A Simple and Effective Backup Strategy for Mac OS X

Disk is inexpensive compared to the value of your time and data. My personal backup configuration consists of three types of backups. The following combination has proven itself over the last several years and I recommend it. It includes 1) A full disk clone, 2) an incremental backup, and 3) an online backup service. This setup is redundant, quick to configure, needs little maintenance, and allows for rapid recovery of data, even with a catastrophic failure.

Details of the three part backup strategy:

  1. A clone is a replica of your disk. One great feature of Mac OS X is that you can boot directly from a clone. This means if your hard drive dies, you can reboot from a clone on an external drive and be back to work in minutes rather than hours. I recommend SuperDuper ($28) as the user interface is very well done. Carbon Copy Cloner is an excellent alternative that is free to use, although the author encourages donations. Both applications support scheduling backups for a time when your system is not in use. Both applications also support incremental updates to substantially reduce the amount of time needed for subsequent backups. The hard drive for your clone must be as large as the amount of data you wish to back up.
  2. An incremental backup application called Time Machine ships with every copy of Mac OS X that archives any file changes every hour. Time Machine has a unique time-based interface that allows you to easily find and restore previous versions of files. Overall, Time Machine is simple to use and works well unattended, but it does have several detractors. First, if you have a hard disk crash, you must manually reinstall the base operating system from the DVD and then use Time Machine to a restore the rest of your data. This makes time machine most useful in cases of accidental file deletion or data corruption. Time Machine works very well when combined with a clone as you can quickly restore from a clone and use Time Machine to restore any files more recent than the clone version. Time Machine is far less useful on drives with FileVault enabled. I recommend giving Time Machine at least two times as much hard drive space as the amount of data you want to back up.
  3. An online backup service allows you to have offsite backups for cases of theft, natural disaster, or large mugs of coffee. Online services also allow laptop users to continue to make backups in any place that has a network connection. I have used the CrashPlan service for about 18 months and I find the service reasonably priced and reliable. CrashPlan automatically archives file changes in real-time and encrypts all backups. This is nice if you use it on a laptop because it means that you have backups even when you travel. CrashPlan also allows online restores from a web-based interface. The unlimited service is $25 a year for a 10GB service, $50 a year for unlimited service for one computer, and $120 a year for a family unlimited plan for up to ten computers. Multiyear subscriptions are discounted.

CrashPlan has a backup seeding service for $125 where they send you a 1TB drive. You then run the initial backup locally and ship the drive back to CrashPlan. Depending on the size of your disk and the speed of your network connection, the initial backup can easily take weeks. Companion emergency recovery services are also $125. Expedited shipping is extra. CrashPlan also offers a computer-to-computer backup mode. This means you could backup to another machine in your house or to a computer in a friend’s house. The computer-to-computer backup feature is free. The paid version provides real-time versioning with fine-grained control over the versioning settings, stronger encryption, the ability to restore from the web, and the client is ad-free. CrashPlan works with Mac OS X, Microsoft Windows, and Linux operating systems

I last wrote about backup options in We Need Simple Backup Solutions for Complicated Data.