Reading this article by David Pogue reminded me of my own search for a reliable and easy backup solution. I came to a rather different answer so I thought it might be worth detailing a little history, the options I considered and the one I eventually chose.

Ancient History

In the olden days — i.e., going back a couple of years — I split the files into four categories:

  1. System files such as the operating system itself and all my applications
  2. Email
  3. Small files such as Word documents and Excel spreadsheets
  4. Big files such as movies, photos and music

Category one, system files, I didn’t backup at all, figuring that I had all the discs and licence keys so I could recreate the whole thing if necessary.

I was much more careful with emails. While my archive gets a little spotty in places where I’ve not been able to transfer them from one computer to another, I have some messages going back to 1997 and have no intention of losing them. So I used the IMAP server1provided by Apple’s .Mac service. This had the added bonus of allowing me to access my emails on my desktop, laptop and work machines.

For small files, category three, I also used part of the .Mac service, this time the iDisk. iDisk is basically an online disk2, automatically copying anything saved there onto a server on the internet. Everything was magically and almost immediately backed up. Again, this allowed me to access my files pretty much anywhere.

I backed up larger files on a more ad hoc basis. I copied my photos onto CD (or DVD for larger projects) more or less as soon as they were downloaded from my camera. Usually. As ever, laziness had a tendency to set in and it didn’t always happen for a while after the event; not good. Music downloaded from iTunes followed a similar pattern.

Everything ripped from a CD was not backed up at all. I had no easy way of backing up over 20Gb of data and, in theory, I had all the source data anyway.

What happened next

There are (at least) three problems with this system. First is .Mac’s reliability, something I’ve already talked about. Second is the piecemeal approach, where some things are saved immediately and other things might not be backed up at all. And finally, if my hard-disk did ever die, how long would it take to restore everything?

When I got my new MacBook I realised how long it takes to set up all my applications. And when I wiped the hard-disk of my “old” iMac ready for sale on eBay I found how long it can take to install the operating system and get it up to date. For the record, it took the best part of a day and that was without restoring any data3.

In reality, despite these problems, I was far too lazy to bother changing things. Until I decided on two things: not to renew my .Mac subscription and to get a new laptop not just to replace my ailing iBook but also to replace my iMac. Without .Mac I had no choice but to re-evaluate my options.

I am going to concentrate only on the backup side of things in this article, although that was not the only thing I changed. For example, rather than use an alternative IMAP provider for my email, I decided to move to Google Applications for Domains. My experience there is perhaps worth another post but for now I will move on.

For backups I considered two main approaches, online backups as promoted by David Pogue in the first link in this post and traditional backup software, copying data to an external disk.

The answer

I considered a few different online backup solutions. Their pricing structures varied slightly and I’m sure that they all worked, but after I thought about it I realised that none of them were ideal. Pogue mentions the main problem in passing: timing. I have about 100Gb of data that needs to be backed up. How long would that take, even on a broadband connection? Let’s see, 256kbps (the upload speed on my cable broadband connection) works out to around 20k/sec. A little bit of maths4 suggests it could take 60 days to upload the whole disk! In the event of a disaster, it would be quicker (download speeds are ten times faster than upload speeds) to download everything but it would still be nearly a week! Even if my maths is bad (very much a possibility), I still think my bandwidth would make online backup impractical.

Note that I think online backup is a fantastic idea in principle, just not one that works for me. If you mainly have Word documents to backup I’m sure it’s cheap and easy.

So, software. I had been using Apple’s Backup software, which is mainly for use with .Mac but also works with external hard-disks. However it was slow and, according to reports on the Internet, very unreliable. The one time I ever needed it I had managed to get back my files but I didn’t really want to risk it another time.

My LaCie external hard-disk came with SilverKeeper backup software. I had a quick play about with it looked overly complicated. Having had to write backup software at work, I did have a tendency to look for “complete” solutions — i.e., get me that file I deleted three weeks ago — but on further thought I realised that I didn’t need anything so sophisticated at home.

Most other software I looked at was just as complicated and, worse, they all had the same failing: they don’t back up the operating system itself. I’d already seen that it takes nearly a day just to restore the system software before you even start looking at the data.

In the past I had played with the Carbon Copy Cloner (CCC), software that cloned a whole disk. I liked the idea — as the backup is just a complete, boot-able copy of the main disk — but I didn’t like the amount of time it took to copy the whole disk every time.

In the end I decided on Shirt Pocket’s SuperDuper!, which is like CCC except it has a “Smart Update” feature that only copies the files that have changed, making a weekly backup take, on average, less than ten minutes. Nice.

So that’s the system I’m using at the moment. Would something like that work for you too?

  1. There are two types of email server in common use at most ISP’s. “POP” is the most common and is designed to allow you to download messages but not to store them for the long term. “IMAP” is rather more sophisticated and email programs tend to cache messages that are permanently stored on the server. []
  2. Technically speaking, it’s just a web server accessed using the WebDav protocol. OS X cached the files so they were available off-line too. []
  3. First install OS X 10.4.0. The plan was to install iLife and then run software update, but iLife required OS X 10.4.3. Unfortunately, one of the problems with 10.4.0 was that WiFi didn’t work so it took a while to work around that. Then I updated to 10.4.8, which was over 100Mb of files. Then I was able to install iLife, which also required some very large updates. In all, there were over 250Mb of updates to just iLife and OS X. []
  4. 100 * 1024 * 1024 / 20 / 60 / 60 / 24 = 60.68 []

2 thoughts on “Backup”

  1. Hi Stephen,

    Hope you’re well. Having been through a relitively similar experience as you (mozy – online service, 60 gig of random pix, avi, wmv files), I use

    – rsync to my own linux box from windows. Some pain initially, but now it’s
    automated weekly.
    – Acronis disk image which sounds v. similar to CCC and does a great job
    to a USB disk, incrementally.

    Had a hard disk die on my wife’s computer 6 months ago: Vital medical / financial data : ?650 to retreive it: ouch!


  2. Stephen,
    I appreciate your informative post on backup solutions.
    In reference to your comments about online backup services: it is true that the biggest hiccup exists in the initial backup. However, some online backup services (including my company, SafeEvault) provide what we call “data seeding.”
    We ship a physical drive to the site for that first backup to minimize the bandwidth crunch. This functionality is built into the client software, making the process totally painless. And if/when a full restore is necessary, we can again ship the drive to the site (although restore speeds are much faster than upload speeds, so in many cases this is not necessary).
    Additionally, the same software used to back up to our server can also be used to back up to a local drive, consolidating your backup plan into one interface.

    Michael Graham

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