Computer Backup 101: Not-so Random Thoughts About Mac Backup
Losing data is a drag. Many of us store digital photos, original documents, architectural drawings, spreadsheets, video and music on our computers. This data can be irreplaceable if your computer is lost or stolen, or if your hard drive fails.
Need more convincing or details? Read on…
The Software Update Conundrum
It is not uncommon to open your computer or launch a program and have it ask if you want to download and install a software update. This isn’t always a good thing…
Most software updates fix bugs, add features and make programs more stable. Other software updates introduce new bugs, make programs crash more often and can even cause data loss.
For example, an update to a popular anti-virus program caused some users to lose email messages when the program misidentified some messages as a virus and permanently deleted them. Oops.
I have also seen Apple’s automatic Software Update system updates go awry, leaving a user’s computer in an unusable state.
Making a backup (preferably a Bootable backup) before performing a software update protects against buggy software updates.
A bootable backup is an exact copy of your hard drive. With all of your files, operating system and everything else backed up on an external drive, you can plug your backup drive into another Mac and actually startup and work on the other computer. This will have you up and working again in minutes.
An Archival backup system keeps copies of your changing files every time you run a backup. You can’t boot from an archival backup, so this type of backup should be used as a method of damage control for lost, accidentally deleted or corrupted files or folders, not immediate recovery of an entire machine.
This type of backup is ideal if you realize that one afternoon three weeks ago, the cat took a nap on your keyboard and erased two hours worth of client notes you’d entered. You hadn’t noticed the data was gone until now and since many programs auto-save, you were never asked if you wanted to save Fluffy’s “changes.”
Archival backups do not help if you need immediate recovery and/or bootability of your computer.
Why Should I Backup Everything, Not Just My “Important” Files?
As computer users, we spend more and more time installing and configuring software, setting up printers, customizing programs and organizing images and files into albums or folders. Hard drives are cheap these days and backing up everything will save your organization as well as the data you’re organizing.
Imagine This Scenario…
Your laptop is stolen (God forbid) or your office computer burns up in a fire (Gasp). If this were to happen, you‘d need to access the data files you’d previously backed up.
Let’s say these were some important Word documents or your calendar. These data files are pretty useless until you accomplish these tasks:
1. Purchase/borrow a computer
2. Find/purchase a device which will read your backup media (tape drive, floppy drive, CD, DVD, etc.). Purchase/locate appropriate cables for device.
3. Restore the files to the new computer
4. Find original Word or calendar program installer disks. Find software registration codes. Install software.
5. Apply appropriate software updates for applications.
On top of not being much fun, with a data only backup you’ve lost nearly EVERYTHING else on your computer, including the applications, your email archives, web site bookmarks and those cute digital pictures of Fluffy the cat napping on your keyboard.
Consider this scenario instead:
1. Purchase/borrow a computer
2. Plug external drive into computer.
3. Reboot computer with the Option key down. Choose backup drive.
Everything is where you expect it. Files are located in the folders where you’re used to seeing them. Your software is up-to-date and serial numbers are already installed. Your email is complete, address book intact. You’ve only lost any work you’ve done since your last backup (<24 hours if you backup daily).
4. Work in this mode until you have time to copy everything back to your (new) internal drive.
Get Outa Here!
The most important thing you can do if you are concerned about theft, fire flood or any range of natural or man made disasters, is to get a backup off-site regularly.
Whether you use a Bootable or Archival backup system, you should have at least two storage devices, and should rotate one off-site frequently (i.e. every week).
For example, I take my MacBook Pro with me to work every day. I leave my backup drive at home, just in case my laptop is lost or stolen (sniff) while I’m out in the world. If the house burns down while I’m out walking the dog and my computer and backup drives go up in flames, life gets more challenging.
So…we also rotate archival backups between two different disks so one is always off-site. We backup to one drive for a week and then store it off-site for a week while we backup to a second disk. In a worst case scenario we would only loose one week’s worth of work.
Off-Site Backups: I recommend a subscription service such as Backblaze to make automatic, unattended backups to an off-site server. You can’t boot from these backups, but they’re better than nothing if your computer and local backup drive(s) are lost, stolen or burn up in a fire.
What Hardware Do I Need to Backup My Computer?
I recommend backing up to an external hard drive. They’re fast, relatively inexpensive, have the capacity to hold your entire hard drive and are quite reliable.
I generally recommend external USB 3.0 drives because they have universal connectors which can be adapted to all Macs. For external SSD drives, I recommend USB-C over Thunderbolt, as USB-C drives are more affordable.
A 5TB USB 3.0 drive to backup your computer starts at around $100.
Please feel free to contact me for more information on hardware and software recommendations for Macintosh backup systems.
Kirk van Druten – LANsharks Consulting
About the Author:
Kirk van Druten is the owner and founder of LANsharks Consulting, a Macintosh network and consulting firm, serving Northern California clients since 1994.
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