How to Set Up a Comprehensive Macintosh Backup System

The focus of this article is to describe the essential components of a comprehensive backup system for your Macintosh computer. This article’s recommendations are appropriate for anybody with between one and a few Macs which they would like to backup. If you have a larger network of Macs, then other applications and approaches would be more appropriate.

I believe that there are two types of people in this world. Those who have lost data and those who will lose data. Thus, I feel strongly about the importance of backing up your computer. A comprehensive backup system will help you minimize the amount of data that you could ever lose.

We all store valuable files on our computer, though what is valuable varies by person. For some it is email messages, calendar data and address book information. For others it is their Quicken or QuickBooks information. For others still it is their digital pictures, home movies and music. For some it is all of these kinds of files. We increasingly rely on computers, so minimizing downtime and recovering quickly from problems need to be incorporated into a comprehensive backup system.

In some ways, a backup system is analogous to an insurance policy. We hope we never need to rely on it, but we’re very glad that we have it if it is needed. Just as different types of insurance policies provide different amounts of coverage, not all backup systems provide the same levels of protection. However, any level of protection is better then no protection at all. Here is a list of the essential components in a comprehensive backup system.

  • It should backup all files on your computer
  • It should run frequently and automatically
  • It should produce multiple backup copies of your files. The old rule of thumb is that if it’s important enough to backup once then it’s important enough to backup twice.
  • The multiple copies should be kept on multiple disks which are securely stored in multiple locations. One of these locations should be off-site or, if on-site, in a Class 125 fireproof safe.
  • You need to monitor the backup system at least weekly to ensure that it is making backup copies of your data.
  • You need to test your backup system a few times each year to ensure that it’s working properly and so you’ll know how to use it to restore a file under pressure when a problem arises.

The Tao of Backup web site does a very good job of describing the importance of each of these components in an entertaining and educational way.

Backup systems allow us to recover from a range of problems that can occur. The most common type of problem is accidentally deleting a file and needing to get it back. Another all to common problem is hard drive failure, in which case we’d need to recover all files. Although rare, burglaries, fire, flood and theft all occur and would require us to recover all of our files too. To recover an accidentally deleted file or to recover from a hard drive failure all one needs is a local, on-site backup copy of their files. However, to recover from a burglary, fire or flood can often require having an off-site backup copy of your data.

While I encourage everybody to set up a comprehensive backup system, I understand that not everybody has the time or money to commit to such a system. I’ll re-iterate that any level of protection is better than none at all and a pretty good backup can be surprisingly affordable.

In more practical terms, here is a simple, comprehensive backup system for one Mac. Start by purchasing two external hard drives. Partition each drive into two parts. Configure Carbon Copy Cloner (donations requested) to make a full bootable backup of your Mac to one of the partitions on each of the external drives. Carbon Copy Cloner can be scheduled to perform automatic backups whenever the hard drive is connected. Configure Time Machine, which comes included in Mac OS X 10.5 and higher, to perform automated hourly backups of all files on your Mac to the other partition on each of the external drives. On a designated day each week you can switch between the two hard drives. The idle drive should be stored off-site at a secure location across the street or across town. If you’re not inclined to buy two backup hard drives then you could supplement your one on-site hard drive with off-site backups made by CrashPlan. CrashPlan is an online backup system. They have different pricing for personal and business use. (I’ve now written Tech Tip articles about using CrashPlan for either personal or business use.)

The reason to use both Carbon Copy Cloner and Time Machine is that even though Time Machine backs up all files on a hard drive, it does not do so in a manner which lets one start (boot) their Mac from the Time Machine backup drive. Thus, Carbon Copy Cloner is a nice supplement to Time Machine since it’s focus is making a bootable backup drive. Having another hard drive from which one can boot their Mac can minimize downtime and can be helpful in the event of problem with the internal hard drive.

Monitoring the system is easy. To monitor Time Machine simply click on its Menu Bar icon to see when it last ran and/or look for its Menu Bar icon to spin while it is performing a backup. When you swap the backup drives you should see Carbon Copy Cloner automatically start.

Apple has an article which provides instructions on how to restore files from a Time Machine backup. Practice this a few times so you have confidence that Time Machine is working and so you’ll be calm if you need to rely on Time Machine for real. An important test of the Carbon Copy Cloner backup is to go to the Startup Disk System Preference, select this disk and then restart your Mac to ensure that you can boot from this backup. To determine which drive was used to startup your Mac, go to the Apple menu, select About This Mac and see which disk is listed as the startup disk or use Disk Utility.

A few final notes. Archives are different from backups and I think you should archive your more important data as well. I’ll talk about archives in a future article.

TidBits’ has written a couple of excellent Take Control PDF books about backing up Macs. Check them out:

Take Control of Mac Backups and Take Control of Easy Mac Backups

This article is the first in a series of articles that talk about Macintosh backup systems including specific products. Check my Tech Tip blog regularly for more articles in my Backup category.

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