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Bounce Back From Disaster
with a Reliable Backup Plan

by M. Christopher Stevens


In August of 1988 the “glam metal” band Cinderella released the song “You Don’t Know What You Got (‘Til it’s Gone).” While the song’s place in music history is up for debate, the song’s title is rather poignant when applied to one’s data.

Let’s face it, we keep a lot of information on our Macs: photos, music, movies, and all manners of documents. The thought of losing all that information can be downright scary. Even scarier is the cost associated with a reputable data recovery service, such as DriveSavers. The average drive recovery costs about $2000, making it too expensive for all but those with the deepest pockets. The choice becomes either a prohibitive expense or losing all your information.

Fortuntately, there’s a simple solution that will help keep you safe from such an unpleasant choice… a backup plan.


Components of a data backup plan

In its most basic form, any data backup plan has two components:

  1. Media to store the data on.
  2. A way to copy data to that media.

There are many ways to achieve this. One of the most simple is to get an external hard drive, and drag the files over. However, there are a couple problems with this method.

First, it’s not a complete backup of your system; if your main drive goes down, you only have backups of the files you brought over. All your apps, preferences, and other customizations will be gone, and you’ll have to go through painstaking reinstallation and tweaking until things are back to how you like them.

Second, it requires you to actually remember to back up those files. Our lives are filled with tasks and responsibilities and remembering to back up data often falls between the cracks. The end result is that when a hard drive does fail, the backups we do have are often incomplete or outdated.

There are many other variations on this basic theme of course. There are hardware setups that automatically back up the data on one disk to another, with various levels of redundancy. However, the majority of these are fairly complex to setup and maintain, though the Newer Technology Guardian MAXimus is a notable exception to this. There are also software solutions that can copy your entire drive to another one. These are nice, and can often be automated, but the setup for many solutions are either rather complex or expensive in their own right.

A built-in solution

Fortunately, for those of us on a budget (and these days, who isn’t?) there’s a very effective backup solution built right into Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard: Time Machine.

Shortly after Leopard came out last year, I gave a rundown of the features and setup of Time Machine. Since then, Time Machine has become my main method of backup and has saved me from at least three system meltdowns (mostly due to carelessness on my part) and countless accidental file deletions (also due to carelessness on my part).

Just like any backup method, there are pros and cons to Time Machine but, in this case, the pros seem to far outweigh the cons for the average to “Power” user.

Pros

  • Built into Leopard – If you’re running Apple’s latest-and-greatest OS, there’s no extra software to buy, install and set up. All the software you need is built right in.

  • Works internally or externally – If you have a Mac tower running Leopard and it has an extra drive bay available, you can pop a new drive iTime Machine Readyn and configure Time Machine to back up to that drive. If you don’t have that option, Time Machine can also back up to external drives. Incidentally, all OWC and Newer Technology external drive solutions are Time Machine compatible right out of the box - just plug and play!

  • Can be used over a network – Have an AirPort Extreme Base Station? Simply hook up a USB hard drive to the AirPort, and you can use it for your Time Machine disk. Now you can back up multiple machines to the same drive over your wireless network. The 1TB Newer Technology miniStack v3, with its large capacity and matching form factor seems to be a natural choice for this.

  • Retrieves older or deleted files – One of the most-touted features of Time Machine is its ability to retrieve older versions of a file - a nice touch if you need to restart a project from a certain point. A more practical variant of this is the ability to retrieve a file you accidentally deleted - I can’t tell you how many times I’ve needed to do this.

  • Seamless and automatic integration – Once you have Time Machine set up, it runs automatically in the background until you need it. When you do, it lets you jump seamlessly to and from the Finder; you can even search for files in your Time Machine backup using Spotlight.

  • Rebuilding made easy – Did your Mac have a major meltdown, requiring the erasing or replacing of your hard drive? Once again, Time Machine to the rescue! Simply reinstall Leopard and select the option to restore from your Time Machine backup. You can also use it to migrate all your files, applications, and preferences to a new machine!

Cons

  • Requires Leopard – Got a machine that isn’t – or isn’t capable of – running Leopard? Sorry, but Time Machine isn’t available for older operating systems

  • Needs a big drive – Storing multiple versions of files (especially frequently-changing ones) takes up a lot of space, so you’ll need a big drive to contain them all.

  • Not bootable – If your main drive goes down, getting back to where you were requires you to boot to your Leopard installation disk, then use it to restore your system. For those often on a deadline, that’s time that could be better spent working, allowing you to put off repairs until it’s more convenient.

  • Some performance hit – If you’re copying a lot of files (such as during the initial backup) you may notice a decrease in system performance during the copy.

  • Can be misused – With the convenience that Time Machine gives to being able to go back and retrieve an older, deleted file, the temptation is certainly there to use your Time Machine backup as a method of storing older files while removing them from your main drive. This is fine, unless something happens to the Time Machine drive - then those files are gone forever.

For more information on setting up Time Machine (as well as a couple nifty Time Machine drive icons for when you do) check out my setup guide.

What if Time Machine isn’t an option?

As cool as Time Machine is, it is only available in Leopard. Fortunately, those of you who have yet to make the jump to the new OS yet - or who's machines can't run it - aren’t left hanging… OWC has your back!

Data Backup 3Every OWC and Newer Technology storage solution comes with a full version of ProSoft Engineering’s Data Backup. Much of Time Machine’s functionality is there, including automatic and incremental backups, background operation, and the ability to retrieve old versions of files. Even more, it includes one thing that Time machine does not - it can create a bootable version of your backup - incredibly handy in case something goes wrong.

Setup, though not as transparent as Time Machine, is still a breeze. It’s a matter of selecting the drive to be backed up, the drive you’re backing up to, the backup schedule, and the type of backup you want to make. I can vouch for this one personally, as it has been running on my father’s Mac mini for a little over 2 years without so much as a hiccup.

If you don’t have Leopard (or even if you do) and you want a backup solution that’s just as good (and in some ways a little better) than Time Machine, then Data Backup may be just the ticket for you. The best part, though, is that it comes bundled with all OWC and Newer Technology drive solutions - something you’d need to get for back up anyway!

Send in the clones!

As good as the above two software options are, there’s something to be said about having redundant backup options. What happens if your System drive goes down and you need to meet a deadline? Along with the regular, incremental backups that Time Machine and/or Data Backup provide, a regular “clone” of your hard drive is often useful to have as well. There are many cloning tools out there: Carbon Copy Cloner, SuperDuper!, even Disk Utility! It never hurts to have an extra clone hanging around just for emergencies. You can find a great rundown of how to clone under a number of cloning utilities and how to use them in the OWC Tech Center.

The Bottom Line

Backing up your data is incredibly important. Though it used to be an expensive, time-consuming and complex undertaking, these days it’s as easy as buying a storage solution from OWC and clicking a few buttons. Now, there’s no reason to not have some sort of backup strategy, and when the unthinkable happens - you’ll be covered.