Repeat after me: I will back up my Mac today

Repeat after me: I will back up my Mac today

Summary: It's a familiar refrain, but not enough people back up regularly. Here's a story of my close call and how to prevent a data loss catastrophe.

TOPICS: Apple, Software

Everyone's got a story about losing data; most end with a pact to never let it happen again and a blood oath to backup more regularly. I've avoided data loss over the years due to a rigorous backup schedule and a hardware upgrade cycle that's shorter than most.

Repeat after me: I will back up my Mac today - Jason O'Grady
(Image: Jason D O'Grady/ZDNet)

But I got lazy a couple weeks ago and paid the price as a result.

I got a new 2013 Retina MacBook Pro 13-inch to replace my late 2012 model, and decided that it would be quicker to move the SSD from the old to the new Mac rather than migrate the data from a Time Machine backup.

Simple enough, right? No. Bad idea. 

For starters, migrating from a backup is always better, because it forces you to make a backup that you can restore from. I hadn't made a backup in around six weeks because I got lazy and neglected to plug in the USB drive sitting on my desk. 

Take a close look at the photo above. The SSD in question, a blazing fast 6G model from OWC, just barely fits inside the carrier bezel under the trackpad in the rMBP13. When I moved it to the new Mac, I guess that I didn't seat it firmly enough in the socket and, as you can see in the photo above, the corners of the SSD are just barely resting on top of the curved corners of the carrier bezel. 

When I tightened the screw that holds the SSD in place (gently, mind you), it flexed the board enough to crack a component on the board. Sure enough, it wouldn't boot and I was greeted by the dreaded blinking grey folder of death. 

Mac OS X grey folder of death - Jason O'Grady
(Image: Jason D O'Grady/ZDNet)

And that was the end of my SSD.

Thoughts began racing through my mind of everything I had worked on (and not backed up) in the past six weeks, including my book manuscript and photos from my daughter's birthday party. Luckily, I had shared the photos with my wife via PhotoStream and a bunch of documents that I was working on were located on Dropbox. In other words, thank goodness for the cloud. 

Unfortunately, I had a lot of documents that weren't on the cloud that got obliterated with my quarter turn of a screwdriver. But my bad fortune (stupidity?) should be a lesson to you. It's relatively inexpensive to back up your data, and today's tools make it completely automatic and transparent. 

After my data loss issue, I took two steps to ensure that it never happens again:

  1. I replaced my Airport Extreme with a 2GB Time Capsule. It's essentially an Airport base station with an internal hard drive. I configured it to back up my hard drive via Time Machine any time I'm on my network.

  2. I subscribed to an online backup service. I chose CrashPlan+ Unlimited ($60/year) because: a) It includes unlimited online storage; b) It doesn't have a single file size limit (I use a large Windows VM); c) It offers 448-bit user encryption; d) It keeps deleted files; e) It offers a Seed Service to speed your initial upload; and f) It's priced fairly.

With tools like Time Machine included in OS X and Time Capsules starting at $299, there's simply no reason not to backup your data automatically. I added an online backup service for protection against a local catastrophe and recommend that you do the same. Immediately. 

Ask yourself two simple questions: If your hard drive/SSD were to fail (or was lost/stolen) today, do you have a full backup at your fingertips? How long would it take you to get back up and running?

Now go purchase a Time Capsule and subscribe to an online backup service.

Topics: Apple, Software

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  • Sorry for your loss. I hope I don't have nightmares tonight! Grin.

    Short cuts are indeed the quickest paths to unforeseen accidents.
  • I have to admit...

    ...that i have never backed up my Linux-pc. Perhaps i'm trusting too much in its reliability and stability. Maybe near in future we could back up all our data on cloud. So far all my Linux distribution of this machine has been reliable.
    • No OS can protect against this, though . . .

      In this case, he accidentally killed a vital component on his SSD. There's no OS in the universe that can save that data.

      "Maybe near in future we could back up all our data on cloud."

      We can, actually. There are online backup services.

      Although word of warning: If you measure the amount of data you have in hundreds of gigabytes or more, it's likely that an online backup may be impractical.
    • This has nothing to do with OS's...

      The problem described in the article clearly has nothing to do with the operating system... HE BROKE A PART... You are too lazy to read it and just came down to the comments section to rant on linux or you have no idea what the whole thing meant... Btw, I've never met an actual linux user who calls it linux pc, they all go with their distro's name and leave the pc part out, it has nothing to do with it...
    • I'm a Linux admin. I've been using Linux distros since Potato.

      Back up.

      Next time you turn it on, do a back up. Hard drives fail from nowhere, drinks get spilled, you write over something, encrypt and forget, theft, fire, surge failures. Basically you have no insurance against error.

      Linux doesn't have time machine. Many distros offer something similar, so there is usually a back up facility that will easily store /home contents and settings.

      Personally I just recommend keeping /home as a separate partition and backing it up to another disk. If space is an issue you can compress it. When compressing a backup always tarball it. Also be sensible about what you use to compress; 7zip is awesome for many files, but no good at all for say a photo directory. It also would not have native support in all distros when decompressing. Just stick to gzip or Bzip2.

      Back options are many. The most laborious method is the oldest; using the dd command. Basically you dd the home partition to an .img file on the destination drive then compress it. You would want to use arguments such as conv=sync and noerror. Preferably with a small block size. This takes ages. And every time you run it it makes new image files; a weekly backup drive may therefore only hold backups going back a cole of months. Also remember dd's alter ego as "disk destroyer"? Put in your input and outputs the Wong way round and you'll nuke the thing you're trying to back up. Better is rsync as it only tracks changes so it does it all faster.

      As for putting it all online, I use the split command to devide my back up images into 700mb pieces (cd sized just in case) and then store them on adrive online. If you are worried about security, you could encrypt the slices, or just store them on two different online accounts so that they can't be put back together if one account is compromised.

      All very complicated? Indeed. So, like I say, just use the tools that the OS comes with, or get something front he repos timevault for example. Either way just back up.
  • Small backups

    Jason wrote "...2GB Time Capsule"

    Personally I wouldn't recommend anything under 1TB as a backup drive. Actually, what exactly can you fit on a 2GB Time Capsule - 1 itunes movie!
    • I'm sure it's a typo...

      TimeCapsules come on 2TB and 3TB versions only.
      • Maybe it's super compressed...

        ... as in a .rar within a .rar.
  • Seriously?

    "I replaced my Airport Extreme with a 2GB Time Capsule."

    I swear the quality of editing done on this site is terrible these days. What happened to PROOF READING before you post?
  • Number One Backup Tool: Rsync

    Let me make a pitch for the most wonderful and versatile bulk-data-copying tool around: rsync. I've used it to move hundreds of gigabytes of data between disks on the same machine, and between separate machines on entirely different continents. Because its basic job is to figure out the minimum data transfer required to make the destination directory become an exact copy of the source directory, you can also use it to incrementally update a previous backup, and it's easy to resume a partial transfer which was interrupted for any reason (e.g. the link went down), just by re-executing the same command. It can also make links instead of copies of previous backups of a file, if it hasn't changed in the new backup. This file-level deduping lets you create incremental backups that can be accessed just like full backups.

    Did I mention that backup verification is as easy as re-executing the rsync command on the already-created backup?

    And most importantly, a backup is just a filesystem directory, there is no special backup format that needs special tools to read. When you need to restore a backup, you're already in the middle of a crisis by definition, so the less that could go wrong at that point, the better.
    • rsync Snapshots

      +1. I use rsync to make snapshots on an external drive, my backup server, and a disaster recovery drive I keep at work. The snapshot method results in quick backups because you're just linking to data in old snapshots; only new data is actually copied. I can keep seven snapshots each of my /home and data partitions on a 500 GB backup partition with this method, and the oldest gets rotated out with each new backup.

      Check out Mike Rubel's work:
  • Sometimes you don't want EVERYTHING backed up...

    If you frequently work with large temporary files, you probably don't want those backed up.

    Welcome, Time Machine Editor.

    It's a free utility that gives you control over the frequency of backups done with Time Machine. You can select a time of day, day of the week and so on. It's a great way to make sure the hourly backup doesn't start when you're working on, say, a 5GB temporary file that you do NOT want caught in a backup.

    It has been working flawlessly in conjunction with my 1TB Time Capsule for over 3 years.

    PS. The Time Capsule has been the most reliable and stable wireless router I've ever owned, period. It won't get replaced until Apple comes out with 802.11ac support for the Time Capsule.
  • Backups...Yes!

    Bummer. Too late now...but wish you had read this before you lost anything. You need several backups... ALL the time.
    Tim Cimbura
  • Good luck with Time Machine

    Jason - I agree with your approach, but as a long time MacBook user I've become very frustrated with Time Machine, which repeatedly reports that it can't verify my backup and insists on removing the sparse bundle and starting over. I don't particularly mind the loss of my ancient history, but I do object to the Mac spend (lots of) hours recreating the backup from scratch and the fact that lots of users are seeing this but I'm not sure why. If you look at the obvious forums you'll find a huge number of like-minded frustrated Time Machine users - and Apple don't appear to be willing to acknowledge the problem.
    For the record, I don't use a Time Capsule; I use a Netgear ReadyNAS Duo with a couple of 2TB disks (in a RAID 1 config). But people are seeing this with drives from all the usual vendors. I haven't managed to isolate the cause of the problem, but am considering junking Time Machine for something more reliable.
    If others are seeing this problem - or better still, if anyone knows how to avoid it - please let me know.
    • Time Machine - Luck?

      I have lots of drives. None of them a Time Capsule, and have only had problems with one vendor, but after three disks and multiple from scratch backups, I don't touch them. Duty cycle is poor. Also, found that in Mountain Lion, if you are running (not turned off OS) a VM guest OS, I get some problems. With VM off, still installed and ready to run, I have no issues with Time Machine. On the Windows machines at home, I have software that behaves like Time Machine, but those go on NAS. MBP runs on removable HDDs. Is there an issue with Time Machine, yes. With a running VM, it doesn't always play well.
  • I Wouldn't Trust Apple's Time Machine

    The trouble with TM is it commits dubious hacks on the filesystem to get its file deduping to work. This is totally unnecessary (rsync, which I mentioned above, manages the same thing just fine without filesystem hacks), and weakening the integrity of the filesystem is the last thing you want in a backup tool.
  • Just Do It!

    "Ask yourself two simple questions: If your hard drive/SSD were to fail (or was lost/stolen) today, do you have a full backup at your fingertips? How long would it take you to get back up and running?"

    I have three Time Machine backups. One is at home, one at work and one in my car (I keep it cool by storing the drive in my trunk near the spare tire, when I'm not using it). So, I get up in the morning and check that I have the latest Time Machine backup at home. (skipping the other parts of my morning ritual) I go to the trunk get my Time Machine drive and connect it to my MBP. I drive to work, shut down my MBP, put the drive in my trunk, then at the office, connect my work Time Machine to my MBP. So, after a half hour commute and sitting at my desk for a bit, I have 3 Time Machine backups. I also have lot of drives, when any of them fill up (except the one in the car), I buy a replacement disk and label the full one, then attach the new one and let it do the initial backup, then store the full disk. I've done this ever since Time Machine was included with Mac OS X, in 2007. I also backup my iPhone and iPad (haven't found a good way of backing up my Galaxy Tab onto my Mac) at least once per Time Machine backup (which means a minimum of three times per day). I'm on my 3rd iPhone (from the original that I got the day after launch and each "S" model up to my current 4S - because of the contracts). Never lost anything, because I learned as a college student 30+ year ago. S**t happens.

    Have I ever lost any data in my lifetime? Only once. Back in 1980, when I was still in college, I was typing a paper on an Apple II. After an hour I was getting tired sitting there typing, so I decided to lean back and pulled the Apple II toward me. I didn't notice that the power cord was wedged between the desk and the wall. I unwittingly unplugged it. I hadn't saved to floppy disk, yet. Luckily, we only had three of these (remember that an Apple II was about half the price of a new car), so we had to sign up for at max two hour blocks. Thus, I had written out my paper free hand and was just typing it out (progressive, at time, prof wanted floppy disks, not paper). But that wasted, half of my slot. I have never lost any data due to disk/computer/user error, ever since that time in 1980, but not really lost, just time lost. Sure, over the last 33 years I've had HDD failures, quite a number, actually. The worst part is install of OS and reloading programs, but never my data. Later in the 80s I've seen and heard of other who have lost some irreplaceable files. I was one of those geeks with a folder full of floppies, starting with the 8" down to the 3.5". Now, always have thumb flash drives on me (built into my ID lanyard - and one on my keychain).

    In long, yes, I have backups at my fingertips. I do store some files that I need/want access to on all my devices. It would take about 4 hours to restore from lost or stolen Mac. 1 hour to go to Apple store to buy a new Mac, 3 hours Time Machine restore. I replaced original MBP HDD with OWC's SSD. Shut down after latest Time Machine backup, turned MBP off. Took out HDD installed SSD. Restored from Time Machine backup.
  • Took you this long to notice?!

    Having backup of your systems is not only important for system migrations but human/natural occurrences like; dropping computer, tree falling on house, TSA, floods, thieves, lightning, malware, etc.
    I had my system infected by an virus in 1987 and my files were backed up to some floppy disk (don't say that in polite company) so I learned many, many years ago about this. One of my colleagues learned this recently not backing up his hard drive when his hard drive got corrupted & couldn't be repaired with Apple Disk Repair, DiskWarrior, MicroMat, Data Rescue, Drive Genius, etc but nothing could get the data off the drive. Finally we had to send the hard drive into DriveSavers and found out it was hardware problem and get the data off for $3500.
    Cheap insurance to backup your storage device versus sending out your hard drive to get the data off for several thousand dollars.
  • Clone Backups are Great

    I use Carbon Copy Cloner for clone backups...takes under 15minutes for the piece of mind and reliability of an external clone.
    • I agree with clones.

      I also use Carbon Copy Cloner. One advantage with CC Cloner is that it IS able to clone your hard drive in the background as you continue working. I have done daily clones in the background for over two years without any issues or errors.

      Also, if you need to get your computer back up and running as quickly as possible CC Cloner's backup can be booted from. Just boot from the cloned HD and continue working.

      My back up plan MUST include a cloned hard disk copy of my main HD. With CC Cloner it is much faster to restore your main HD in event of failure using to clone the external clone back to your main HD than it is to restore the drive using Time Machine.

      I use Time Machine to restore single files, folders or programs which have become corrupted or accidentally deleted, or as a safety net in the event that my cloned HD is corrupted and is unusable.