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11 Stupid Backup Strategies

Last month when Adam, Tonya, and I attended the ASMC (Apple Specialists Marketing Corporation) Spring Conference in San Francisco, one of the special activities was a field trip to the DriveSavers headquarters in Novato. DriveSavers is a data recovery company — they’re the ones you call when you lose critical data from a hard drive or SSD and don’t have a backup. They can disassemble your drive in a clean room, perform the electronic equivalent of brain surgery on it, and in most cases, recover your crucial missing data. (For more on DriveSavers, read Jeff Carlson’s article “DriveSavers to the Rescue,” 30 August 1999.) Needless to say, these recovery services come at a cost, but in truly critical situations, you can’t put a price on this sort of magic.

The DriveSavers facility was a geek paradise. The only time I’ve seen anything close to that amount of high-tech gear in one place was when I visited CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Geneva. I loved learning about every part of the data recovery process. From a technical point of view, it was utterly fascinating. It was also eye-opening to hear about some of the high-profile customers DriveSavers had helped. The walls were covered with autographed photos of celebrities for whom the company had recovered data (including, somewhat ironically, Brent Spiner, who played Data on “Star Trek: The Next Generation”).

All throughout the tour, I had two conflicting feelings. One was: “Wow, it would be so cool to work here!” The other was: “My mission is to put them out of business!”

I say this, of course, not out of any malice toward the fine folks at DriveSavers, but because I’ve been beating the backups drum for years, and if everyone had adequate backups, one of the main reasons for DriveSavers’ existence would disappear. (The company would be fine, in fact, because they also do lots of work for law enforcement and government agencies, and deal with plenty of situations in which backups wouldn’t have been a factor.)

In my new book, “Backing Up Your Mac: A Joe On Tech Guide,” I lay out a backup strategy that aims to be, shall we say, highly bullet-resistant. There are no guarantees when it comes to computers, and as Robert Heinlein once said, “It is impossible to make anything foolproof, because fools are so ingenious.” That qualification aside, the system I use personally and explain in my book offers Mac users a simple way to achieve peace of mind. As I often say, even if a meteorite destroyed my house and all my equipment (while I wasn’t at home, obviously), I have 100 percent confidence that I would lose absolutely no important data. (Nuclear war, a zombie apocalypse, or an asteroid strike might be too much, but then I’d have bigger things to worry about anyway.)

As I talk to people about my book, I frequently hear responses along the lines of, “Well, here’s what I do to back up my Mac. What do you think of my system?” More often than not, I don’t say what I think, which is “Wow, that is one of the stupidest strategies I’ve ever heard of.”

The fact that your backup strategy is stupid does not imply that you are stupid. It only means you may not have given careful thought to what disasters could harm your data (theft, fire, hurricane, malware, software bugs, user error, and so on) or exactly what steps you would take if something did go wrong. I don’t want you to have stupid backups; I want you to have such excellent backups that you’re justifiably confident of being able to recover from any sort of data loss. In that spirit, here are 10 — wait, make that 11! — stupid backup strategies I urge you to avoid.

1. Having no backups at all. -- According to a recent post on the Backblaze blog, an annual survey found that only 8 percent of respondents back up their computers every day (a figure that, worryingly, has dropped over the past couple of years), whereas 16 percent back up less frequently than once a year, and 25 percent never back up at all.

Doing nothing is of course the worst way to approach backups. You’re trusting that everything will work perfectly no matter what you do (or what someone else does), and that’s too much to ask of a computer. You will lose data at some point. Something is always better than nothing when it comes to backups.

2. Depending on data recovery apps or services. -- If you accidentally delete a file on your Mac, you might be able to undelete it using any of numerous data recovery apps. If that fails (as it would if the drive is electronically or mechanically damaged), a company like DriveSavers may be able to rescue your data. But assuming you’ll be able to use one of these approaches if disaster occurs is unwise. Sometimes they fail, and if the cause of data loss is theft (or, you know, a meteorite that pulverized your Mac), there’s no disk to work with anyway.

This might be an appropriate time to mention that if you work for a company that makes data recovery software, you can stop pitching me about reviewing it. I’m all about prevention, and I think my readers’ money is far better spent on backups than on recovery tools.

3. Wishful thinking. -- A couple of weeks ago, a novelist acquaintance of mine complained on Facebook about having lost three scenes from a novel revision because she accidentally deleted the document. A friend helpfully suggested that, since she’s a Mac user, she could retrieve the document using Time Machine. But no, she replied, she never actually saved or even named the document, so there was nothing for Time Machine to back up.

Head. Desk.

It’s true that some apps autosave your work, giving you a way to pick up where you left off even if you never name a new document. (BBEdit, which I’m using to write this article, is one such app.) But not all apps function this way, and even when they do, there are ways in which users might accidentally delete the autosaved files. Pretty much all backup systems assume users will take at least the basic, obvious step of naming their files and saving them once (after which regular autosaves often kick in, storing additional versions automatically).

4. Doing manual backups. -- I know people who back up their Macs (or at least, a subset of their files) occasionally — whenever it occurs to them — either by making a clone or by manually copying files to another drive. Well, as I said, something is better than nothing, but in my experience, the day you forget to back up something manually (or run out of time) is the day you lose data. Having backups run automatically is a far superior idea.

5. Using only Time Machine. -- I think it’s fantastic that Time Machine exists, and is built into OS X. Apple was absolutely right to make backups as simple and convenient as possible (not to mention free). And, to be sure, using Time Machine is way better than nothing at all.

But I’ve had too many troubling experiences with Time Machine (and have heard about countless more) to rely on it as my sole backup software. For example, as I wrote in my Joe On Tech article Why I Don’t Rely on Time Machine, in the last month my wife and I both encountered unrecoverable Time Machine errors that required us to erase our backup drives and start over from scratch. The disks themselves were fine, but the backup data wasn’t, and not even fancy disk-repair software could fix the problem. Time Machine might function perfectly for years, only to choke randomly like this. So although Time Machine is convenient (and totally fine as an additional backup), I wouldn’t feel comfortable using or recommending it exclusively.

There’s another downside about Time Machine, too, which is that if your entire disk dies, your only option is to reformat or replace the disk and then restore the whole thing from your backup — a process that can take many, many hours. During that time, you won’t be able to use your Mac for anything else, which is why I strongly recommend a bootable duplicate (or “clone”) as part of your backup plan. But that brings me to the next problem…

6. Using only clones for backup. -- Clones are great. They let you get back to work almost instantly if anything goes wrong (just reboot while holding down Option and select the clone). They also give you a way to downgrade to your previous version of OS X, should anything go wrong when upgrading to a new version. (By the way, if you’re not giving your clones names like Sarah, Alison, Cosima, and Helena, you’re Doing It Wrong.)

One problem with using only clones for backup is that they don’t necessarily give you a way to retrieve accidentally deleted files, or earlier versions of files, if you discover you need them only after updating your clone. (Some cloning software does let you archive such items, but you have to know what you’re doing.) Another problem is that if your clone is stored with your Mac, then anything that happens to the Mac (tornado, burglar, etc.) can also take out your only backup. This, in turn, leads us to…

7. Having no offsite backups. -- You know that metaphorical meteorite I keep going on about? It might take out my house in California, but it almost certainly won’t also take out CrashPlan’s data center in Minnesota, or any of several other places I store my data. Same goes for data loss due to thieves, burst pipes, or a fire, all of which are far more likely than meteorites. If your only backups are stored locally, your data is protected against only a limited subset of dangers. You can address this by making extra backups that you store at a friend’s house, in a safe deposit box, or another safe location; or you can use a cloud service such as CrashPlan, Backblaze, or DollyDrive. But however you do it, make sure you have an offsite copy of your data.

However, the reverse is also true…

8. Having only online backups. -- Online backups are great for many things, but if you should ever have to restore more than a few gigabytes from online storage (let alone an entire disk), you’ll be in for a long wait, because you’ll be constrained by your Internet provider’s bandwidth. You may also run into data caps that prevent you from downloading all your backed-up data in a single month. Faced with such a problem, you might be able to pay the backup provider to send your data on a hard drive. But while you’re waiting for your data to download (or for the FedEx truck to arrive), you won’t have access to your data. Personally, I’d have a real problem with all that downtime, which is why local backups are part of the mix for me. (Of course, if you want to boot from a clone, it must be on a local hard drive.)

The next two stupid strategies are also related to online backups.

9. Relying solely on Dropbox (or similar services). -- Dropbox is wonderful; I use it every day to store files in the cloud and sync them across my devices. Many other cloud storage services (such as iCloud Drive, Box, Amazon Cloud Drive, Google Drive, and Microsoft OneDrive) offer roughly comparable features. And most of these even offer a limited, primitive, backup-like feature: the capability to restore older versions of files or deleted files — at least if they’re less than a month old.

That’s all good, and in fact, using a service like Dropbox can make data restoration quicker and easier in some situations. But because you can’t count on these services to store all the data on your Mac, to keep it indefinitely, or to make it easy to recover a lot of data at once, they’re no substitute for proper backups.

10. Assuming Web apps don’t need backups. -- Do you use Google Docs, Office 365, iWork for iCloud, or any of a zillion other such Web apps to create and collaborate on documents? Most of us do, at least occasionally. Fine, but do you also have a local copy of those documents? I’ll bet you don’t, and that’s a bad idea.

It’s not hard to find stories about people who opened Google Docs (or whatever) one day to find that a crucial document had vanished, for no apparent reason, and with no apparent recourse. These sorts of things don’t happen often, but they do happen. You can’t assume a cloud service will back up your data adequately — or that you’ll be able to recover it yourself, even if it was backed up. (And, even if the data is there, an Internet outage or server problem could prevent you from accessing it at a crucial moment.) Word to the wise: make your own backups of documents created in the cloud or use a specialized utility like CloudPull (see “Back Up Your Google Data with CloudPull,” 6 March 2012).

11. Thinking of RAID as a backup. -- A reader suggested this addition after I posted my original list, and I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I discuss this explicitly in my book. A RAID uses multiple hard drives to function as a single logical volume. Among the many ways a RAID can be configured, mirrored RAIDs (RAID 1) are most often confused with backups, because they write every block to two different physical disks, providing 100 percent redundancy. (RAID 5 and 6 also provide redundancy, but in a different way.) Well, isn’t that basically the same as a clone, only better, since it’s always up to date?

No. Indeed, the fact that it’s always up to date is part of the problem. If you accidentally delete a file, for example, it’s deleted instantly on both drives in your mirrored RAID. If you have directory damage, file corruption, malware, or any of numerous other problems, it affects both drives equally. And, of course, if the RAID is stolen or damaged, it doesn’t help at all. The only thing a mirrored RAID protects you against is the hardware failure of a single drive. Fair enough; that happens. But it’s not the same thing as a backup.

Don’t have stupid backups! I hope you’ve spent this entire article rolling your eyes at these ridiculous excuses for a backup strategy, all the while reminding yourself that your own backup strategy is smart and doesn’t suffer from any of these defects. If so, then I’m glad you’ve enjoyed this entertaining look at how the other 92 percent live.

However, if by any chance you found yourself wincing now and then because you recognized something in this list that you yourself do, don’t feel ashamed. It’s OK; we’ve all been there. Just don’t stay there. Pick up a copy of “Backing Up Your Mac: A Joe On Tech Guide” and learn how to educate your backups. Then you and I can both have that meteorites-won’t-destroy-my-data confidence, and we can turn our attention to more pressing tasks, like protecting ourselves from zombies.


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Comments about 11 Stupid Backup Strategies
(Comments are closed.)

Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-06-22 13:43
A reader has already suggested #11: relying on RAID. So true! That's something I talk about in my book. A (mirrored) RAID is not even remotely the same as a backup, but many people think it is. Don't make that mistake!
Dr Bob  2015-06-22 18:11
RAID has never been a valid backup strategy (although its commonly erroneously thought of one) it was created to keep the volume up and operation if one single error occurred. If more than one occurred then you lost data. This helps large companies avoid downtime because they have full time IT employees who respond to these errors immediately. If there is more than one error, large companies have enough money and clout to coast through the failure and use their deep pockets to eventually recreate all the lost work. Small companies can and have gone out of business when a critical business application's database on the RAID array failed. Lost cost RAID systems are even more unreliable than most people realize because they only have one controller and one power supply, so a single failure crashes the system. Even with two power supplies, I've seen people plug the two power cords into the same outlet and then watch the crash as that one power circuit failed. RAID is not the answer.
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-06-22 18:26
Couldn't agree more.
Anonymous  An apple icon for a TidBITS Angel 2015-06-23 14:49
My favorite RAID story was the client that called and said 'our server files just reverted back 7 months!' I visited and found that the mirror broke 7 months ago when one drive went off line and now the other had failed! I brought a copy of their nightly remote backup, plugged it in and saved the day!
Fernando Urbina  2015-06-22 18:45
I would argue that not having multiple Time Machine disks qualifies as a stupid strategy.
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-06-22 18:49
I definitely advocate having multiple backups. Having multiple Time Machine disks isn't necessarily stupid, if you also have backups of other kinds (such as a clone and a CrashPlan backup). But if you're relying solely on Time Machine in the first place (which is itself a problem), having just one disk is even more stupid.
Excellent advice, as always. I preach backup philosophies so much to the people that I advise that they probably just treat is as background droning. But, since I have saved several (and myself) from some disasters, I will keep on droning! Keep up the good work!
Roger Moffat  2015-06-22 22:25
I would offer though that having a mirrored RAID as ONE of the parts of a comprehensive backup strategy is not stupid - for example I have two Guardian Maximus units (2 x SATA drives inside) each configured as RAID 1 that are separate Time Machine volumes for my Mac Pro - one connected to the Mac Pro directly, and one on the network somewhere else in the house, as well as another single Time Machine volume in the Mac Pro, and as much backed up to BackBlaze as they allow (they don't back up Apps, Library and other folders), and almost everything synched between my Mac Pro and MacBook Pro, and my wife's MacBook Pro and the Mac Pro too.

From the introduction to your article I'm better prepared than the vast majority of people I think :-)

Steve Nicholson  2015-06-22 23:33
Re #3: I'm the only programmer where I work, so I'm also the de facto first-line IT support person. A while ago, a (now former) co-worker started raging about not being able to find a Word document he'd been working on for a week. When I asked him where he saved it, he started getting evasive. When I asked him what he named it so that I could start searching various locations he couldn't answer that, either. And it didn't show up in Word's Recent Files list. He never quite came out and admitted it, but I'm convinced he never bothered saving the file.
Tonya Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-06-24 10:37
Steve, your comment here made me think of a story from the 1980s when many of us were becoming accustomed to working with word processors. During my summer job before my Junior year of college, one of my co-workers was writing a long paper for a summer school course that he was taking. He would go to the computer lab and work on his paper and then when his work session was over, he would print it out. At the start of the next session, he'd re-key everything from his printout and then add more new text. It was probably a good way to go over his drafts of the earlier pages, but he was unaware of the save command or anything to do with using a disk.
Mike Schienle  An apple icon for a TidBITS Supporter 2015-06-23 11:10
As long as we're going wayback here, I'll bring up one of the most interesting loss of data instances I've encountered. This was 1984 or 1985 and our company, Honeywell, had a bunch of new Macs in the building. I was helping out a couple colleagues with it and explained ejecting the 3.5 floppy disk via dropping it into the trashcan. One colleague had a string of data loss that defied explanation until I asked him to repeat how he works on the system while I watched.

He saved the file to the floppy disk. Quit the program. Opened the floppy disk. Dragged the file to the trash. Then dragged the floppy to the trash. His files were still on the floppy, just in the trash. They were easily recoverable once we had a clue what was going on.
This reminds me of an equally comical (though frustrating) experience I had while working in the college computer lab in the 80s. A student writing her senior thesis had continual problems with data loss on her floppy disk, so she got into the same habit of printing her entire thesis out every day before leaving. If she showed up the next day and wasn't able to open her thesis she would key everything in from scratch and start over.

After a couple weeks of troubleshooting we finally figured out what was going on. She was going home and sticking her disk the the refrigerator with a (presumably) strong magnet. We never quite figured out WHY she wanted to store it there, but once we warned her off doing it her disks got much more reliable.
David  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2015-07-02 14:11
That strikes me as a UI failure on Apple's part. Making the trash can both the way to get rid of files and the way to make discs eject was (is) just begging for trouble. It's not un-logical to think that you should have to drag your file to the trash to stop working on it.
Steve Nicholson  2015-06-22 23:40
I feel like I have my backup bases covered: a Time Machine backup, a weekly clone with Carbon Copy Cloner, and my home directory backed up to CrashPlan's servers. When a lightning strike took out my Time Capsule (with my MacBook's Time Machine backup) and my Drobo (with my iMac's Time Machine backup) I still had three copies of all my data. As it turned out, all the drives inside the Drobo and Time Capsule survived so I didn't even lose those backups, just the enclosures.
Scott Rose  2015-06-23 10:56
Two minor corrections to this article:
1. If your entire disk dies, you can still recover just a small piece of your Time Machine backup. Simply install OS X on your new hard drive without using Migration Assistant, and then choose Time Machine's "Browse Other Backup Disks" function to selectively choose what you want to restore.
2. Also, regarding autosaving of work: as the author said, this is NOT a backup plan at all! However, please note that Apple has this feature built into many of its apps (TextEdit, Pages, Numbers, and more): there is a feature to revert to previous versions of the document which you are working on. This is very helpful if you need to "roll back the clock" to the document's state BEFORE your Time Machine or offsite backup had kicked in.
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-06-23 13:35
I get what you're saying, but the end result of your procedure will be having only a minimal installation, and only a small subset of your files—most likely not enough to do meaningful work with—and it'll still take an hour or more.

The Versions feature is indeed useful. I talk about it in my book. I agree with you that I still wouldn't call it a backup, but it can serve a backup-like function in some cases.
Lee Joramo  2015-06-23 17:39
12.Not testing your Backups. Regularly test restoring to ensure that it is working as you expect. Maybe the backup is not actually working, or you did not include all of your important files, or important metadata is being discarded, or you forgot got your password to access Crashplan, Backblaze, etc. Or the disk you are cloning to is beginning to quietly fail. Additionally, periodically review that the backup software you are using is still the best for your needs.

13. Using only one backup software. (This is a more generic version of #5 regarding Time Machine.) Don't get burned by a future destructive bug in your only backup software, the developer that created the software going bankrupt, the open source project evaporates, etc.

Personally, I use a combination of Crashiplan (local & cloud) and Arq (local & OneDrive), Carbon Copy Cloner, and Git (for my development work.
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-06-23 17:43
I definitely talk about testing your backups in my book, and it is a recurring theme here on TidBITS too—every Friday the 13th, we celebrate International Verify Your Backups Day!

I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with using just one backup app, as long as it meets all your needs. However, practically speaking, I have yet to find a single backup app that can do all the different sorts of backups I want personally.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-06-23 17:46
Great point about the verification - that's why I came up with International Verify Your Backups Day!
Yes! Not testing is one of the biggest mistakes. Those of us who believe we're so smart in our multiple backup plans need to occasionally try and access them. I discovered ALL my Time Machine Files had been corrupt from day one. Now I do icloud, crashplan, CClone, and a drag'n'drop to an external drive that is taken off site monthly.

One benefit you didn't mention: I had a brand new laptop and had not transferred all the documents I needed for a speech. This was before iCloud, so my laptop wasn't synched like we do now. I was able to log on to my online backup, access my files and download them to my laptop in time for a presentation. Lifesaver!
Vincy Logan  2015-06-25 04:25
I personally is using time machine and cloudbacko. The strategy is to backup all things in mac thru time machine and my favorite photos and files thru cloudbacko to free cloud storage such as OneDrive. Cloudbacko is free and it could backup to a combination of cloud storage such as OneDrive and google drive. Since cloudbacko could encrypt data and file-names, I feel it's secure for backing up data to cloud storage
B. Jefferson Le Blanc  2015-06-29 20:57
I suggest your strategy is inadequate by Joe's standards. You need at least a local clone of your system and all your data. Your photos in the cloud are subject to all sorts of problems - bandwidth being the most obvious.

Of course, Joe advocates an offsite backup as well. He's bugged me so often about it that I'm now seriously considering getting a safety deposit box and a 4 or 6 TB drive to use to clone multiple drives, my iMac's internal drive and several external drives on my desk.

A clone is particularly useful for archiving large files, like virtual machine images that take up too much space on Time Machine and are routinely excluded.
Michael B  2015-06-29 16:37
Back in the day of floppy disks, I remember when BMUG (Berkeley Macintosh User's Group) suggested that you should have backups on 3 disks. The reasoning was that if you put the first disk in and it didn't work, you'd think it was the disk; but it really was a defective drive, so when you put in the second disk, it would get crunched too. At least then you had a backup on the 3rd disk (presumably by then you'd figured it out). I actually had occasion to be thankful for those 3 backups!
Mark3785  2015-06-29 18:40
This is my backup regimen, but first some rules:

1) Become anal retentive about backups. Don't worry, it'll happen naturally after your first catastrophic failure.

2) Lose any resistance to good deals on drives.

2a) Get a really good powered USB hub and remember, no more than 3 permanent drives per hub unless the manufacturer guarantees it can be done.

3) Avoid Time Machine or at least don't count on it being available if you really need it.

4) Use time tested software to make bootable clones (I swear by SuperDuper. Dopey name but great software and superior tech support plus it's cheap.)

5) Never use the same drive to hold more than one volume of the drive being backed up.

6) Keep your most important data in an online account and on separate media off site or in a fireproof box.

7) Regularly test your bootable clones by booting from them.

8) Regularly test ALL backups by running good utility software on them. (I use Disk Utility, Disk Warrior and Scannerz.)
Mark3785  2015-06-29 18:42
Now for my backup regimen: I keep 5 backups (incremental) of my boot drive, two daily, done 12 hours apart. Two weekly done 3.5 days apart, and a monthly done the first Sunday of every month. I have a large media drive and a small data drive (random crap) that get backed up once a week. SuperDuper has a great scheduling feature and I rarely notice the backups happening. Every so often I erase the backups and have them backup from scratch. (These backups are extremely noticeable).

I also keep a bootable flash drive on my keychain with all my favorite disk and file utilities installed along with a spreadsheet of all my software, their serial numbers and developers.
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-06-29 19:50
That's pretty extreme even by my standards (which is saying something). Sounds pretty good!
Mark3785  2015-06-29 20:58
My friends have fun making fun of me but actually it really isn't all that extreme if you realize that the collection of drives wasn't all done at once but took a few years to accumulate. Finding a 1 or 2 TB bus powered drive for a good price isn't hard if you pay attention. My MacBook Pro may look like a Medusa, but my data is safe enough for me to be comfortable.

I did have one of those catastrophic failures about 20 years ago and learned from it,
Doug Lerner  2015-06-29 19:26
Years ago my stupid backup strategy was to wait until I heard of a friend or colleague having a drive crash disaster and then said to myself, "I guess I should run a backup now."

But for years now I myself maintain 3 backups (1) Time Machine; (2) Carbon Copy Cloner for a complete bootable backup and (3) CrashPlan for an ongoing off-side cloud backup.

I'm sure everybody can do all three, even if you carry your computer around a lot.

For example, when you get back to your office and plug it in you can connect your hub with your backup drives and they will catch up.

Or if you go on a trip you can take the drives with you. They are smaller than the palm of your hand, weigh practically nothing and don't need separate power of their own.


Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-06-29 19:51
Sounds very similar to what I do. I love those 2.5-inch, bus-powered hard drive. I have maybe half a dozen of them. They're handy for backups even at home, because they take up almost no space and reduce cable clutter.
nrkmann  2015-06-29 20:40
In 1988 I went to Europe with a Mac SE and a 100MB ($2500 at the time) CMS external drive. I called CMS and was assured that all their power supplies were auto switching 120/220 VAC 60/50 cycle. Just before leaving I put a 100MB HD in the SE and copied all my data to the new drive and used the CMS as a backup. Got to Germany and fried the CMS the first time I plugged it in. Took several long distance calls at $2-$4 per minute to finally get CMS to admit that the DS was not auto switching. They sent me a new 250MB external HD gratis. Just by the luck of the draw in buying an internal drive did I have my data. OBTW that system is in my garage and still works.
B. Jefferson Le Blanc  2015-06-29 21:22
I was recently saved by a combination of a clone and a Time Machine backup. My system (on a one year old 17" iMac with a 1TB Fusion drive) went down hard. At first I thought is was a hardware failure, but Apple support suggested it was a software problem. The crash was so severe that I couldn't even reinstall from the Recovery HD partition - it couldn't reformat the drive.

I had to boot from an external drive and separately erase the SSD and the HDD in the iMac. Fortunately once this was done the system was smart enough to offer to restore the logical Fusion drive partition for me.

Unfortunately, whatever the problem was affected my clone as well so I couldn't use it for a complete restoration. So I did a clean install of Mavericks and performed a restore from a month old version of my system from Time Machine in order to predate whatever corruption ruined my system. That worked. Then I restored files like e-mail and my iTunes Library from the clone.

For some reason some of my applications lost track of their registration information, but only one of them would not reset properly – Snapz Pro. The developer couldn't have cared less and would not or could not provide me with a viable solution. So I said goodbye to a long standing Mac stalwart app – not sparing the developer's feelings on the blogs.

I used to use SuperDuper for cloning but I always found some minor errors on the clone afterwards with DiskWarrior. So I started using Carbon Copy Cloner, which has a bit of a learning curve, but is more flexible than SD.

I used to look down on Time Machine because, like Joe, I found it to be unreliable. But it saved my bacon on this occasion so I feel better about it now. And now Disk Warrior can handle larger drives so it's possible to repair a Time Machine drive, though it takes a long time to do so.
JohnB (SciFiOne)   2015-06-30 13:10
I use multiple backups based on your excellent book. I can't stress how important that book is. The three I've used the most often for recovery though are; manual backups, clones, Dropbox, and Time Machine. Fortunately, I've never had to do a recover from Crashplan. BTW, I use a fireproof waterproof safe since I no longer have a physical offsite backup location a for recovery!
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-06-30 13:13
Excellent. Thanks for the kind endorsement! Can I quote you on that?
Betty Fellows  2015-06-30 18:26
Is there a way to tell Time Machine not to back-up MacMail & the MacMail attachment folders?

I keep getting trojan horses/viruses sent to my Macmail related account. They are caught by Sophos so I can delete them, but it is very hard to delete them from the backups.
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-06-30 18:30
In the Time Machine preference pane, click Options and exclude ~/Library/Mail. (However, if you do this, it's an excellent idea to back up your email in some other way.)
ronman  2015-06-30 23:17
My strategy has saved my bum a number of times:

1) Time Machine always runs and I check to make sure daily

2) SuperDuper clone every night at 3 am after repair disk permissions (SD does this for you)

3) Boot from the clone at least one a week

4) Swap out the clone drive as often as I remember, but at least once a month. Usually, three times a month.

5) Boot drive only contains apps. Data stored on another drive that is Time Machined and cloned daily.

6) Dropbox for most data, and I pay for the versioning capability

This is less than I demand at work, where databases are have snapshots and replicated, logs are backed up hourly, and archives are taken off site daily. My personal backups make it off site when I have to go to the storage unit. They are in a fire safe otherwise , but I don't consider that good enough.

7) Pray!
Dave Heap  2015-07-02 00:34
Unfortunately I have found that post-Snow Leopard Time Machine cannot be trusted at all. In the 10.6 days I was quickly able to use TM to recover from several MacBook drive failures within hours. But unfortunately no more.

Some time ago I went to do a routine recovery operation (Mavericks) and found that the directory I wanted to recover from was only partially backed up. The more I browsed the TM archive the more I realised was missing. Repairing, deep traversals etc. could not persuade TM to fill the gaps. An on-line search revealed an avalanche of reports of the same problem with post-10.6 machines, so much so that the CharlesSoft person had at that time a checking utility available.

Tests of 4 backup archives across 3 machines revealed only one machine had a full TM backup. My previous strategy included TM and CrashPlan Central. I moving to CP Central, CP Local and CC Cloner.

Reports indicate 10.10 is no better and I now reluctantly consider TM dangerous as it is false security..
Suzanne Giuriati Cerny  2015-07-05 20:02
I'm all for getting a copy of the Joe Kissell book. Most of my important work besides a few documents are digital paintings. I have them duplicated on a few flashdrives, one external harddrive, and now a second external harddrive, which I understand uses Time Machine. I want to learn more! For a lot of money I can make high resolution hardcopy prints of these files, and I could do a few of the more important ones each month until I get that done/ I have a secure storage unit with live paintings, away from the house.