PSA: How to do good backups

PSA: How to do good backups

PEBKAC: Protecting the Memory Hub

This column originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of About This Particular Macintosh.

Beginning in 2004, I’ve made a calendar for the coming year featuring our children. For four years, it was just our oldest son. Then we adopted Boy #2, and for three years it was the two of them. The calendar for 2012 now features all three of our sons. I’ve always bought copies for our extended family: the boys’ grandparents, great-grandmothers, aunts and uncle. The calendars are given as gifts at Christmas time, and after the first three years, it became an expectation on the part of the extended family.

My habit has been to curate, throughout the year, an album in iPhoto of possible calendar photo candidates. Often, this is no small task, as we try to take many shots of our three sons. Just after Thanksgiving, I’ll sit down and start sifting through the curated folder. Once I’ve done the initial purge, my wife will sit in and we’ll go through it again, knocking out the ones she doesn’t care for. Then it’s calendar-creating time.

I’ve been pretty happy with the calendar layout and purchasing options Apple offers within iPhoto, and that’s what we’ve used each year.

The 2012 calendar was delayed, due to the nearly three weeks my wife and I spent in Africa at the end of November and beginning of December, as we adopted Boy #3. There were a few “But what about the calendars?” from the extended family at Christmas; like I said, it’s become a pleasant expectation. Rest assured, they arrived the second week of January and have been in full use at the respective households (and places of work) since.

Steve Jobs once famously held up the Mac as the “digital hub”. It was to be the machine you plugged your cameras, iPods, musical instruments, whatever, into so you could work with photos, videos, and music. iCloud seeks to replace the Mac as the hub, and I’m tentatively dipping my toe into using iCloud more, but for me, the Mac still remains my hub. For a Type-A control freak like myself, having something that’s under my control for keeping memories is key. I run my own backups on the Mac, even having backups of the backups. But I’m learning to let go a little more, for the convenience iCloud is supposed to offer.

Whether the Mac or iCloud, what has become apparent is that this simply isn’t a case of being one’s digital hub, it’s become our memory hub. Most everyone’s photos are digital now, and all of my digital photos, most of which never make it to my Flickr feed reside in Apple’s digital shoebox, iPhoto. All of my videos, most of which never end up on Vimeo are stored on there. There’s good reason for having backups of backups. My Mac is where all of my memories are, and I look to secure them as much as possible.

Like many, you’re probably in the same boat, and if you don’t have a comprehensive backup system in place, you need to get one going as soon as possible, lest you take a chance at losing precious memories. Here’s mine:

  • nightly backup of the entire Mac to an external hard drive via SuperDuper; after the initial full backup, the script “Smart Updates” the backup drive, only adding or subtracting what’s changed that particular day
  • ongoing backup of the entire Mac via Time Machine to a different external hard drive
  • weekly backup of SuperDuper-cloned drive to another hard drive
  • ongoing backup of the entire Mac via CrashPlan

The only thing I’m not doing that I should is rotating a backup drive off-site. (In case of a fire or some such event.) For now, my CrashPlan backup serves as my off-site protection for the memory hub.

We all have memories on our computers which are important to us: photos of our family; music from our formative years which defined us (child of the 1980s here); that e-mail from a world-famous author that was so encouraging. These things are worth protecting, and while companies like Apple, Shirt Pocket, and CrashPlan are doing what they can to make it as simple as possible, it’s up to us users to get it going in the first place.

My friends often get tired of hearing it from me, but the mantra won’t change: backup, backup, backup!

Post-publication addendum: Since this column was originally published, I have discontinued my use of Time Machine. I use CrashPlan to not only serve as my off-site backup, but now an external drive uses the CrashPlan software to back up a local copy as well.