Without a doubt, one of the worst and most stressful computer habits we all have are inadequate backups. Computer hardware wears out, hard drives fail, clouds get compromised… each of these events should be trivial and annoying at worst, perhaps a little expensive. Without a backup of your data, these are absolute catastrophes and can force you to quickly look to expensive data recovery options for all of your priceless digital photos, videos, music, and documents. Mac users, rejoice, however! Since 2007, OS X has included a fantastic backup utility called Time Machine. Lets discuss some options for using it and general backup best practices.
Time Machine and You
First things first, you need a hard drive to back up to. You should not use the same disk as the computer’s files themselves; this will do nothing for you in the event of a disk failure or a loss of the computer. It can be as simple as an external USB hard drive or disk shared across the network. Apple’s Time Capsule is a a great network disk option for the average user that requires no additional configuration, easily supports multiple computers, and makes a fantastic router to boot! Whatever you choose, you’ll want to make sure that the drive you’re backing up to is at least 1.5 times the maximum size of the drive(s) of the computer being backed up.
Let’s assume that you’re just using a USB drive or a Time Capsule (Network shares may require some additional configuration below). Find your handy Time Machine icon up near your clock and wireless controls and open up your Time Machine Preferences. Slide the switch to On and you should see a button that lets you browse a list of available drives, including your USB and/or Time Capsule. Select the drive you want and let it get going! Your initial backup will take a long time, especially over a networked connection. Depending on the amount of data, you might be waiting days. Once it’s complete, however, it will continue to automatically make hourly backups based on whatever has changed.
By default, Time Machine won’t usually see any networked disk that’s not a Time Capsule (they really want you to buy one). To get around that, simply open up a Terminal window and paste the following:
Networked shares can be tricky, depending on if they are shared from a NAS (Network Attached Storage), Mac, Linux, or Windows machine. There may be some configuration work-arounds necessary, but it’s definitely possible assuming they are shared using either AFP or SMB protocols. Many NAS makers now support Time Machine out of the box with little necessary re-configuration.
What’s smarter than one backup? Two. Or three. Really, you can never have too many, and Time Machine makes it easy to add extra disks. Just go through the same steps you did above and tell it to “Use Both” disks when prompted. Then, you’ll have a list of disks and it will just make sequential backups on each one; if one isn’t available, it simply moves on to the next one in the list. You can easily do a mix of physically-attached and networked drives, which protects you if one of those drives or computers fails, but what happens if your house burns down? You’re still out of all of your precious digital family photographs. There are some pricey (and bandwidth-intensive) cloud options like Carbonite and CrashPlan, but if you’re like me, you’re kind of cheap and like DIY options.
My suggestion? Add a self-powered laptop USB drive or two to your Time Machine list, plug them in before you go to bed, eject them in the morning and take them… anywhere. Leave them in the car, a safety deposit box, a friend’s house, work… anywhere. Wherever you store them, I would recommend selecting the Encrypt Backups checkbox when adding the drive, to keep curious eyes from digging into your data. Wherever you put them, make it a habit to connect them back up to your computer every now and then (at least monthly) to ensure that your backups are up-to-date.