Backup Update


I wrote about my computer data backup plan a few months ago, noting that:

1.  any backup plan is better than none,
2. most tech-savvy people who backup over think it and go overboard, usually with redundancy overkill, and
3. all you really need to back up are photos, music, data files (documents, scans, etc.), and videos, but you should have a safety net.

I have never restored a complete hard drive from a backup, because on the rare occasions I’ve lost a drive, I’ve taken the opportunity to do a clean install of the operating system, and imported only the stuff I still needed.  Yes, everyone should do a complete system backup, but primarily for redundancy and as a safety net.  I backup both my Mac and my MacBook Pro to a Synology NAS device, via Time Machine.  Again, I can’t imagine a scenario in which I’d restore an entire drive, but it’s so easy to do a Time Machine backup, and it’s good to have a full (and redundant) backup, just in case.  Another approach would be to clone your hard drive to network device or an external USB drive via Carbon Copy Cloner (a great and easy to use app).

But when I need to find something I’ve lost, the first place I look is my content-specific backups (e.g., the backups of certain files, not the Time Machine backup of the entire hard drive.).

The migration to the cloud is changing the conventional wisdom on backups, making some traditional backup techniques unnecessary, and providing many options to put data in many places.  It’s far too easy these days to scatter your digital bits all over the internet, but it’s better to be deliberate about how and where you backup your data.

Let’s take a look at the categories of things to be backed up, because that will show what’s easy and what’s not, what’s taken care of more or less automatically as we migrate to the cloud, and what needs help getting there.

Photos: There are a million ways to automatically backup photos to the cloud. DropboxApple’s Photos app (which is what I use), Google Photos, Flickr, Amazon, etc.  So photos are easy- just pick one and stick with it.

Music: There are half a million ways to back up your music to the cloud, assuming you own some of the music you listen to and haven’t gone all-in on streaming (most of my music is played via Sonos playlists comprised of Spotify streaming tracks (lots of good music can be heard via that link) and some old, hard to find stuff I have on the network.  The cloud-based choices for storing owned music include Amazon, Apple Music, and Google Music.  I use Google Music to store in the cloud and access my owned music, and so should you.  It will accept a huge library (50,000 song limit) and it’s easy to access it via computers and devices.  Mac people are genetically predisposed to try to make the Apple solution work, but Apple Music is a train wreck, so avoid it for now.

Data files: Now it gets a little more complicated.  There are lots of options, but you have to know where your documents are, so you know what folders to back up.  Mac users can keep documents, spreadsheets and other iCloud enabled  files in iCloud (that’s what I do), but there are always lots of other files that don’t naturally fit into the Pages/Numbers/Mac app iCloud workflow (for me, most notably song files for new songs I’m working on and scanned documents, as I’ve been paperless for close to a decade).  I back that stuff up to my Synology NAS via Carbon Copy Cloner.

I don’t want to gloss over an important issue mentioned above. To do an effective targeted backup of data files, you have to know where they are.  This means creating, managing and being disciplined about the folder and storage structure on your computer.  By way of example (any logical approach will do), here’s mine.


The circled folders contain subfolders where I keep all of the associated data files.  The stuff in there comprises the data I want to backup, one way and another.

Everyone who uses a Mac should be syncing their contacts and calendar via iCloud, which will take care of backups for you.  To the extent you aren’t keeping your contacts and calendar online via one service or another, (a) why in the heck not?, and (b) make sure the associated data files are located in one of the data folders backed up as described above.

Videos: Here comes the hard part.  Videos are both important (especially home movies, etc.) and large (I have 600 GB of home movies).  Unlike photos and music there aren’t a horde of free or close to free options to automatically and effectively back them up.  Previously, I backed up my movies to Amazon Glacier, via Arq (see the prior post for more details).  This worked fine, and was cheap. I’ve never had to recover videos from the backup, but I know that one of the trade-offs with Amazon Glacier is the delay and time it takes to recover data. When Amazon released Amazon Cloud Drive– unlimited cloud space for $60 a year, that seemed like a perfect place to store backup files.  $60 a year is even cheaper than Glacier.  When Arq released an update that supports Amazon Cloud Drive, I decided to give it a try.  I switched my Arq preferences to back up my Movies folder to Amazon Cloud Drive.  A week later (600 GB takes a while to upload), my videos are residing happily on Amazon Cloud Drive.

In sum, do a complete back up of your computer for redundancy, let the cloud-enabled app you choose handle your photos automatically, put your owned MP3s in Google Music, and organize and backup your other data files to either Amazon Cloud Drive via Arq or an external or network drive via Carbon Copy Cloner.

Easy peasy

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.