The Post About Backup, Part 1

Macbook Pro, Western Digital Studio, Backblaze, Chronosync backup system explained

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Let’s imagine a scenario.

You’re working on your laptop in the safety of your own home and your best a friend comes around for a coffee. Your sitting around your dining room table, having a coffee, eating cake and chitchatting about life and everything else. You then show some of your latest illustrations, web designs, lesson plans, music video, spreadsheet, short story, novel or the 3-D model of the TV cabinet you’re secretly building in your shed.

Then the inevitable happens; you bring a whole half a litre glass of orange juice for your friend. The glass slips our of your hand, on to the computer. All of the juice filters through the innards of your two year old MacBook Pro. The juice shorts the circuitry and from a puff of smoke, you know, that your laptop left this world and returned to Infinity.

What happens next? Do you:

a) Panic and whack your friend with a clenched fist (after all you wouldn’t have dropped the juice if it wasn’t for him)?

b) Start crying.

c) Calm and collected, you call your insurance company and tell them to send you a new laptop. Tell your friend that it’s OK, everything has been backed up to the moment he arrived.

If you chose ‘c‘, you can stop reading and pass this on to your friends. But if you chose ‘a‘ or ‘b‘, keep reading and pass this on to your friends.

Maxims to keep in mind:

  • If a hard drive hasn’t crashed yet, it is about to.
  • Backup has to be automatic, otherwise you will not do it.
  • Keep three copies of each file. Two onsite and one offsite.
  • Backup is not an archive.

In this post I’ll first explain how I handle my own backing up procedure. In part two, I’ll give you tips on building your own backup strategy.

My data mostly live in two places; on the hard drive of my MacBook Pro (MBP) and on two Western Digital Studio 1TB (WD Studio) drives. My data accumulation rate is probably about a gigabyte to one and a half per day on average. Not an inconsiderable amount but not unmanageable either.

First, my laptop is backed up hourly with Time Machine (TM). This means that if I’ve been out shooting for a day and importing images into Aperture library, they’ll most likely be backed up by TM before they get moved to my main library on the WD Studio drive. TM can’t at the moment backup external drives but at least the files will be duplicated there for few months even if neither of the work drives are backed up immediately.

Time Machine has its downsides. Biggest issue for me with it is that it takes up quite a lot of processor cycles and read bandwidth of the internal hard drive while it’s backing up. This can be a problem if you’re trying to edit photographs or video at the same time. I find myself quite often cancelling the backup and restarting it at a more convenient time. (There is a Time Machine script you can use to schedule the backup but I don’t use this at this time.)

Best thing about Time Machine is its simplicity. Plugin your backup drive and it takes care of the rest. And it’s very easy to recover from data loss, just plugin the Time Machine backup drive to your new computer and few hours later your back where you were.

Most of the photos and videos that I work on, when I’m in the office, live on the WD Studio drives. They offer faster read/write speeds than the internal drive and have a lot more space. Those drives get backed up every few days on a barebones 2TB drive using Chronosync. It’s a $40 backup utility that allows you to do all sorts of clever tricks and schedules for your backups. It handles exclusions well, and dissects library folders—such as Aperture and iPhoto—so only changes to those libraries will be backed up.

Then there’s offsite backup. I’ve used Backblaze for almost two years now and today have over 1.1 TB backed up to their servers. Backblaze takes all your personal files (this excludes the system and application files, which are easy enough to replace) from your internal and selected external drives and uploads them via your broadband connection to the data centre. Of course, how fast this happens depends on how often you leave your computer on and, especially, how fast your upload bandwidth is. Our actual peak bandwidth is about 200 KB/s. That translates to about 17 GB per day but–realistically–I can expect about 12 GB to be uploaded in a day if the computer is left on all day.

Backblaze, or another offsite backup service, can also be used to access files when you don’t have access to your computer. For example, one time I needed to edit a Pages document that was on my laptop. Only my laptop was in London, I was in Pyhäsalmi. Not a problem, I went online to the file restore page and in couple of clicks, I had the file sent to my email.

I wouldn’t trust an offsite backup as my only backup for two reasons. One, it might often take a few days for new files to be uploaded (or a few weeks as it did after we got back from Japan). And two, if I needed to recover every single file from the backup, it’d be a choice between downloading over 1TB of data or waiting until they send all the data on a hard drive. Either way, it might take a week or two.

That’s more or less it. In part two, which will be out in weeks time, I’ll go through the steps you need to take to start backing up. You wont need to wait for it if you can trace back what I do but I’ll offer some further tips deciding what’s the best strategy for you.

As they say, you can’t get it back if you don’t backup.

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