Creating a Comprehensive Backup Strategy

There are two types of hard drives in this world, those that have died and those that will. Today it’s easier than ever to backup your data, but I’m shocked by the number of people I meet who are not backing up, or who backup only occasionally and are thus at risk for data loss. Granted, if you’re reading this post you’re probably not that person. But I’m willing to bet you know that person. Let’s take a few minutes to review what makes a good backup strategy and share the love with someone who needs a little help.

Katie’s 4 Rules of Backups:

I’ve spoken at length about backups. There is seldom a “right” or “wrong” way to backup data, and different strategies may be right for different people. In fact, the backup methods I have used have changed and evolved over the years. However, I believe a good backup strategy must have these four components:

1. It must be automatic.

I’m paranoid about backups and even I won’t remember to run backups on a regular basis. You can set reminders and alarms but something will happen, you’ll get distracted, and sooner or later you’ll just keep deferring the task to later. So, don’t let that be an option. Find a backup solution that you can configure once and forget about it.

2. It must be redundant.

One backup is not a backup. Sure, it’s better than nothing, but if that method fails, and it will fail at some point, you no longer have a backup. Personally, I like having two different types of backups for greater flexibility when restoring data. (More on that later.)

3. A copy must be off site.

An offsite backup is critical when really bad stuff happens. Theft, power surge, lightning, whatever. If your backup and your computer are kept together you’re likely to lose both. You can accomplish an off-site backup a number of ways. The easiest is to use an automatic cloud backup service like CrashPlan or Backblaze that will cost you around $50 a year. You can also keep a backup hard drive in an offsite location such as your office or a friend’s house, but this usually conflicts with Rule 1 since you have to manually rotate drives and keep the offsite backup updated.

Just like you (hopefully) test your primary hard drive - you should also check your backup drives.

Just like you (hopefully) test your primary hard drive - you should also check your backup drives.

4. Your backups must be tested regularly.

Remember your backups can fail too. If you don’t test them regularly, you won’t know until it’s too late. I know more than one person who has needed the backup only to find that drive has died or is otherwise unreliable.  Adam Engst recommends making every Friday the 13th “International Verify Your Backups Day.” That works, just pick a schedule (at least once every few months) and stick to it. I suggest to check your backups you use a tool like Disk Utility to verify the integrity of the drive but more importantly, make sure you can restore files, or in the case of a clone backup, boot from the drive. In fact, why don’t you go do that now? I’ll wait.

Types of Backups

There are a couple of different types of backups and I recommend that you use a combination of these methods depending on your needs to give you a comprehensive backup strategy.

I use Time Machine for incremental backups to my Drobo.

I use Time Machine for incremental backups to my Drobo.

Incremental Backup

Apple’s Time Machine software uses a method called incremental backup. The first time you run Time Machine it will backup all the data on your Mac, then on subsequent passes will only backup data that’s changed. By default, Time Machine keeps hourly backups for the past 24 hours, daily backups for the past month, and weekly backups until your backup drive is full. This feature allows you to restore files to a prior state which is helpful if your document still exists, but you realize it is corrupted or perhaps was accidentally saved over and you need to go back to how that document existed at a prior time.

Time Machine is a great backup feature for most Mac users, especially novice users because it is built-in to OS X and by default will run ever hour. Users will need a spare hard drive that they keep powered on and connected to their Mac, or use the Apple Time Capsule or another comparable device for network backups. Another advantage of using Time Machine for backup is that Apple’s built-in Migration Assistant utility makes it easy to restore your Mac’s data from a Time Machine backup.

Other backup methods allow you to create incremental backups, storing multiple versions of your data based on space available or data retention policies (generally time-limited). While incremental backups are wonderful, they do have one major downside in that you generally cannot take this backup to another machine and immediately continue working. Generally, a restore process that may take several hours is required before getting your data back and resuming work.

Carbon Copy Cloner allows me to make quick clones of my data daily for easy restore.

Carbon Copy Cloner allows me to make quick clones of my data daily for easy restore.

Clone Backups

Clone backups is the other popular backup method. Sci-Fi fans will know that a clone is an exact copy of the original source data. (In the sci-fi world, clones are usually evil, this is not the case with clone backups.) There are several Mac applications that will create a clone backup of your computer. My favorites are Carbon Copy Cloner and SuperDuper!. With these programs you plug in an external drive and the data on your Mac will be duplicated to that drive.

The benefit of a clone is that you have an exact copy of your data, as it existed on your computer. In a pinch, you can take that drive to a similar Mac and boot from it as though you were working from your own machine. A clone drive is also typically faster to restore than an incremental backup drive because it only contains one full copy of your data.

Of course, the downside of a clone is that it is an exact duplicate of the data on your Mac. If a file is deleted from your Mac, it will be deleted from the clone. (Generally speaking, programs have different configuration options.) One common problem with clones, if your Mac’s hard drive was failing without your knowledge, it was possibly corrupting your data. If you clone that corrupted data to your backup drive, your backup will be corrupted as well.

For this reason, I recommend a combination of backup methods that incorporates at least one clone and one incremental copy of your data.

iOS Backups

So far, the backup strategies we’ve discussed have been geared towards the Mac. But what about iOS? Most of us have our data spread across a number of devices. I personally have a desktop and laptop at home, a desktop at work, an iPhone and an iPad. If your iPhone and iPad isn’t backed up properly you’re at risk for data loss. I could probably write an entire article on the topic of iOS backups (in fact, I may next month) but for purposes of this article I will cover iOS backups briefly.

There are two primary methods for iOS Backup. iCloud backup and iTunes backup. I suggest that you use both. I personally prefer iCloud backup to be my default backup method and encourage you to turn iCloud backup for every iOS device you own, manage, or support. Do this by tapping Settings > iCloud > Storage & Backup and turn iCloud backup on.

Turning on iCloud backup will turn off automatic backups to iTunes, but you can still run manual backups anytime you choose. To do this, plug your iOS device into your computer, choose File > Devices > Back up. I suggest you perform a manual backup on a regular basis and prior to any major change to your device. Personally, I’ll backup to iTunes once a month, before I travel out of town, and before any major update.

If you need more information about how to backup your iOS device, or how to choose your backup method (Hint: use both) Apple has support articles that will go into more detail.

Backup vs. Archive

I should take a moment to distinguish “backup” from “archive.” Since so many of us are moving from traditional hard drives to lower capacity SSDs in our computers, hard drive space is now at a premium. I have a 256 GB hard drive in my primary machine, therefore I need to be judicious with my use of disk space. When I’m finished with a project and don’t expect to need it, I will “archive” it and remove it form my primary hard drive.

You can archive data to any number of places, external drive, network attached storage (NAS) or even burn to disc. (I don’t recommend using discs for backup or archive anymore.) I choose to archive my data to a Drobo 5N network attached storage device because Drobo’s “Beyond RAID” technology is designed in such a way that if a single drive in the Drobo should fail, the data is still safe. You can purchase NAS or hard drive systems with similar RAID technology.

However, I do not consider files that live only on a Drobo or any other archival solution to be backed up because these devices are a single point of failure and susceptible to hardware failure, theft, or other problem that would cause data loss. You must also consider these archival sources of data when planning your backup strategy. To keep things simple, I encourage you to consolidate your archives into as few places as possible.

When really bad things happen, you want to make sure you have a copy of your data off site.

When really bad things happen, you want to make sure you have a copy of your data off site.

Choosing A Backup Strategy

The backup strategy you put together will vary depending upon your needs. The strategy you put together should take into consideration the resources you are willing to devote to backups, the user’s habits and practice (will they actually plug in a hard drive and backup their data) as well as consider risk tolerance for data loss and ability to suffer unexpected downtime to recover from a failure. A casual user will probably have a more simple backup plan while someone who uses their computer for work will have more complex needs.

For some people, software that will automatically backup their computers offsite like CrashPlan or Backblaze is the best solution because the user doesn’t have to be bothered with plugging in external drives. This type of solution may be ideal for a college student or laptop user who doesn’t regularly connect their computer to external devices. By contrast, a home user who has a desktop as a primary machine probably won’t be bothered by having a USB hard drive connected to their machine. Time Machine or other backup software can be configured to run automatically so long as the hard drive is plugged in and accessible.

While I recommend a combination of methods, anything is better than nothing. But by far the most important part of this process is building awareness about why backing up data is necessary.

My Backup Plan

Now that we’ve talked about the different options, it’s time I give you a look at how I solve this problem. I’m asked frequently about how I personally backup my data. Candidly, it’s an evolving process but for now, here’s a look at my current backup strategy:

  1. Time Machine Backups to a Drobo 5N - My Drobo supports Time Machine backups over the network which saves me from having to be plugged into a USB hard drive. This is great since my primary machine is a laptop and provides me with incremental backups. I use Time Machine Editor to adjust the frequency so they only run every 4 hours rather than every hour to save CPU resources. I also exclude a few frequently changing folders like my Podcasts folder in iTunes since these items take up significant space, are constantly changing, and easy enough to re-download if lost.

  2. Clone backups to a local hard drive - I use Carbon Copy Cloner to create an exact duplicate of my hard drive nightly. I’ve found that 9:30 p.m. Is a good time for my backups to run. Usually my computer is powered on and accessible at 9:30 but I’m not actively using it. By backing up every night, I know my data is no more than 24 hours old.

  3. I backup all my data offsite using Backblaze - Backblaze is an offsite backup solution that will backup an unlimited amount of data for $5 a month, or $50 a year. While the initial data upload may take some time depending on your network speed, once your data is uploaded, only changed files will be uploaded in the future. The most common complaint I hear about offsite backup is “I can’t backup my data offsite, it will take a month for me to upload everything.” My reply is always the same. Okay, so what? You’re a heck of a lot safer a month from now than you are right now. Just get started. Just be sure you understand and properly configure the settings for your offsite backup solution. While I use and love Backblaze, the default configuration may exclude important files. 

  4. Archive to Secondary USB and Cloud - As detailed above, I store my archived data to a Drobo. To backup the Drobo, I purchased a 3TB hard drive that is plugged into my computer whenever it is docked at my desk and use Carbon Copy Cloner to create a copy of the data on my Drobo once a week. This backup drive is included in my Backblaze offsite backup. This means the data stored on my Drobo is in three places, the Drobo, the USB backup, and the cloud.

This article first appeared in the July Issue of ScreencastsOnline Monthly Magazine. ScreenCastsOnline monthly magazine is packed with hints, tips, articles and links to streamable versions of ScreenCastsOnline tutorials and delivered monthly via Newsstand on the iPad. You can find out more at