A Paranoid’s Guide To Backing Up

Backup. Backup. Backup.

We hear it all the time, and some of us actually do it. Some of us do it to the extreme. And you know what? I’m okay with that.

Here’s my process. It’s built around a Mac ecosystem, but the ideas are applicable to others, with different applications filling the roles. It might seem extreme, or paranoid. We’ll revisit that when you eventually lose some precious photos of your kids or that document you just worked 23 hours to perfect.

Time Machine

Time Machine

For Macs, using Time Machine is a no-brainer. You plug in a bare drive and it’s hard not to use it for backup. Time Machine copies everything from your internal drive to your Time Machine drive. Once an hour it copies all the latest changes. It’s simple and you don’t have to mess with it, a hallmark of any backup solution. If you have to restore your computer at some point, the Mac OS install process can copy your files from the Time Machine disk so that you shouldn’t lose more than an hour’s worth of work. Further, you can use Time Machine to pull off previous versions of any file; the version from an hour ago, a week ago, a month ago, etc. Very handy at times.



That’s pretty good, but the Paranoid Backup-er takes it further. You can’t boot from a Time Machine backup. So if your internal drive crashes and burns you have to go through a lengthy install process to get everything back to normal from your Time Machine drive. I personally want the ability to take my backup drive, plug it in, and keep going with as little downtime as possible. This is called “booting from a clone”. To get this ability I run a scheduled nightly backup (to a drive separate from my Time Machine drive) using SuperDuper. Every night an exact copy of my drive is made. It only takes a few minutes because only the things that changed that day have to be updated on the backup drive. Now if my internal drive fails I can simply boot off the SuperDuper backup and I’m back in business. If I have things set up so the SuperDuper backup is the same physical size as my internal drive, in many cases I can simply install the SuperDuper drive into my computer and I’m done (other than using Time Machine or Dropbox to get back the day’s work missing from the last nightly SuperDuper backup).



So what about immediate changes? SuperDuper only backs up once a day. Time Machine only backs up once an hour. Can we do better than that? Yes, and for this purpose I use Dropbox. Dropbox is designed for syncing files between computers. It syncs changes nearly immediately and does a pretty good job of it. And the best part is that they’ll give you at least a 2GB allowance for file syncing for free. (There are various ways to increase the free storage—mine has been bumped up to 7GB.) For my purposes I only use Dropbox for my non-media documents. So any document that’s not a picture, video, or music file is handled by Dropbox. Perhaps surprisingly, the total storage needed for these files is not very much and easily fits in the 2GB free allocation. If I create a spreadsheet, for example, I do it in a folder synced by Dropbox and the file ends up on all my other computers and on Dropbox’s servers (accessible via any Internet browser), with the most recent changes available everywhere nearly immediately. It’s terrific, especially if the free version covers your needs.

Offsite drives

Okay, so at this point I have everything backed up to at least 2 places. But what I don’t have is anything (outside of Dropbox) backed up anywhere outside of my house. A fire or theft would be devastating, or perhaps a particularly nasty computer virus that wipes out all attached drives. I can’t bear the thought of losing my precious, irreplaceable photos or videos. Thankfully, this is a pretty easy thing to manage if you’re using something like SuperDuper. Once a week I take my SuperDuper drives to work and swap them out for their clones that I store there. To make this process as easy as possible I make the drives true clones by setting their system drive IDs to identical values. Now with the worst case scenario I’ve lost no more than a week of material, and probably much less than that due to Dropbox.

Network backup


Now for the truly paranoid who have sufficient bandwidth on their Internet connection, there’s one more step that can be taken: Internet backup. For some this may not be a viable solution, but you’re probably just fine with all the stuff I already talked about. I’ve found that for Internet backup, Crashplan works well, at a decent price. It has two features that I love: unlimited backup and backup of external drives. It takes a while for the initial upload — like weeks or even months — even with a fast Internet connection. (They have an option to send you a hard drive to skip the massive initial upload over the Internet, but it’s kind of a pricy option.) Once you’ve got your initial backup set done, you probably won’t notice Crashplan working in the background after that. I use it almost exclusively for media — videos, photos, and music — with a sprinkling of a few other things here or there. A restore off the internet could take a while. That’s not really the point. For me, this is the last ditch option if everything else goes to hell. I expect I’ll never pull a file back down, but I take comfort in knowing it’s there. Paranoia can use all the comfort it can get.


I suspect there’s still a question you’re asking. It’s probably, “Jeepers, Steve, have you ever actually lost any data?” No, I haven’t, but that’s not the question I was hoping for. Instead I was thinking you might ask, “Jeepers, Steve, doesn’t this take a boatload of drives?” Well, yes. But drives are (relatively) cheap and my paranoia about losing something is great.

In our house I have one computer, a Mac Mini, that is always running and acts as the house server. Hooked to it is one big drive that supports Time Machine for two household computers. Each of the computers also individually has a drive hooked up similar in size to the internal boot drive, which is used for SuperDuper. So if you’re keeping count, that’s n + 1 drives, where n is the number of computers. Except since I keep offsite SuperDuper clones, it’s actually 2n + 1.

Further, we have one very large drive that we use primarily for media. As of now, I have no problem keeping all our movies, music, and photographs on one big drive. This is true even though I’ve started ripping some of our DVDs and Blu-Ray discs. Since this drive is used as an archive, I don’t feel the need to use Time Machine with it for versioning and hourly backups. I use SuperDuper to clone it nightly, plus that content is primarily what gets backed up by Crashplan. So now we’re at 2n + 1 + 2 backup drives, which in our case equals 7 backup drives.

7 drives, just for backup. Seem excessive? I don’t think so. I feel very, very secure about not losing data. I will never have to look my wife in the eye after her hard drive crashes and say, “I’m sorry,I think it’s all gone.” That peace of mind is well worth it.

So, 7 drives, but 3 are always rotated weekly into offsite storage in a drawer where I work. That leave 3 drives hooked to the Mac Mini and 1 drive hooked to my wife’s computer. I don’t think that’s so bad. Another nice aspect of this is that USB drives are plenty fast enough for this purpose. SuperDuper does all its work at night, so a USB connection works fine. The Time Machine drive might benefit from something faster, but frankly I’ve never had a problem with it over USB. Someday maybe Apple will support USB3 and that will really solve the problem of fast connections to cheap storage.

I recently thought long and hard about some kind of fault-tolerant multi-drive system like a Drobo. I came to the conclusion that it was costly, overkill, and hard to back up. It’s overkill because I already have an extremely fault tolerant system with everything I’ve outlined above. If any drive dies, I have multiple places where that data has been replicated. And I say a Drobo would be hard to back up, while others would say it doesn’t need backing up because it’s fault tolerant. Fault tolerant doesn’t help if your house burns down, or a virus wipes out your system. I still couldn’t sleep unless I had a clone of that data somewhere, and it would have to be offsite for real security. Now I would be looking at buying 2 or 3 Drobos plus the drives to put in them, and that cost is a tremendous jump over basic big drives. My conclusion is that a Drobo-like system is pointless for backup. (There are other reasons you might want a Drobo, but I’m not going to get into that here. I don’t think basic backup or archive storage is a good reason.) Even if my media storage needs grew to the point where a single big drive couldn’t handle it, I’d still just get another set of big drives and split things between them. Even so, it would be cheaper and safer than a Drobo-like system.

I use a basic external drive for Time Machine. I like the Seagate GoFlex Drives because the interface can be changed (for a price) to support USB3, FireWire, or even Thunderbolt. For my SuperDuper drives I’ve been very happy using a drive dock:

Drive Dock

I buy cheap, bare drives with no enclosure and simply slip them into the dock. Once a week when I swap them with the offsite drive I pop out the current and pop in the replacement. Very fast, very easy. Anything encouraging ease of use for backups is worthwhile. I transport the offsite drives in drive cases like this one:

Drive Case


This may all seem excessive, but I don’t think it is. Losing data is a big deal. Maintaining thorough backups once the backup sytem is in place is also extremely easy. That’s important for anyone to ensure backups continue, but especially for someone like me who has precious little time to mess with anything. (This blog post, for example, was written in many 10-minute snatches today while dealing with kids and other family needs.) When — not if — a drive fails, I want to deal with it as efficiently as possible and keep everyone happy. This system I have in place allows that and virtually guarantees I will never lose data. I win.

Blogsy? What kind of a name is that?


When I set up my blog to use my personal WordPress installation, I did a lot of experimentation to see what the best way was to post from my iPhone and iPad. I ended up simply using the WordPress app for really quick posts on my iPhone and I just use the web interface on my iPad. Seems to work fine.

But somewhere in that experimenting I bought an iPad app called Blogsy. It has a bit of a learning curve, but also has some very nice features. The developer keeps improving it, so I thought it was time to give it another try. Here I am using it to do a post.

It works pretty well. The main problem I had before was with how it handled picture sizing, but I think I may have just been too picky. It has a web browser built in, making it super simple to drop in pictures and links. You can edit in either rich text form, dragging pictures around as desired, or switch to straight HTML.

It’s certainly the best thing I’ve seen on the iPad. Recommended.


Twitter Commercials?

Today Twitter announced “Promoted Tweets on mobile: more options, starting today“.

Promoted tweets are advertisements in tweet form in your timeline. Previously, these tweets would only be shown only if you followed the advertiser. This seemed like a pretty limited option to me. Why would you follow, for example, Verizon Wireless? Isn’t that like tuning your TV to the Coca Cola channel? I really didn’t think advertisers would buy into that too heavily.

In today’s announcement we see the next step:

Starting today, we are expanding this test, enabling brands to target Promoted Tweets to mobile users that share similar interests with their existing followers.

So, if I read this right, this means Twitter is going to analyze everyone’s tweets and swizzle them together to determine in some way who has similar interests, and then use that information to distribute advertising in the timelines.

I’m not sure if I’m okay with this or not. Tweets aren’t private, so there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to do this. (I’m assuming, perhaps wrongly, that Twitter won’t analyze private timelines this way.) They need to pay for the service, so they have to do something. I think what I’d really like to see is an advertising-free subscription option. Sign up for $2/month and you won’t ever see ads. I’d do that.

For now let’s just hope that the advertising doesn’t get too egregious.

Apple TV 1080p Not Too Shabby

This is a scene from The Amazing Race, purchased through the Apple TV. We have a 30 Mbps Internet connection and it started streaming immediately.

Full Screen 1080p Apple TV
Close-Up Detail 1080p Apple TV

Controlling My Own Destiny

Exhibit A on why I want to control as much as possible when it comes to web services: Posterous is Joining the Flock at Twitter

I used to use Posterous as my main blogging tool, primarily because it was so great at distributing content to the latest social media services. (My relatives are hip to different things, so I have to do the scatter shot.) I was always uncomfortable with that since Posterous had no clear means of generating revenue and could disappear at any time.

Now Twitter has acquired them and they could easily go the way of Gowalla and disappear with little notice. I’m much happier being in control of my own destiny and feeling relatively confident that the things I publish now (like this blog entry) will not go away unless I want them to. Even if it is more work.

For the same reason, I collect my tweets on this site. I’m not particularly thrilled with having them integrated here, but this way I solve two problems:

  • If Twitter should ever shuffle off, I’ve got a record of all that I wrote there (at least since I started collecting them).
  • There are those who have some interest in what I post to Twitter, but they’re not Twitter users.

Facebook? I never post directly on Facebook. Bleh.

I’m Jilting AT&T For Verizon


I bought the first iPad the day it came out, but I never moved up to an iPad 2. Now that the iPad has been updated yet again, the time has come for me to upgrade. Outside of work, it’s the computing device that gets far more use than any other. (Well, maybe outside of my iPhone.)

On my first iPad I did not get 3G, I just went with wifi. Generally this wasn’t a problem, but there were occasionally times when I was out and wanted to connect to a data network. Eventually my iPhone gained the ability to act as a hotspot (how gracious of AT&T), so I turned that on as an experiment. I did end up using it occasionally, but there was a barrier to entry (even though slight) to getting things hooked up, so I didn’t use it too often. There was one trip I took out of town where it did get heavy use. Recently I turned off hotspot on my iPhone to save $20 a month, and made the decision that my next iPad would have cell data built in.

Now that iPad is here. I went to order it yesterday and found this chart detailing the available data plans:

Initial Data Costs

This iPad now has the ability to act as a hotspot, but there was no information about costs or availability on these networks which worried me a little. We’re about to go on a little family vacation, and it would be handy if I could use my iPad as a tether point for the rest of the family. I couldn’t find any information at that time about it, so I based my choice on the fact that AT&T offered a $15 option. When I do want to use cell data on my iPad I don’t think I’ll use much, so the cheapest option will probably nearly always work. Although 250MB is really not that much, so I was a little worried about it. Still, it was the best choice available, half the price of the next option up of $30. I sent in my order.

I should point out that I don’t really care about 4G. I’m not going to be streaming movies over a cellular network. I will simply be connecting for email, twitter, blog posting, etc. I know from past experience with my phone that you can do a lot of things like this without running up the data total too fast. Many people seem to think that having 4G will mean a huge increase in the data that’s used, but I don’t see a data speed increase really having any effect on the data amount consumed for the way I use an iPad.

Now today I still had a little buzz in the back of my head that I maybe made a mistake going with AT&T. Indeed, today I checked and the little chart had been updated:

Revised Data Costs

Well, now. That’s different. Apparently Verizon will offer a 1GB option for $20. Sold! That’s got a lot more comfort room than AT&T’s 250MB option for only $5 more.

But wait, it gets better. Today we have more news about tethering. Apparently AT&T is waffling on offering it. Verizon however, says that you can tether at will using their standard data plans. That’s perfect.

Since Apple is still surprisingly showing no delays on ship dates, I canceled my previous order and placed a new one for an iPad that runs on Verizon. It was very easy and now I feel much better about my choice. In addition to the things I discussed above, there’s also the benefit that most likely anywhere I might be will be covered by either AT&T on my iPhone or Verizon on my iPad. I’ll never have to be without Twitter again!

The reality is that I may very rarely enable cell data on my iPad. I’m not really sure. I’ve tried to imagine how my usage might change, but it’s just not clear at this point. Maybe I’ll use it twice a year, maybe I’ll end up paying for it each month. Whatever the case, at least there’s no contract and I can always choose a relatively low-cost connection if that’s all I need.