The Only Backup Plan That’ll Walk the Line


Katie Floyd, co-host of one of my two favorite podcasts (Mac Power Users; my other favorite being Mac Geek Gab), has a very well-written and informative post on creating a backup strategy for your computer.  I agree with most of Katie’s plan, but like a lot of things I think backup strategies can be over-thought and overdone.  Like much of life, the secret to a good backup plan is making it easy enough to do regularly, and powerful enough to give you the results you need.

Before I describe the backup strategy I have settled on (after trying many, many others), let me add my voice to the chorus of those who believe that virtually any backup plan is better than the most common plan: none at all.  As you will see in a moment, I don’t think you need to backup every single piece of data on your computer.  But I do think that most people have some precious things on their computers (photographs, family videos, etc.),  as well as work product that would not be fun to re-create.  Backing up data is a lot like wearing a seat belt.  You don’t need it, until you do.  And if you haven’t used it by the time you need to, it’s too late.

There are two parts to my backup strategy.  First, figuring out what really needs to be backed up, and what doesn’t.  For example, I don’t think you need to backup your entire operating system.  In the event of a total computer failure, you can take the opportunity to do a clean install of the current version of your operating system, which will give you a cleaner, leaner and likely faster computer at the end of the restoration process.  Additionally, I don’t think you need to backup every single application.  On Macs, almost all applications can easily be re-downloaded from the App Store.  Those that were purchased directly from the vendor can almost always be obtained from the vendor’s website.  The exception would be those few applications you rely on that have been deprecated or are no longer available.  I keep installation files for those in a special “legacy applications” folder, which is backed up (more on that below).  It is important, of course, to keep your serial numbers and associated documentation with respect to legacy and directly purchased apps.  That information can be kept in a local file or in the cloud.  I keep this information in a Google spreadsheet.

What does need to be backed up are the files use with your operating system and in your various applications.  This includes your photographs, your videos, your music files (I long ago moved mine to Google Music, where they reside in the cloud and are accessible to me from almost anywhere; I do, however, backup the local copies of my mp3s), and all of your various word processing, spreadsheet, and other similar files.  The secret to making this approach work is both simple and important- you must establish and strictly maintain a folder system on your computer, so you will know which folders contain the files you need to backup.  Choose whatever works best for you.  My folder structure consist of five parent folders (documents, pictures, videos, music, and data files) with assorted sub-folders located thereunder.

Once I know what I need to back up and where it is located, we move to step two of my backup strategy: how and where to back it up.  I do this in two ways (complying with Katie’s redundancy rule).  One, via my Mac’s built-in Time Machine application, backing up to an Apple Time Capsule (in the interest of accuracy, this process does backup my entire computer, including the operating system, however in the event of a loss I would only restore the hard drive in its entirety via Time Machine if my second backup process (see below) failed).  This process is extremely easy to set up, and will work on any local or network attached storage-  it is not limited to Time Machines.  In addition to providing required redundancy, this approach allows me to open the Time Machine application on my Mac and find and restore individual files and documents that may have been inadvertently deleted.  In other words, I don’t have to restore the entire computer to recover data and documents.  I can go into the Time Machine application and grab the ones I want.

My second backup process consists of backing up the specific folders identified above to Amazon’s Glacier service (which is incredibly inexpensive) via the application Arq.  Stated simply, the folders described above are automatically backed up, every hour, to Amazon via Arq.  I backup to Glacier, but Arq supports numerous cloud locations.

Arq is a wonderful application, and does all of its work in the background.  An added benefit of this approach is that I can, if needed, access and restore files located on one of my Macs from another Mac, using the Arq application.  One caveat: one of the reasons Glacier is so cheap is because it is not designed for frequent storage and retrieval of files.  When you need access to a file, it can take several hours for Amazon to make it available.  This is both intentional (because Glacier is designed for backup) and a small annoyance to withstand, given how inexpensive Glacier is.

As an aside, I also currently backup my iPhoto file to Glacier in this matter.  It appears (and I deeply hope) that Apple is about to make this process unnecessary, by storing all photos in iCloud via the upcoming iOS 8 and the forthcoming Photos app.

So, let’s recap.  You need to back up some things, but maybe not everything.  There are many ways to do it, and the key is to pick a process that is both simple, redundant and reliable.  Unchecked, however, the process of backing up data can take a burdensome life of its own, which often results in people performing irregular backups or abandoning the process altogether.  Approached correctly, a backup process can be virtually invisible to you on a day by day basis, while acting as a digital seatbelt to protect important documents and data in the event of a digital accident.

Do it.  Now.  Here’s some music to enjoy while you do.