I learned many things in the time I spent supporting Macs professionally; one of the most important was about how to protect (often irreplaceable) data. I also learned that there are two kinds of people in this world: those who’ve already lost data, and those who haven’t lost data yet. So today, in honor of the Mayan Apocalypse (which could still totally happen, we don’t know!) we’re going to take a look at some of the best ways to back up all of your important stuff. Every good data backup/recovery plan should include both local and off-site storage; you never know when fire, flood or zombie horde is going to destroy either end of that chain.
The first, most basic backup option is an app that’s totally free and baked right into Mac OS X – Time Machine. This is Apple’s own backup utility, and it’s been included in every OS X release since Leopard (10.5). Time Machine’s initial backup is essentially a snapshot of your internal hard drive at that given moment, with the exception of anything you’ve told it to ignore as well as the Time Machine volume itself, and ideally saved to an external hard drive. Once this snapshot is completed, then Time Machine continues to make incremental backups of any changes to data on the drive it’s backing up. This happens hourly; then the hourlies get compressed into dailies, dailies into weeklies, weeklies into monthlies and so on, until you run out of space on the external drive. The very best thing, hands-down, about Time Machine is that it’s Apple software and as such is fully supported by AppleCare technicians. This means that when (notice I didn’t say “if”) you experience Mayan Apocalypse-level data loss, your friendly neighborhood Apple techs can walk you through restoring from your Time Machine backup.
Apple also has one more backup method available, as part of its iCloud service. It requires Lion (10.7) or Mountain Lion (10.8), as well as iOS 5 or later for iPhone 3GS and up, 3rd-gen iPod touch and up, and iPad. It’s a little more a la carte, in the sense that it doesn’t start with the snapshot of your whole hard drive that Time Machine does. According to Apple’s support article about purchasing more iCloud storage, “iCloud customers are provided with 5 GB of free cloud storage. Purchased music, movies, TV shows, apps, and books, as well as photos in your Photo Stream don’t count against your 5 GB of free storage.” This is really important information to have, especially when you consider that most of the money people spend with Apple is in the form of media content that Apple won’t replace if you lose it. (“Some iTunes Products, including but not limited to Content rentals, may be downloaded only once and cannot be replaced if lost for any reason. It is your responsibility not to lose, destroy, or damage iTunes Products once downloaded, and you may wish to back them up.”) Potential iCloud customers should also note that its storage tops out at a measly extra 50GB of space for $100/year, which you have to keep paying if you want to retain access to stuff you’ve put in Apple’s cloud.
Other companies offer backup services for Mac users, and lots of them are in the cloud. We’ve all gone digital these days, it seems, and hard copies of anything just seem kind of passé. One you can’t avoid hearing about if you listen to any kind of commercial radio is Carbonite. The company offers unlimited, encrypted online backup of a single Mac for $59/year. However, if you’re looking to back up more than one Mac in your home, you’ll be looking at spending a minimum of $229/year for a business package.
One company that seems to combine the best of both cloud storage and easy-peasy Time Machine usage is DollyDrive. You’re literally able to purchase space from the company that then functions as a virtual external hard drive that you can point Time Machine at, set it like a Crock Pot and just forget it. And that 50GB top end for iCloud? That’s the entry level with DollyDrive, and even paying them month-to-month will only set you back $60 over the course of a year for it. Their prices drop pretty respectably when you start paying for multiple months in advance. You can also back up multiple Macs at no extra charge (just make sure you pick a plan with enough room) and for $100 they’ll even ship you a specially-prepared physical hard drive so that you can get your data safe in the cloud before the apocalypse happens. I mean, come on, what’s not to love about a company that uses the Mayan Apocalypse (or lack thereof) as a selling point for its services?
Last but certainly not least, understand that there is a difference between backups and archives. An archive is a static collection of data that isn’t going to change anymore, and needs to be able to last for a long time. A backup is a collection of data that is subject to change, such as pictures being added to a camera roll, emails from your creepy ex being deleted, or spandy-new Justin Bieber songs being added to your iTunes library. So even if you have a backup you trust, it’s also a good idea to have an off-site archive of your most important information, so that you don’t lose it and so that it can be easily accessed for a long time to come. I found an excellent ZDNet article about how to archive data for the long haul; it’s definitely worth a read. The long and short of it is that your (often-irrepleaceable) data is valuable but storage is cheap, so buy lots and keep it in a safe place away from your home. CDs and DVDs in a bank safe deposit box are a good start. Make sure to choose open source formats wherever possible. For documents, good-quality hard copies are also a good backup to your backup.
If you employ even some of the suggestions listed here, your data should safe from just about anything except the Mayan Apocalypse.