Backing Up: A Strategy Guide

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I have a lot of data, over 5 terabytes, by rough estimate. I've spent a significant amount of time thinking about backup strategies, so I thought I'd write a quick article to get you thinking about yours. I have a three tiered approach that addresses redundancy, granularity, backup speed, and restore speed.

1. Local Incremental Backups (Time Machine or similar)

Both Mac and Windows now offer their own forms of built-in background process that will snapshot your files at intervals. This is a good first-level backup. You don't have to remember to backup, and you will most likely have a save point within a few hours of any given mistake. It's local, so restore speed is good, and the backup process is usually snappy too, because it can backup only the files that have changed.

I love Time Machine, but it occasionally corrupts the backup or at the very least experiences minor issues that must be manually corrected. It's such a huge database that I'm not surprised. I would never trust a completely automated process to know what to discard and what to keep though. But on the whole it gets the job done.

Pros

  • All you need is a spare drive.
  • Speedy.
  • Incremental, so each individual backup is fairly fast.

Cons

  • Most solutions are pretty automated,have proprietary file formats, or require special apps to handle the restore, which make it hard to recover if something goes FUBAR.
  • Occasionally requires manual intervention to fix to above.

 

2. Bootable Full Disk Image (Superduper! or Norton Ghost)

For those times when your system drive breaks, or you broke your OS, you need a bootable disk image. This will consist of a full mirror of your system drive (I also recommend mirroring all your other files if you can). If you're on OS X, it's super easy to make a bootable backup drive that will have everything necessary to get you back up and running should your system drive go belly up. Just grab a copy of the super app Superduper! 

Why is this useful? Well if you're working on an important project and your system drive goes down you might not be able to spare the time to change it out and restore from your incremental backup (Time Machine can take a while). I make a bootable image of my drive just before any major OS upgrade, just in case the new OS breaks and I'm not able to regain access.

Pros

  • The backup requires no proprietary software to access
  • Instant restore. Perfect for OS crashes.
  • You pretty much just need a spare drive.

Cons

  • Can take longer to backup unless your app supports an incremental mode (Superduper calls this Smart Update).
  • Not automatic (usually).
  • Not very granular: you are limited to restoring to only a few time points.
  • If you restore from a really old image you will likely have a lot of files that have changed since then.

3. Off Site Backup (Crashplan, Carbonite, etc)

No one wants to consider it, but sometimes terrible things happen. Burglary, natural disasters, coming home to find my dog eating my shiny new Legend of Zelda NES cartridge when I was 12. Your first priority is to living beings, but if assuming they're safe, you've also got to worry about your stuff. Your hard drive can be replaced, but your data is priceless! For a few bucks a month you can pay to have your data also backed up to the cloud. It will provide additional peace of mind.

Pros

  • Guards against disasters and burglary
  • Most cloud backup services provide incremental backup similar to Time Machine, so you are never too far from a restore point.
  • Most services provide unlimited storage.

Cons

  • Costs a little extra (from $10-20 a month)
  • Much slower than the other methods (especially if you have a low upload speed on your broadband).
  • Initial backup takes...  a...  long...  time....
  • Proprietary software required to access backups.
  • Full disk restores can take a long time (but you can often pay to have them ship you the whole thing on a disk: a small price to pay, actually).

So there you have it. What's your backup strategy? Did I miss anything? Chime in below!