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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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