crashplan, but for me it really was a ‘Crash-Plan’).

    Is this bordering on paranoia?

    Only really use Dropbox for files I need to access at multiple locations.

  • http://www.perezfox.com Prescott Perez-Fox

    I use Dropbox for my project files and for my documents (which don’t take up much space.) In addition, I have an external hard drive (Drobo) to which I backup almost all of my content via Automator scripts. And to protect from worst-case scenarios like robbery or fire, I use Carbonite for off-site. Again, it’s just the content that is backed up. I can reinstall my system files in no time, if need be.

  • Robert F.

    Very informative article. How to improve it (maybe in a follow-up article)? Include instructions for how to set up symbolic links from your file system to Dropbox so that one doesn’t have to work in Dropbox directly or constantly be dragging-and-dropping files to it. Still, great advice!

  • gbmapo

    1. Time Machine to a first external drive (local)
    2. CarbonCopyCloner (bootable backup) to a second external drive (local)
    3. CrashPlan (remote)

  • http://samcater.com Sam Cater

    All of my important work gets taken everywhere I go, courtesy of Dropbox. However thanks to Cloud storage in general, I don’t back anything up. My music is from Spotify, and my email is on Gmail’s Servers. All I have besides email is media, which is already RAID backed up on my local server. Re-buying programs is not an issue since they are all free and open source.

    • http://[email protected] Sam Cater

      Well the open source pertains to my linux box. My Mac just uses free software so it would only take me about a day’s normal usage to get this machine back to how it is now from a clean SL install :)

  • Anonymous Coward

    An inexpensive option for cloud-based backup, like CrashPlan, is an application called Arq. I use it to back up to my Amazon S3 (Simple Storage System) account, and it runs completely in the background, backs up all but system files as they change (configurable), and uses minimal bandwidth because it sends only incremental changes, not entire files unless needed. I get a storage bill from Amazon each month which runs about US$2, for which I keep about 60 GB in the cloud.

    • Jo

      Could you comment on how frequently you backup with Arq and what the estiamted file change rate per month is on what fraction of the 60GB you store (a good guess will do). I quite like the idea of backing up to amazon and Arq gets pretty good reviews.

      Even better if it would be similarly inexpensive as your backup type of usage.

      Thanks.

  • http://www.technofeliz.com Steph (Technofeliz)

    - Time Machine for local backup (more than one year of history )
    - Arq + Amazon S3 (http://www.haystacksoftware.com/arq/) for offline backup (only the /home folder with a few days of history)

    • Jo

      Same question to you, Steph: Could you comment on how frequently you backup with Arq and what the estimated file change rate per month is on what fraction of the total amount of data you store (a good guess will do).

      I’d like to get an estimate of how much I will have to expect paying for backing up my most critical data (about 80GB) to S3.

      Up until now I had the impression that Amazon would be way to expensive. Therefore I never really figured it out.

      Thanks.

      • Jan Blazicek

        I don’t use amazon for backups as much as for sending large files and the prices seem really good. However their system overall is maybe a little too complex. You can calculate the pricing here somewhere: http://aws.amazon.com/s3/#pricing. Generally, just having the files lying there costs close to nothing. I currently store only about 15 GB of data in there with monthly transfer of about 2GB UP and 8GB down and the prices range from $1.20 to $2.40.

  • http://www.mothsoftware.com Beatrix Willius

    I have the following components:
    - second harddrive, where SuperDuper makes backups each nicht.
    - iDrive as offline backup for the documents folder
    - Cornerstone for the development versioning.
    - 2 Harddrives with the documents folder, where one is at the bank.

  • Chris D

    I use Crash-Plan for both local and offsite backups. Odd i see all these people only using Crash-Plan for offsite. Is there something wrong with the local backup with Crash-Plan?

    Also having a rescue drive with osx on it to boot with different harddrive utilities is a good pro-tip.

  • http://markandphil.com Daniel Schutzsmith

    Just wondering, why do you use SuperDuper over Time Machine?

    • Laurie

      I used SuperDuper to back up my main HD, but now I am using Time Machine… I recently upgraded a hard disk replacing the original 250 GB with a 500 GB… I restored the new 500 GB drive using my Time Machine Back up following booting with system DVD, worked perfectly. I continue to use SuperDuper to clone my external HD.

  • Hossein

    Have you looked at http://www.dollydrive.com? Works perfectly with Time Machine!

  • http://Www.cipriancosma.ro CcOsma

    I use Livedrive for online unlimited storage and an external harddrive for local backup. Instead of Dropbox I use Sugarsync. Worked perfect so far…

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  • Amar Sood

    I’m rather paranoid and so I use the following set-up:

    1) All my most important files are in Dropbox (50GB Pro, but will probably need to upgrade one day) – the deduplication, versioning and deleted file history (part of versioning) helps a great deal as I can move around and delete files with impunity without a care in the world. :)

    2) I use Strongspace (strongspace.com) for the backups of my main system files – I intend to eventually use Backblaze (similar to those mentioned above) but my connection speed (5 Mbps) won’t support an initial upload of all of my pictures and videos pulled from my camera. In the meanwhile I use…

    3) A Time Machine backup to an internal drive in the computer (this is so I can get back to old versions of files).

    4) A bootable clone (Carbon Copy Cloner) to one of a pair of external drives, one of which I keep offsite.

    I’m going to university later this year, so my intention is to take one drive with me and leave one at home, backing up the laptop I have with me to the drive I take and also carrying around a backup of my home drive while there. When I come back, I can sync the two (with CCC) and then take one back with me again – this way I have a backup of both of my computers, offsite!

    I hope this helps someone!

    (Incidentally, I tried both Livedrive and Sugarsync along the way. Both feel like weaker, unreliable and hard to use versions of the tools I use now – especially Livedrive’s Mac application, which was buggy and unreliable in backing up, leading me to have to go as far as asking them for a refund on the subscription that I had purchased – the app is good in theory, but the execution is poor).

  • niksimpson

    I have something very special for backup purpose. An automatic utility that can take & save image at particular period of time (could be set by user) and in case of data loss anyone can get that data back from that image. and it is “Stellar Shield

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  • filly

    knowing the dropbox “in-house security vulnerability” (you remember staff is technically able to read your files) , it’s hard for me thinking about using it, at least not without having the data encrypted before in a TrueCrypt image or similar.
    But that brings additional overhead and usability flaws :(

  • JK

    As you reiterated, the perfect strat is to have (1) a completely bootable image: SuperDuper (2) incremental: Time Machine and (3) off-site (CrashPlan).

    For the longest time, I’ve used one external one SuperDuper and another for Time Machine. However, it was missing part 3. Thus, I’ve retooled my backup plan (but it’s not working out as perfectly as I’ve had hoped).

    I bought a two bay NAS in hopes of not having to attach anything to my Macbook Pro, but it didn’t work out that way. Right now, it’s backing up misc data along with Time Machine. SuperDuper does not work over NAS, thus I’ll be attaching a USB to my laptop to do that. To round it out, I’m using CrashPlan+ Unlimited to store everything minus the bootable image onto the cloud.

    If anyone knows how to clone over NAS, please let me know!

  • poushag

    Backup for me is about two things:
    1) Not risking file loss or damage. (Files containing personal data, purchased media, original work, whatever.) This includes being able to undo my own errant changes!
    2) Being able to meet deadlines for future digital work.

    Free cloud backup has handled most of #1 for me. It also makes #2 more likely (since future work often relies on past work). When there are multiple computers available with redundant instances of the apps that are critical to the work being done, then bootable backups are not necessary. I still keep one but I don’t spend a lot of time updating it. Even if my bootable backup were a year old I could still satisfy #2 quite handily since all the critical apps would be there. It doesn’t take long to apply a few system updates and all of those could wait until after any critical deadline had passed anyway. So far, I am only lacking a BluRay writer so I can archive all my raw digital video footage in a remote safe. At 20 or 25GB per hour of footage, cloud backup is just not practical.

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