Backups and Preventing Computer Disaster

Updated 6-13-15 with our latest recommendations…

What is the # 1 thing computer users don’t do that could save them a lot of pain? The answer is: Backup. Although the Macintosh has almost no issues with computer viruses, it is still a computer with a hard drive that is prone to failure. In addition, backups will protect you in the case that your computer is stolen.

If you’re not much into reading, what follows is the “Cliff Notes” version of this backup article. The summery of backups you need in the order I would implement:

  1. SuperDuper on an external hard drive – Quickest full restore of the system. Have at least two copies you rotate with one hard drive offsite.
  2. Dropbox – Include important documents in your “magic” Dropbox folder (2 GB free or many more with subscription) so you can quickly share and restore individual files.
  3. CrashPlan – Offsite backup, individual file restore, absolute emergency full recovery of a system
  4. Time Machine – Quick individual file restore…secondary full restore of system to a DIFFERENT hard drive or an Apple Time Capsule.

If you think all these backups are not necessary…be prepared to be frustrated and lose time when when something goes wrong. And now on to the full article…

A few years ago, I was called for the first time to help an organization access a database that held all their critical business information including thousands of contacts and donation amounts over several years. I went through many troubleshooting steps in an attempt to recover their information. Unfortunately, the database they needed was nowhere to be found on any of their computers or any of the CDs they had labeled as backups. I did extensive work to attempt to recover the files but they were really gone. To this day, I don’t know if the files were intentionally destroyed by someone or if they were deleted by accident.

In any case, more than 5 years of information was gone for good! They had no reliable backups. I felt awful for them. Usually, I get to play the hero when I go in to solve a technology problem. In this case I could do nothing and so I sadly delivered the bad news “Everything is gone. About all I can offer you is a hug… and possibly some counseling. I truly hope you’re able to keep your job.” I can do amazing things with technology, but I couldn’t perform this miracle resurrection of data from nowhere.

I share this story as one example of how backing up can help to insure that your business or personal documents are not at risk. You should have a healthy fear concerning the loss of your computer documents because there are two kinds of computer users: Those who have lost information and those who are about to. Every week over 140,000 hard drives crash in the United States.

Fortunately, for myself, even with great backup procedures in place, the most I’ve ever lost was a few hours of work. The scenario went like this… I couldn’t find the critical file. My hands started to sweat. My forehead got hot and then the bottom of my stomach fell out. “No…No…No!”…or if you’re not so self disciplined…swearing follows. I’m not being overly dramatic. That’s what happens.

The fact is that computer hard drives fail. Most hard drives are still mechanical devices. It’s a question of when, not if. If you are trusting all your family photo memories, music collection, homework, or the information used to run your entire business to one computer in your home office without backups, prepare yourself to be more than disappointed when you lose all the information in the future.

How much are you willing to lose? You should backup as often as you can afford to lose all your work. For me, losing even a few hours of work would be completely unacceptable. Just last week I was able to recover data for a client after a major computer crash because I had been involved in planning and setting up a reliable backup system from the start. With the instructions that follow, you can do this for yourself. I’ll outline here what I consider to be best practices for Macintosh backups.

The Plan
Here’s the good news: You’re using a Mac and Apple makes some excellent tools for making your backups as quick and painless as possible.

Hard Fact: You NEED to spend money on backups. For full protection, the cost can be almost as much as your computer. This includes a Time Capsule, 2 extra hard drives, and a yearly fee for offsite backup in “the cloud”.

You should have on-site and offsite backups. In other words, you have some immediate backups in your office that are quickly accessible and then you have additional backups stored at another physical location preferably far away that will protect you in case of fire, tornado, or theft.

Follow these steps to implement a reliable backup plan. Do them in the order here for the best protection:

SuperDuper! on Hard Drives

1. Use SuperDuper! and two external hard drives to make full backups of your computer system and store one off-site at your office, your parents’ home, or at a friends house in a different building. Rotate the drives about every month. Each time you make a full disk copy with SuperDuper!, rename the backup drive to include the date. For example: “Tim MacBook Backup 11-8-15”.superduperIcon

Purchase two hard drives that are big enough to hold all the info the computers you want to backup. I recommend getting drives with FireWire and USB3. You can find other hard drives for less money, but these drives are very reliable, fast, and have a great warranty. Get them from Other World Computing (OWC).

Drives usually come formatted for Windows and this is not ideal for the Macintosh. Once you have your new drive follow these steps to set it up correctly:

A.    Connect it to your Macintosh with the FireWire or USB cable.
B.    Open Disk Utility in the Utilities folder in Applications.
C.    Click on the icon for the attached disk drive.
D.    Repartition the hard drive in Mac OS Extended (Journaled) format.
E.    Click on the Options… button and choose GUID as the partition scheme so that you can boot your Intel-based Mac from this drive. If you have an older PowerPC Mac, use the Apple partition scheme so it is bootable that way.
F.    Click on Apply. (Warning: This will destroy all data on the drive…which is OK if this is a new drive with nothing on it.)
G.    Quit Disk Utility.

Purchase SuperDuper! from Shirt Pocket Software for about $30. As with most backups, the first time you run it, it may take a long time. Register the software after purchasing and subsequent copies will be much shorter because they will only copy the items that have changed.

If you ever have a crash or computer emergency, you can go to the SuperDuper! backup first because it is a bootable disk image. Then you can get the most recent changes from your CrashPlan, Dropbox, or Time Machine Time Capsule backup.


Dropbox Logo

DropBox and Thumb Drives
3. Drag important files to DropBox or a thumb flash drive once in a while for another safe backup option. (iCloud can also be another option.)

DropBox allows you to share files with multiple computers and provides built-in backup. A 2 GB account is free.


Online Backup Service
3. Invest in an online backup service for absolute disaster protection. This service costs a few dollars each month and will automatically backup all your files off-site in some safe environment in “the cloud” of the internet. If your Time Capsule failed and your SuperDuper! backups failed, you could go to them and get everything back.crashplan

Setup CrashPlan to backup to their central offsite locationfor “backup in the cloud”. It’s secure and simple. Since these backup services run at night I usually leave my computer on at night so it can do it’s backup magic. You may need to leave your computer on several days at the beginning if you have a lot of data or a slow internet connection.

Time Capsule
4. Use Apple’s Time Capsule for a reliable on-site backup. This protects you against a computer hard drive failure that couldhappen any time. You can even backup multiple Macs to the same Time Capsule.

time_capsuleTime Capsule is a very easy to use wireless router with a built-in hard drive. Use it to replace the cheap Linksys or Netgear box you’re likely using now. It uses the Mac OS Time Machine backup software to automatically backup one or more computers in your home or office on the hour every hour wirelessly. You can restore individual files by date or the entire hard drive if necessary. Here’s a link via for the Time Capsule 2TB (about the best $280 you can spend).

Other tips:

  • Make sure you’re not using Microsoft Entourage or any version of Parallels prior to 6.0. Entourage stores its mail in a super huge file that is difficult to backup. It’s a similar case with older versions of Parallels that store the entire PC hard drive in one large file.
  • For bullet-proof backup you need at least three separate locations or types of media for your documents stored on-site and off-site. Following these recommendations will do that for you. Don’t skimp on this.
  • Use an application to identify large files on your system that may be more difficult to backup.
  • Make the first of each month “backup day” and mark it on your calendar. Check to make sure you’ve got good backups. (Try restoring or accessing a file or two.) It will take 15 minutes and will be time well spent.
  • If you’re using only your e-mail application to store critical business information like contacts you need to seriously consider getting a database or contact management system for this (fmIgnite is a good option). Email can be a dangerous place when you are storing 1000s of messages. I’ve had people lose messages when they reach the limit of their mail server.

So there you have it. This plan should keep you computer safe in the case of an emergency and give you peace of mind. Please take this seriously. You’ll be glad you did. If you need assistance with implementing any of these ideas, contact us through our Project Request Form.

Check out this excellent article about backups as well…written from a perspective of stupid backup strategies.


Tim Cimbura – CEO and System Engineer

Tim is an expert in creating custom business solutions that make your business more efficient, productive, and profitable. He specializes in FileMaker application development (certified in versions 8-14) for Mac OS, Windows, iPad/iPhone as well as integration with the web using WordPress, PHP, and AppleScript. He knows Apple technology and Windows systems inside and out.


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