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Macintosh backup strategies: Tips for better Mac backup

Learn Macintosh backup strategies from backup expert W. Curtis Preston in this article on tips for better Mac backup.

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By W. Curtis Preston

Data backups are one of the many areas where the designers of Macs have really thought things out. Mac backup isn't a perfect story, but it's certainly better than what is possible with Windows or Linux.

If you're a storage administrator with a typical network-based backup product, Macs are no more of a challenge for you than any other desktop. You install your backup software's agent for Mac OS, schedule the backups and magic happens. This column isn't aimed at this type of shop. It's aimed at either a small IT shop that doesn't have a network backup product that supports Mac OS, or individual users who want to make sure their Mac is backed up properly. You'll learn Macintosh backup strategies in this column, and some best practices for Mac backup.

Backing up MacBooks

Let's first talk about MacBooks, which I will assume are totally mobile. The first thing to do with them is to make sure they have a hard drive big enough to hold everything internally. (Actual size will depend on the user, but if you're storing some of your files on an external drive because there's not enough room on your internal drive, then your internal drive is not big enough.) There's nothing wrong with using a USB drive for backup, but using it for primary storage makes backups much more complicated. So make sure all your MacBook users have upgraded their internal drives with drives big enough to hold all their data.

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Assuming all the MacBook data is stored on its internal drive, you can use one of two approaches. One approach is to get each MacBook user a USB or FireWire hard drive that's bigger than their root drive and make it your Apple Time Machine drive. It's easy to use Time Machine. Just plug in a hard drive and the Mac will ask if you want to use it as your Time Machine drive. Say yes, and voila! You're backing up to that drive. If you leave it plugged in, Time Machine will automatically back up to it every day. If you normally leave it disconnected, you should reconnect it once a day for backup. As soon as you do, Time Machine will see it is there and start your daily backup, which will only take a few minutes. If, for some reason, you forget to plug in your drive for more than a few days, Time Machine will remind you. Restores also are very easy. Plug in your backup drive, start Time Machine, and select the files you want to be restored.

One challenge with this idea is that the backup drive is stored in proximity to the primary drive. If you keep the backup drive with your laptop, and if you lose them, your backups disappear along with your primary copy. The only way to ensure this won't happen is to use network-based backups, but those can be problematic with mobile machines. Therefore, a cloud backup service may be the best way to back up mobile machines. We'll get into that more later, but even if you use a cloud-backup company, there's nothing wrong with also using a Time Machine backup.

iMac backup

iMacs, on the other hand, are not portable, so they are going to be connected to some type of LAN during normal use. For these users, it might be best to consider using a Snow Leopard or Linux server so that they have centralized user accounts and network-mounted home directories. This will simplify your backup environment tremendously. A Snow Leopard Mac Mini server is available for only $999. A Linux server may be less expensive, but you will need to configure LDAP and NFS, which can be quite a challenge. If you can be assured that users will never store data on their root drives by using network home directories, then you significantly simplify your backup system.

If, however, you are unable to do that, the Time Machine option is also available to you by connecting a USB or FireWire disk drive. If you've got several machines to protect, however, this can get expensive. Get yourself an Apple Time Capsule (a small appliance built just to store Time Machine backups), or another Time Machine-capable system that can present a "sparsebundle" image file to each machine that it can use to send its Time Machine backups to. This can be completely automated, and results in a central copy of all iMac backups that can be located far away from the Macs it's protecting.

The challenge, however, with this method is that the sparsebundle is a monolithic image file that can actually get corrupted if something happens to the backups while they are running. To address this issue, some admins use two sparsebundle files. At the end of each backup, they run an fsck on the sparsebundle file to make sure it did not get corrupted during backup. If the fsck works, then all is well. If it doesn't work, you can delete and recreate the corrupted image file without losing data, since you have the "backup" image file.

Cloud backup services

For iMacs, MacBooks, PCs and laptops, however, the best option for a small IT shop might actually be a cloud-based backup service. If you've only got a few gigabytes of data, then you can just install the software and do your first backup over the Internet. However, if you've got several machines and hundreds of gigabytes of data, you need to look for a cloud backup company that offers a "seeding" option that allows you to back up to a USB drive that they ship you. You do your first backup to this drive and then ship it to them. They load it into their backup system and you save yourself weeks of transfer time. Two products that offer such a service are CrashPlan and Jungle Disk.

With a little planning, it's very easy to have a good solid backup plan for the Macs in your environment and a good Macintosh backup strategy. As discussed previously, it's also possible to have a unified backup system across Macs, Windows and Linux systems. If you have a heterogeneous environment, make sure to consider the latter option.

About this author: W. Curtis Preston (a.k.a. "Mr. Backup"), executive editor and independent backup expert, has been singularly focused on data backup and recovery for more than 15 years. From starting as a backup admin at a $35 billion dollar credit card company to being one of the most sought-after consultants, writers and speakers in this space, it's hard to find someone more focused on recovering lost data. He is the webmaster of, the author of hundreds of articles, and the books "Backup and Recovery" and "Using SANs and NAS."

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