Blog Archives

Baby Got Backup

A Mind Changed

About two years ago, after a primary hard drive failure, I wrote a long post on what I called the “backup tripod”. As I said then, the tripod consists of three classes of regularly performed backup: offsite clones, incremental local backups, and cloud backups. For me, that consisted of Carbon Copy Cloner, Time Machine, and a few files on Dropbox on an as-needed basis, respectively. I think that the trade-offs of each leg of the tripod make for a complete solution, so you need all of them.

At the time, I was pretty strongly against any sort of comprehensive cloud backup solution. I was suspect of their security practices, and disliked the lack of control. I think this was in part inspired by bad experiences with Windows backup products for my work desktop, as well as the sketchy TV commercials from companies like Mozy. I’ve since changed my mind, convinced in large part by The Wirecutter‘s selection of Crashplan as their Best Online Backup Service. Why do I trust their review? A combination of Daring Fireball‘s recommendation, and the fact that we are very happy with the Omega 8300 juicer that they recommended. Crashplan’s own website also talks about security in a knowledgeable way, which makes me think they’re engaging in best practices.

Another factor is that due to a little life change (marriage to Andrle!), I’m now backing up more than just my own computer. Crashplan’s family plan takes care of that, for her 11″ MacBook Air, since we don’t currently run OS X Server or own a Time Capsule. While we have an offsite clone of her laptop, a cloud backup service can capture more recent changes. Unfortunately we’re not always on top of updating those offsite clones, so they can lag behind by a month or more, which is just asking for data loss.

The Third Leg

At first glance, it might seem that an online backup service is all you need; it provides a combination of the benefits of an offsite backup and incremental backups. It is both complete and updated regularly. However, while I’m sure Crashplan would be quite happy if they were your only backup provider, I maintain that you still need all three. Each of the other two legs still has an advantage: speed of recovery and frequency of increment.

My initial Crashplan backup (roughly 450 GB) took almost two weeks. Obviously part of that problem is the ridiculous imbalance in downstream vs. upstream bandwidth with almost all ISPs, including Comcast. Downloading to restore from backup wouldn’t be quite that slow, but could easily be a couple of days after a catastrophic failure. The second problem is that I’d need some working OS install with which to run the Crashplan client. These two downsides are both solved by the first leg, a bootable offsite clone. I store mine in a locked drawer in my locked office in a locked building at work, which is only a 20 minute round trip by bicycle if I had a data emergency. Crashplan does offer seeded backups and restores, but it’s well over $150 which at best gets it to you on a hard drive the next day. Although this wouldn’t be a problem for me, it’s also limited to a 1 TB USB drive, which for some people probably isn’t nearly enough.

While Crashplan does promise regular backups, that can’t always help you back off a very recent set of changes, or an accidental deletion right after making changes. That’s where the combination of OS X Lion’s Versions feature and Time Machine can save you on a per-file basis (and, as before, Dropbox may be useful).

Speaking of Dropbox, it has an additional role for me these days: synchronization for iOS apps. iCloud is still a pretty nascent feature, and for me only really helps moving data within one app between my iPhone and iPad. Dropbox, because it’s not post-filesystem, provides some combination of cloud backup and cloud sync for files across all of my computers and devices. Probably the most important example of this is my 1Password keychain, synced between my home and work desktops and my iOS devices, which is absolutely critical since I use generated passwords everywhere. I also use it to move files into GoodReader on my iPad for work, and to export files from Textastic, which I occasionally use for code editing. (I should add that my iDevices are backed up to my computer, not iCloud.)

Overall I think Crashplan will fit in fairly seamlessly to my current backup solutions. Obviously the hope is that I’ll never need it!

Social Media Exports

One quick aside that’s related to backups generally, but not so much to backing up your computer: update a local copy of your social network data periodically. At least for me, I generate a lot of content on Facebook and Twitter, and I would be sad to lose it. A data loss on their end is probably less likely than some kind of major service change, but either of them could make it impossible to access your old posts.

Somewhat ironically, Facebook makes this a lot easier than Twitter; just go to Account Settings and click the tiny “Download a copy” link at the bottom of the page. Unfortunately Twitter doesn’t provide API access to anything but your 2000 most recent tweets; I hope this changes at some point. I have all of my tweets being archived to Pinboard, but that only goes back to May 2011, missing over two years of usage.


Cloud backups now have my full blessing as part of the Backup Tripod. Crashplan seems to be the best service for the cost, and fits in well with the other legs of the tripod. The steps I’ve suggested in these two posts are fairly easy (albeit Mac-centric); at this point I think very few people have an excuse for losing data due to not having backups. I can’t reiterate this enough: back up your data, or someday you’ll get burned. Help your less-skilled family members set up automated backups that they don’t have to worry about.

Increasingly our lives are recorded almost entirely in bits. While there are many advantages to this, too numerous to go into here, they are inherently much more ephemeral things. Regular backups are one of the best ways to avoid complete data loss, although it may need to be coupled with occasional conversions in order to avoid file format rot. Make sure you have a plan to protect all of your data, on your own devices and in the cloud.

Posted in Computers, How-Tos Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Back That Thing Up


Three Sundays ago, my primary Mac OS X hard drive failed. Those of you who follow me on Twitter got somewhat of a play-by-play as I discovered the depth of my drive failure I got home to the Spinning Pinwheel of Death (SPOD), and discovered quickly that my computer would not wake from screensaver or boot. However, I didn’t panic. Why? Because I have what I believe to be a relatively robust backup system for home use.

I can’t stress enough how important regular backups are. Data loss is one of my personal nightmares (well, that, and Lego or Andrle loss), since most of my life (professional and personal) is on the computer. Among other things, I’d lose every picture I’ve ever taken since freshman year of college, every homework assignment I’ve written on the computer since late 6th grade (when we got our first Mac), not to mention substantial configuration work and those precious saved games.

I sit atop what I call the Backup Tripod: regular clones to an external disk stored off-site, hourly incremental backups to a local disk or local network storage, and as-needed on-save synchronization to cloud storage. I’m sure there are many other articles out there that recommend a particular strategy, but this is my solution for Macs. I even convinced my parental units to use a similar setup. I’ll go into detail on what solutions I use and why (as well as recovery strategy) for each below the cut.

I can’t emphasize enough how important data backup is for the typical modern power user.


Posted in Computers, How-Tos Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,

Nicolas Ward

Software engineer in Natural Language Processing research by day; gamer, reader, and aspiring UltraNurd by night. Husband to Andrle
Creative Commons License

Post History

March 2017
« Jan