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Why Do So Many People Fail to Back Up?

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We recently published the second edition of Joe Kissell’s “Take Control of Backing Up Your Mac.” It’s one of Joe’s best books, and across all versions and editions is our best-selling title of all time. But I’ll be honest — the last version, 2011’s “Take Control of Backing Up Your Mac,” wasn’t the same kind of success the previous books had been, despite the fact that its content was better than ever before. Nonetheless, we have high hopes for the second edition, which brings an already excellent book up to date with all the changes in backup technology over the last few years.

But I’ve been pondering what might have changed with regard to backing up, and I’d really like to hear your opinions in the comments. I see three main reasons why people might not be thinking about — or even doing! — backups as much any more: Time Machine, cloud services, and new bogeymen.

  • Time Machine is available to everyone. Time Machine generally works quite well, as long as you’re aware of the holes in its schedule (tip: don’t delete any file less than 24 hours old if you ever might want to restore it). But restoring an entire boot disk from Time Machine (after you reinstall Mac OS X) will take hours, whereas Joe advises having a bootable duplicate so you don’t blow through a deadline while restoring from Time Machine. Also, although you can now back up to multiple hard disks with Time Machine, making it possible to take one offsite, Time Machine doesn’t encourage it or make it easy. An online backup service like CrashPlan is better for offsite backups.

  • Increased cloud usage. Many people use Dropbox, get email via Gmail or iCloud, and back up their iOS devices via iCloud. “So why bother with local backups,” they may think, “when everything is safe in the cloud?” It’s true, should your startup drive fail, Dropbox and the like will bring down new versions of lost files from the cloud. But those wispy clouds offer false security in two ways. Just because you have some important files stored online doesn’t mean that everything important is online, and if your boot disk were to go south, you would both lose a lot of local data and spend days rebuilding your boot drive. Also, what happens if your Yahoo Mail account is compromised and all your mail deleted? Without a local backup, you’re up the proverbial creek.

  • New bogeymen. Put bluntly, no one is afraid of losing data any more. It’s not that it doesn’t happen, since it does, and probably just as much as it always did. But hard drive failure, dropped notebooks, and stolen Macs aren’t news to anyone other than the victim. Instead, when the media focuses on data loss at all, it’s in relation to compromised passwords, hacked accounts, and privacy breaches (Joy of Tech satirizes the privacy triple whammy nicely!). Wired writer Mat Honan spent nearly $1,700 on DriveSavers recovery when his digital life was hacked last year, not because of the account hacking, but because he had no backups. He later wrote, “I’m certainly a backup believer now. When you control your data locally, and have it stored redundantly, no one can take it from you. Not permanently, at least.”

Ivan Drucker, a consultant at IvanExpert in New York City, concurred with my assessment that increased cloud usage, coupled with a bit of a “post-document world” has removed some of the urgency to back up, but he added that, in his consulting experience, Time Machine usage is hardly ubiquitous. Making it doubly concerning, he sees drives failing far more frequently than a few years ago. I can’t argue with that — in the last 18 months, I’ve replaced three drives under their 1-year warranties, and had at least two others die outside of warranty coverage.

Needless to say, not paying attention to backups is a dangerous trend — despite Apple’s excellent work with automatic iOS backups to iCloud and Google’s cloud-focused Chrome OS, we’re still years from a mainstream computer operating system that will automatically and reliably back up all local data. (Of course, if the NSA is keeping copies of all our files, perhaps they could let us restore too!)

The good news is that, unlike even Joe’s password management advice in “Take Control of Your Passwords,” a good backup strategy requires no extra effort once set up. Following Joe’s advice, I have Time Machine creating versioned backups, SuperDuper making bootable duplicates nightly, and CrashPlan backing up home folders to a hard drive at a friend’s house, and I go for weeks or months without even thinking about my backups. They just happen, and they’re there when a drive goes south, which happens more often than I’d like.

I’ve also put a lot of effort over the years into helping friends and family back up appropriately, since I know I’m on the hook for drop-everything assistance if they lose data. To that end, “Take Control of Backing Up Your Mac, Second Edition” now has one of our “Teach This Book” sections with links to a one-page handout and a PDF-based presentation that you can use to help others improve their backups.

Finally, I wanted to share our latest “Joe of Tech” comic with you. Snaggy and Nitrozac at Joy of Tech did another great job. It has been huge fun working with them — comics are a lot harder than they look! Hope you enjoy the comic and find “Take Control of Backing Up Your Mac, Second Edition” useful!

Check out the Take Control ebooks that expand on the topic in this article:

Joe Kissell provides the advice you need to create a Mac backup strategy that protects your data and enables quick recovery. He compares backup software, services, and media to help you make the best choices. You'll learn to set up, test, and maintain backups, plus how to restore files after a calamity! Don't miss our new Joe of Tech comic!


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Comments about Why Do So Many People Fail to Back Up?
(Comments are closed.)

Derek Nations  2013-06-14 15:52
As Joe points out in the new book, there are issues associated with the use of Time Machine. My backup strategy included versioned backups using both Time Machine and Prosoft's Data Backup and a clone using Data Backup. Recently, my hard drive died on my year old Macbook Pro. I was unable to use Time Machine to "restore" the new hard drive. (Note that I was using a Synology NAS for the Time Machine backups.) Fortunately, I was able to restore using the clone and then retrieve the missing recent files using Time Machine. Joe's advice for using both versioned and clone backups is sound as is his concerns with using Time Machine as the only form of backup.
John Brayton  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2013-06-14 17:13
As you said, many have a false sense of security about cloud services, and specifically with mechanisms that sync with cloud services. You mentioned Dropbox. A person who gains unauthorized access to your Dropbox account could delete the files, wait a short amount of time for desktop agents to delete their local file copies, and then reset your password so that you cannot easily log into your account again. The real difference is that the single point of failure is often not your hard drive.
Dale Saukerson  2013-06-14 17:54
People fail to backup because they continue to think like other human experiences: data loss always happens to someone else.

People continue to fail to backup due to ignorance.

They remain unaware of the value of their data and that the vast majority of their data has no practical physical replacement for that of electronic storage. They remain unaware of how tenuous the connection between the user and their data really is and that they need to fear not only loss of data but equally important, loss of access to data.

They continue to think of backing up as something that is done once in a while rather then in a continual and managed process. The fail to see that they lose small amounts of data on a routine basis (disk errors, document corruption) and they are vulnerable to large losses.
I'm certified in data recovery and forensics (mainly recovery) and deal with data loss on a daily basis (hint-university level).
I am no longer shocked at how users fail to realize what Time Machine is or for. Nor do I have faith in small, portable HDDs (you know, the "passport" models that have integrated USB on the controller board or encryption). Now in 1TB models! Bigger they are, the more you lose.
Irony that portable computers still have 5400rpm spinning glass platters. Portable means "take it places at your own risk". $1500 latte later, you data sir.
Drive enclosure failures and accidental damage are more frequent than accidental deletion.
We have a saying, "you can't fix stupid, but you can charge for it".
Duane Williams  2013-06-15 07:13
I have found Time Machine to be fairly unreliable. My TM drive is connected to my MacBook Pro via Firewire. It runs along with no complaints or (apparent) problems, until I need to reboot, e.g., for a software upgrade. Invariably, after the reboot, OS X tells me the TM drive is damaged, the catalog file will have an invalid key length error. The only solution is to erase the drive and start over.
Michael Kazlow  2013-06-15 12:51
One word: inertia.
John C Beatty  2013-06-15 19:00
You will die.

Your disk will die.

Your disk will die *first*.
John Cooper  2013-06-16 06:59
When I bought my MacBook Pro two years ago, I also bought an external Seagate drive with a Thunderbolt connection for Time Machine and backups. Unfortunately, Time Machine sooner or later always slows to a crawl, slowing my machine along with it; and if I dare shut down (so I can take my MacBook with me) or force-quit TM, it irrecoverably corrupts my system. By "slows to a crawl," I mean taking two days plus to back up about 120 GB. And by "irrecoverably corrupts," I mean necessitating reinstalling the system. I've learned this the hard way. Twice. And until recently, I lived in a rural home where reinstalling the system took 36 hours due to the limited Internet access. Needless to say, I'm leery of ever using TM again, in any context.

I do clone my hard drive once a week on the same drive, using Carbon Copy Cloner. I have to remember to attach the drive, and I don't always.

I have Joe's book, and I know I should do better, but I don't want to pay a monthly fee for online backups.
Chris Kohuch  2013-06-16 14:35
Like most on this site I maintain both versioned and cloned backups and for me this is relatively easy to do. Trying to set up something similar for friends and family with only the most basic computer skill, however, is an excercise in futility. If it requires much effort or thought on their part, it's not going to get done. The best I can do in these cases is to buy the a moderately reliable external drive, set up Time Machine for them, and check occasionally to make sure it's still working.
For at least the last 20 years I have used partitioned disks for virtually all my data and emails. Sort of a holdover from using separate files accessed from basic or fortran programs and the like.

So my methodology is to use one partition for operating system, and to the maximum extent possible, use another partition or two for data.

This makes time machine backups almost trivial and relatively fast. I also use a separate disk- again partitioned to store a cloned copy of my operating system, and other partitions for data, emails, photos, etc.

Now using a SSD for main disk on my 3 year old mini, AND an outboard SSD for a duplicate of operating system.

My backup disks to time machine are physically separate and I back up t data files/disks to them generally once a week.

What I have never understood is why most people do NOT take the time to separate via alias or such the everyday data from the operating system data, thus reducing the backup issue and the time involved?

Jay Kappmeier  An apple icon for a TidBITS Supporter 2013-06-18 05:40
I think we fall into the trap of thinking that most people know at least the basics that we do about backing up your data. There are thousands of people out there who do not own an external hard drive and who would be challenged to buy the right one and set it up. Even if this have it, many don't turn it on. Absent an external hard drive backing up your data is difficult. We need more education on the hardware aspect of backing up data.
Brian S.  2013-06-18 08:51
"(Of course, if the NSA is keeping copies of all our files, perhaps they could let us restore too!)"

Apple might decide on "full disclosure" and rename iCloud to iNSA;-)
JAMES CUTLER  2013-06-18 10:34
Hope you enjoy the comic and find “Take Control of
Backing Up Your Mac, Second Edition” useful!

The URL should contain rather than
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-06-18 11:16
Doh! Thanks - I'm surprised the comic appeared at all in the article with the bad URL - the moral of the story is, never edit URLs manually. Fixed now...
It concerns me greatly that hard drives appear to be becoming less reliable rather than more. I've owned three Time Capsules, and in two of them the drive failed after 18 months or less. I figure that means I'm better off without one.

I've been hoping for several years now that Apple, in all its desktop models, would implement what seems an obvious solution: load each computer with two identically-sized hard drives, and license or buyout SuperDuper and set the computer up by default to clone the main drive onto the secondary drive every night. But I guess "safe" isn't "cool".
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-06-21 06:38
I agree entirely about drives, and that's one of the reasons I don't use a Time Capsule, since it integrates the drive with an unrelated piece of equipment (the AirPort Base Station). By keeping them separate, there's less concern if a drive dies - I can deal with the drive on a different schedule.

I do think a double-drive Mac would make sense, particularly as drives have gotten cheaper, with some sort of RAID ensuring that they're always in sync and with seamless switching as necessary. But it costs money and would drive up the price of a Mac, so it seems unlikely to happen.
FWIW- Re backup drives- mine areconnected via airport/ethernet to usb- normally powered off. I use two 1 terabyte drives and alternate each between backups of my partitioned data drives-

I still use Eudora for client email- and one partition is specific to email. Another partition is for other data/files/ etc

Why mac users do not use partitioned drives is still beyond me- both for daily and for backup.

Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-06-25 14:04
I think the problem with partitioned disks is that it requires extra work in Mac OS X that most people can't do (in terms of linking into special folders) and the benefit to people don't already have a mental map of how all their data is logically stored on disk is pretty small. The OS and applications aren't changing much at all anyway, so taking them out of the regular backup scenario doesn't make much difference. Restoration could also be harder or more confusing.

This is not to criticize your setup - I used to partition back in the day as well, but it does add complexity and require additional manual intervention that's beyond most people. Even the concept of a partition is a bit hard to explain to the average user.
Vishal  2013-06-27 20:46
Backups are not considered as useful to lay users. But yes if you use your system for a professional cause then backup is always a priority. My office Mac is being more backed up as compared to my home system. The logic is simple my office Mac holds mission critical files which I can't afford to loose. To make my backup I rely on Stellar Drive Clone and Time Machine as well.