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Choosing a Backup Strategy: The Best of the TCS

Washington Apple Pi Journal, reprint information

Everybody knows you should back up your computer, but few do. Part of the problem comes from not having a good backup strategy. On the Pi’s members-only forums, the TCS, this impromptu seminar on backup strategies covered the subject nicely. You can find the thread at:


Karen: I'm setting up my new Intel iMac, and need [a] backup strategy...

I'd like to be able to boot from the external FireWire drive in a pinch, so a cloning approach would be preferred...

Or should I use a different backup utility altogether?

Lawrence: I do not favor backing up system information. If your system gets toasted, you are better off building it fresh than relying on a file-by-file backup and hoping that the files backed up are valid. Besides, you have a perfectly good "backup" of the operating system on the installation disc.

Instead, I back up the stuff I create: data. I don't back up systems or applications. And if you back up just data, life gets much, much simpler.

If you want the FireWire disk to be bootable, that's fine -- but it should be a system you create for that purpose, not a clone of something that failed.

Al: While all the experts seem to have problems with Apple's Backup, I like it and believe it to be adequate for home use.

Paul: I totally agree with Lawrence. I would keep all my data in the home folder, meaning the home folder is all I need to backup. I would use Retrospect, SuperDuper or Apple's Backup to backup my home folder to an external disk.

In the event of a disaster I'm going to install the operating system from my original CDs, update via Software Update...then install my applications from original CDs. Then restore my home folder.

A backup plan has to be simple. A backup plan that's "work" is a backup plan that won't be executed very often.

John: For everyday backing up I use an "incremental" approach. That means that software copies out only that which is new or has been changed. Ideally the system preserves earlier versions of documents so that you can retrieve them from a time before they got corrupted.

Maintaining an orderly set of backups can be a challenge for a user who is heavily into graphics because the volume of files for such a user grows quite rapidly...

A lot depends on your needs and just how good you are about archiving things, which is the process of taking certain materials out of current circulation and putting them onto permanent external storage.

Karen: I understand your point [Lawrence]... but rebuilding a drive, i.e., installing programs from their original disks is more time-consuming...

I don't want to clone a drive on which something failed. I want to periodically clone the drive, while I know it to be working. So if the drive then fails, say after I install a new program, I can restore/clone it from a working drive (from before the failure).

Paul: It's time consuming, but time consuming in that you can start an install and do other things... It's not time spent chained to the computer.

Jon: Some folks say reinstalling takes longer as if it's a universal truth. They fail to account for the increased complexity, hassle, risk and (yes) time of ongoing troubleshooting.

Surely at least once in your career you've gotten to the end of an arduous and frustrating battle with your computer, then reinstalled or replaced the machine and finally understood that you might have been better off cutting your losses earlier.

Reinstalling takes a finite amount of time, but no special technical awareness or diagnostic expertise. Whereas bailing water and doing ad-hoc engine repair might take five minutes, or might take five minutes every hour for two weeks. Or it might only serve to postpone, not prevent, an eventual reinstallation...

Time is exactly why clean reinstallation should be one of your prized tools. Reinstalling is what you do when you're not interested in solving some tricky technical puzzle first -- you just want the machine to work the way it should.

Karen: Point taken and I agree. I did not mean that reinstalling is never to be done. I routinely reformat and reinstall about once a year just to keep things humming.

So I will clarify what I said previously by adding... sometimes, when I'm under a deadline, reinstalling is not the best option at that time. But I did not mean I never reinstall. Cloning a drive may buy me time, so that I can reinstall everything when there is no deadline looming.

Jon: Effectively, you've found a way to borrow time from day-to-day usage and to bank that against specific known high-risk, high-stress periods which you have the luxury to anticipate in advance.

You're very deliberate about it, and you not only have experience reinstalling when necessary but you also very wisely schedule prophylactic reinstallations at key points such as major Mac OS X or Adobe Creative Suite upgrades. This helps mitigate the risks inherent in a cloning-focused backup policy...

There are many people reading this, however, who'd look at the prospect with undue apprehension. I want to clearly make the point to them that once you master this task, you're unstoppable: you reach a level of ownership of your machine that leads directly to faster learning and more efficient use. You gain the freedom to make mistakes, stand up, brush off, and get back on the horse.

Karen: I agree that no one should be afraid of reinstalling. To the first-timer, it may seem daunting, but it really isn't. And it is important to have a level of mastery and control over one's circumstances.

And that is what is so great about the TCS. It's a place to come for help figuring out not just problems, but what would be the best choice of equipment, what the best way to approach backing up, etc. As well as to share insight about programs and particular techniques.

One of the things I tell everyone is how much I rely on this group. The Pi membership has been the single best investment I have ever made.

Now before I get mushy, I'll just say thanks to all, and sign off.