Protect your precious Mac – Backup and Recovery

Adam Turner
22 December, 2015
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Emergency backup, mac, macworld australiaApple gear tends to be pretty reliable, so it’s easy to become lulled into a false sense of security. But if you’re not regularly backing up important files from your computers, smartphones and tablets, then you could lose everything in a heartbeat.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that disasters only happen to other people. Between fire, flood, theft, natural disaster, virus, ransomware and plain old clumsiness, there’s no shortage of threats waiting to strike your computing devices and the precious files they hold. Even something as simple as a burst water pipe or power surge could see a house full of gadgets decimated, along with all your precious data.

Think of a backup and recovery plan as an insurance policy for irreplaceable files like family photos and tax records, along with documents in progress that you can’t afford to lose like school assignments and business reports. Your backup system can be as simple or complicated as you need it to be, but it’s vital that you at least put something basic in place while you assess your long-term strategy.

If you really can’t afford to lose a file, then you can afford to spend a little time and money keeping it safe. In years to come there will be plenty of children without baby photos to show at their 21st birthday, because their parents lost everything in a tech disaster.

The best backup regimes are totally automated, rather than waiting for you to press a button. Once again it’s easy to grow complacent, but it’s important to regularly test your backup and recovery procedures to ensure everything is in order. The day disaster strikes is not the day you want to discover that your backup system has failed.

As a rule of thumb, you need at least three copies of a file to ensure that it’s safe. At least one of those copies should be stored ‘off-site’ away from the others – just in case a disaster claims both your device and the backup files in your desk drawer. Cloud backups may suffice as your off-site copy, but keep in mind that even the cloud can have a rainy day.

Backup versus archive

Mac, disaster, backup, macworld australiaThe two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but backup and archive mean different things and require different approaches.

When you back up a file, think of the backup as a temporary secondary copy – a copy that you can call upon should something happen to the primary copy, which is probably stored on your computer or handheld device. You typically back up files that regularly change, such as your thesis in progress. You may back up weekly, daily or hourly – depending on how much work you can afford to lose if you’re forced to revert to your most recent backup copy.

Easy access and fast recovery times are generally important for backups. If you lose your thesis the night before it’s due, you obviously need it back as soon as possible. If you lose business files, you may need them urgently to get back on your feet. Some backup systems store multiple previous versions, so you can look back in time to recover a deleted thesis chapter that you’ve since decided should be in the final version.

When you archive a file, think of the archive as the new permanent primary copy – the copy you will turn to whenever you need to access that file in the future. You may even delete the original file from your computing devices to free up space – at which point you need to ensure that you keep backups of your archive – the ‘rule of three’ still applies.

Reliability and longevity are your highest priorities when it comes to archives. If disaster strikes you may not need these files back immediately, as long as you know that they’re safe. You typically archive files that don’t change regularly, such as family photos, tax records and other paperwork.

The trouble with archives is finding reliable long-term storage media, especially if it’s something that you want to store for years or even decades. All data storage media has a limited life span, even stone tablets eventually wear down.

It’s important to do your research and not skimp on price when it comes to making digital archives. Even Verbatim’s Gold Archival Grade DVDs are only designed to last “up to 100 years when properly stored” – assuming people even have DVD readers 100 years from now. When it comes to precious family photos, the best archival method is still to print them on good paper with reliable inks and then store them in a dark, cool and dry place – with the prints separated by acid free paper.

Better safe than sorry

Here we’re going to focus on backups rather than archives, keeping short- to medium-term copies of new files and work in progress so they can be easily recovered should your hard drive give up the ghost or some other calamity claim your data.

There was a time when the easiest backup plan was to regularly burn important files to disc. You’ll squeeze around 4.3GB of data onto a blank DVD, but that’s becoming less practical as Apple phases out the optical drives in Macs.

If you’re still keen to burn files to disc you might invest in an external DVD burner. Blank write-once discs are cheap and may be a sensible option for backing up your photo library. When it comes to files that change regularly, it may be more convenient to copy them to a USB stick or external hard drive.

It’s easy to leave an external drive permanently attached to a desktop Mac, but life becomes more complicated when you’re backing up a MacBook on the go. You’ll find tiny USB sticks that only extend a few millimetres from a USB port, or you may find it easier to keep a large-capacity memory card in the SD slot.

Shift into automatic

Time Machine, mac, backup, macworld australiaYou can manually copy files to your removable storage for safe-keeping, but an automated backup system is safer considering that you never know when disaster will strike.

Mac OS can come to your rescue here with Time Machine, Apple’s built-in backup software, which keeps copies of all your files and even takes a snapshot of the entire operating system in case everything goes pear-shaped.

Time Machine lets you back up to an external drive, but your Mac will want to format the drive to HFS+ first rather than FAT or NTFS. The first backup takes a long time, but after that Time Machine performs quick incremental backups – just copying what’s changed since the last time it ran.

It’s easy to recover files from Time Machine, OS X Yosemite even lets you browse your backups via Spotlight. You can also use your Time Machine drive to restore your Mac from scratch, which is a godsend if you’re recovering from a hard drive failure. If you’re simply transferring your data to a new Mac, use Migration Assistant.

Time Machine doesn’t just work with an external hard drive; you can also back up to an Apple Time Capsule via your home Wi-Fi network, which is perhaps more practical for a MacBook. Keep in mind that Time Machine backups take up all the available space on the drive, there’s no way to limit its storage usage via the Time Machine preferences pane. If this is a problem, you can also use Time Machine with an external USB drive attached to a Time Capsule or Airport Extreme.

Some third-party Network Attached Storage (NAS) drives also support Time Machine backups over your home network – you might create a new partition for Time Machine backups, back up to an attached USB drive or use the NAS’s settings to limit how much space Time Machine can use.

For an extra level of protection, some NAS drives support RAID (redundant array of independent disks) – the ability to link several physical drives into one large virtual drive. Depending on your RAID configuration, it can boost read/write speeds, offer redundancy should some drives fail or provide the benefit of both.

Beyond Time Machine

You’ll find plenty of third-party backup software for Mac OS, supporting file backup and/or disc imaging of your entire operating system. Vendors often throw in free backup software when you buy an external hard drive or NAS drive.

While it may not be as convenient as using Time Machine, third-party backup software like ChronoSync offers flexibility and advanced features, which may come in handy. It can automatically back up your files to any local or network folder, storing them as individual files for easy access rather than locking them away in Time Machine. This is useful if you need to access your backups from different devices and different locations. Along with backing up one folder to another, you can use ChronoSync to keep two folders in sync.

ChronoSync also lets you create different backup schedules for different folders to different locations, with the flexibility to exempt certain file types. Specific events, such as mounting an external drive, can be used to automatically trigger backups. Along with file backup, ChronoSync lets you make bootable backups of your entire hard drive. If you’re keen to test out Mac backup software, also take a look at Synk, SuperDuper and Carbon Copy Cloner.

Look to the clouds

No backup system is complete without an off-site component, and that’s where the cloud can come in handy.

The beauty of backing up to the cloud is that you can automate everything, just as with your on-site backups. If you have an aversion to backing up to the cloud you still need an off-site strategy – perhaps you could regularly burn files to disc and leave them at a friend’s house or in your desk drawer at work. Alternatively, you could back up to several external drives and rotate them off-site. You can also configure NAS drives to automatically sync folders between homes, but keep an eye on your broadband usage on both ends.

The challenge with manual off-site options is that you need to remember to do it regularly. You also need to balance security against reliability. In terms of fire and flood, is your off-site storage location a safer home for your backup files than an enterprise grade data centre?

If you’re concerned about online security, some cloud storage services let you specify your own encryption key, so not even they can read your files. The trade-off is that if you lose the encryption key you’ll never, ever get your files back. If the thought of losing your files forever scares you more than the thought of them falling into the wrong hands, think twice before going down this path. You might use a mix of backup services to allow for the sensitivities of different files; for example, safety is probably more important than security when it comes to irreplaceable family photos.

When it comes to cloud storage there are two main types of services – file backup and file sync. The line between them has blurred, but it’s important to appreciate the difference when choosing the best one for your needs.

Backup services are primarily designed to keep your files safe should disaster claim the other copies. Options include Jungle Disk, Mozy, Backblaze, Carbonite, CrashPlan and Amazon Glacier. They typically offer advanced desktop software that lets you choose which files and folders to back up, how often to back up, how many previous versions to keep and which files to exempt. Most offer web access to your backups. Some let you install the software on multiple computers to back them all up to the same online account.

Stay in sync

OneDrive, Office 365, MicrosoftSync services are primarily designed to keep files and folders in sync between different computers, so if you edit a document at work the new version is copied to the same folder on your home computer. Options include Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, Amazon Cloud Drive and Microsoft OneDrive. These services offer slick web access to your files and some let you edit your files in the cloud. If you work in the cloud, think about offline backup, especially with Google Drive as – unlike Microsoft OneDrive – when you create a document online, Google Drive doesn’t save a copy to your computer.

You can download desktop software for these sync services and install it on multiple computers to link them all up to the same online account, but you don’t always have the option to control which files are synced to which devices – the general idea is to sync everything everywhere. Rather than point the software at your existing folders, you’re forced to move files into a new sync folder on your computer.

These days most backup services offer some sync features, in order to stave off competition from the likes of Dropbox. Meanwhile most sync services can double as your online backup, but you’re generally missing out on advanced features. You also need to weigh up their storage allowances and pricing models.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. You can run several local and cloud backup applications on your computer, perhaps one to sync files in progress and another to back up your photo library. Take care when backing up the same folder to multiple services, as sometimes your backup software can get caught in a loop.

You’ll also find a range of backup and sync services targeted specifically at your photo library, such as Flickr, Picasa, Photobucket and PhotoSync. Some also offer file-sharing and online gallery features, making it easy to share photos with friends.

Extend your NAS into the heavens

If you’re looking to streamline your backup system, you might consider a NAS with the ability to sync to a cloud storage service like Dropbox, or perhaps to a second NAS stored in another location. This way you can just back up your files to the NAS, then let the NAS worry about backing it up off-site.

Some NAS drives also let you run Time Machine backups across the internet, which may be handy when you’re away from home. There’s no shortage of ways to structure your backup regime – although some will be overkill for your needs. It’s worth sitting down and realistically evaluating your requirements – what are the potential threats to your data, how often do you need to back up different files and how urgently would you need to recover them?

If you’re starting from scratch, at least copy your most critical files to a USB storage device as a stop-gap measure while you devise a better plan. Disasters like hard drive failures can strike without warning, so it pays to be paranoid when it comes to your data.

Taste Apple’s iCloud Drive

iCloud Drive, mac, ios, macworld australiaInitially, Apple’s iCloud fell far short of third-party cloud storage and backup services, especially when you were working outside the iWork ecosystem, but it has matured with the upgrade to iCloud Drive. You’ll find more economical storage options elsewhere, but it’s worth considering whether iCloud Drive deserves a place within your backup regime. You can also use it to sync contacts, calendars, notes and other data between your devices (or use an alternative like Google).

iCloud Drive works with iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite, plus there’s an app for Windows or you can access your files via a browser. On your Mac, iCloud Drive shows up as a new folder in the Finder and anything you put in this folder will be stored on your Mac and in iCloud. In this way, it’s similar to sync services like Dropbox and Google Drive – you can’t point iCloud Drive at various existing folders on your Mac as you can with backup-style services like Jungle Disk and Mozy.

Desktop applications like Apple’s new Photos can tap directly into iCloud Photo Library, upload files to the cloud and sync them to your other devices. The Photo Stream feature for automatically uploading photos from your iGadgets has been rolled into iCloud Photo Library.

On your iGadget there’s no standalone iCloud Drive app to let you see all your files, as you can with something like Dropbox. Instead iCloud Drive support is baked into various apps, running behind the scenes.

iCloud Drive is tightly integrated into Apple’s office suite. Files created on your Mac in the likes of Keynote are automatically synced with iCloud and your iGadgets, and vice versa. You’ll also find third-party iOS apps that can tap into iCloud. There’s the option to log into to create documents, edit existing documents and share links to them.

If you’re a keen user of Apple’s office suite, then iCloud Drive syncing is very handy, even if you use other services for the bulk of your backup needs. If you rely on Microsoft Office, then OneDrive is likely a better fit, perhaps combined with an Office 365 subscription.

In safe hands

These days many of your precious files probably reside on your iGadgets rather than your Macs – particularly family photos – so it’s important to take mobile devices into account when planning a backup strategy. Lose your iPhone and you can always buy another handset, but no amount of money will recover lost baby photos if you haven’t backed them up.

iCloud Drive and its photo sync features may meet all your backup needs, but it’s worth considering your other options for protecting the data on your iGadgets.

Every time you plug an iGadget into your Mac, iTunes syncs across files and app updates, plus it backs up your device to hidden folders on your Mac. When you upgrade to a new iPhone or iPad, you can restore from these backups rather than reinstall everything. You can also dig around in the ~/Library/Application Support/MobileSync/Backup folder to fish out individual files such as photos, but it’s easier to manually copy photos off your device into folders using Image Capture or photo editing software.

Rather than relying on a Lightning cable, it’s also possible to sync and back up your iGadget to iTunes on your Mac over your home Wi-Fi network. There’s also the option to back up and restore your device directly from iCloud.

There are backup alternatives outside the Apple ecosystem. Imation’s Link Power Drive is a portable charger that doubles as an external storage drive – with the ability to copy files to and from iGadgets, including from your Camera Roll.

If you want to automatically copy your iGadget’s photos to the cloud, alternatives to iCloud include Google+, Dropbox, Flickr and Amazon Cloud Drive. You’ll also find iOS apps like PhotoSync and FileExplorer, which can copy your Camera Roll to your computer, NAS or directly to a range of cloud storage services.

One Comment

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  1. Warwick says:

    An excellent article, and the distinction between ‘archive’ and ‘backup’ is well made. Thanks.

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