Thursday, May 25, 2006

A Backup Plan for Macintosh Computers

This backup plan has been evolving over the past few weeks and is now in place. I thought it might be useful for other Mac users to know that there is a simple and effective data backup procedure out there and, once initiated, this easy to use routine should mean that major losses of data will become history. And remember that major data losses can occur one of two ways - hard drive failure, which is all too common, and loss/theft of computer, which when it happens is a nightmare.

What you need:

As well as your computer, you need two firewire hard drives the same size as your computer's hard drive. If you have two computers, then the back up drives need to be the same size as each of the computers' hard drives, though the second backup drive could also be one larger drive with two partitions. You will also need a copy of SuperDuper! for each computer. So the total cost could approach $300 (maybe more) per computer. Given the time it takes to restore the typical backup data provided by inferior backup software, I would say that this is money well spent.

Why so many hard drives? Well, we have two PowerBooks and they travel a lot. If the backup drive goes everywhere the computer goes (which it should if daily backups are to be made) then there is the risk that both computer and drive could be lost or stolen. The latter has happened to me and it was only because I had backed up the hard drive to a desktop G4 that I didn't lose everything. The additional hard drive stays at home and is only copied to once a month (or more often if justified). This is the ultimate insurance against the unthinkable.

Our set-up:

Our two PowerBooks (let's call them A and P) have 40 Gig and 80 Gig hard drives. So I bought equivalent LaCie-Porsche portable firewire drives. These are not cheap but they have two important advantages: small size and no power supply requirement. Remember that backups are only made if the process is convenient. These portable drives make for simplicity and ease of use.

I then took an existing heavyweight brick of a LaCie 120 Gig drive and divided it into two partitions using Disk Utility, naming the partitions A Backup and P Backup. The A Backup has 38 Gigs usable space, the P Backup has 76.5 Gigs usable space, each large enough to take the usable space from the PowerBook's drives.

Then I downloaded and paid for two licenses to Shirt Pocket's SuperDuper! backup software, loading one copy on each of the PowerBooks and placing the program icon in the Dock and having the OS load the software at startup.

First Backup:

With the LaCie-Porsche drive connected to the PowerBook I started SuperDuper! and selected the internal hard drive as the Source and the Backup drive as the destination. I then told SuperDuper! to copy all the files and to make a bootable copy.

I then connected the LaCie "brick" drive to the PowerBook and repeated the process, copying to the appropriate partition.

I then did the same with the second PowerBook.

The time to copy took between 1 to 2 hours per drive, so this is not a quick task. However, you can use the computer while the process is ongoing though I rather think you should not move files around too much.

It is a simple task to test the bootable drives. With the drive connected, restart the PowerBook with the Option key held down. This then offers you the choice of startup drives. And this, of course, is also how you can quickly access the backup drive should the internal drive fail. By the way, these backup drives literally "mirror" the original hard drive.

Regular Backups:

After a day of use it is surprising how many files are changed, added and deleted. But SuperDuper! can scan the drive and only copy those files that have been changed (erased files will also be erased on the backup drive). So subsequent backups may only take a few minutes. SuperDuper! can even be programmed to turn itself off after completing the backup.

Monthly Backups:

The second backup provides around 30 days of "history" which may be useful if an important file has been erased or modified. But its main purpose is that second level of insurance and for this reason it should be stored away from the computer (ideally in a fireproof cabinet or safe). And an alarmed reminder in iCal serves an obvious purpose!


The system works! Because SuperDuper! is so very user friendly (it even tells you what will happen in lay language!) and because the resulting backup is a full mirror of your hard drive, the level of confidence it brings makes backups that much more worthwhile. By comparison with heavyweight software like Retrospect, this system is unbelievably simple yet very complete. You can download the software for free and evaluate it but I seriously suggest you will want to purchase the license! It comes with an excellent pdf manual that is also written in layman's language.

The ultimate test is to take a bootable backup drive and start a different computer with it. Hey Presto - there's your desktop, your dock, your apps and your files! As they say, Super Duper!