Blog — Tips and Tricks from the Mac Zen Team

Backups, Backups, Backups

I’ve always been a little excessive when it came to recording information. My first computer was a BBC Model B (yes that BBC), which had 32K and a tape deck to load programs and games. My favourite game—a space simulator (very rudimentary—this was the early 80’s)—had the ability to save my progress back to a cassette tape. Every time I made any progress, I saved my game, and for some reason was very consistent recording the date, time, planet I was on, and the amount of credits I had.

While this fastidious obsession with saving hundreds of incremental games saves was completely useless, it reflected a sentiment about computing that I have never quite shaken:

Computers allow us to store inordinate amounts of data—and versions—without leaving any mess behind on our desks. Additionally, space (the physical kind) became a seemingly infinite black hole into which you were able to amass vast quantities of information, memories and life progress—all easily recalled at your slightest whim.

It’s taken me thirty-three years to get from an audio-come-computer cassette tape to over 40TB of digital hoarding, but I can quite happily say that if ever I wanted to recall something from that black hole of a mind of mine, there’s probably an email or file that reinforces that memory somewhere easily accessible.

Now when I say 40TB, it’s important to mention that there’s really about 12TB of data redundantly stored over another 30TB of backups. When you have this much data, it takes a lot more space to protect it. The more you have, the more vulnerable and valuable it becomes.

Perhaps you think this is ridiculous, but because I also have had a fair hand in video production, print production, and web design, much of this data also represents a significant amount of man-hours in effort. When you have invested so much time in producing any kind of digital asset, to have to recreate any of it seems like such a futile waste of time.

After all, the one time you actually wish you could find a file that may be important in the moment, wouldn’t it be great if you actually had it.

I do believe my fascination in collecting my data is unusual and definitely not typical. However for a couple of reasons, my madness is not actually that far in left field.

I have lost data and I hated it

There have been two occurrences—once in 1995 I lost a 128MB Magneto Optical Disk (capacious at the time) with hundred’s of personal files and journals. The second time was far more serious, and has significant consequences. A production PowerMac G5 in 2005 with 6 months of work that was not saved on a central server (critical to my work, but not the company’s production data—thank goodness that was on the server) was stolen out of a second floor office along with two other similar computers.

The effect on my work was dramatic. internal development projects and resources were lost, and while the person most affected by this was me and my job, I felt violated and extraordinarily upset to have “lost” such a significant portion of my work life.

You Will Lose Data—Pray It’s Not Your Photos

While our inboxes are completely full or garbage emails that we’ll never read again, there’s one thing above all else that we treasure without reservation. Colour prints are a thing of the past. Every picture you’ve likely taken since 2003 has been digital, and likely doesn’t exist anywhere other than your computer, an uncertain collection of USB drives, or a portable backup that you couldn’t say with 100% confidence that you trust.

Yet why are so many of us calmly in denial about the fact that it could all disappear in a blink of an eye? That one day you go to your computer and it fails to startup, you will be awash with terror as to whether you’ve lost them.

There are so many ways to loose data. Let me give you a few in order of likelihood:

  1. Hard drive failure or data corruption
  2. Accidental deletion / user error
  3. Lost access to encrypted data
  4. Theft, fire, flood
  5. Ransomware—let’s not rule this out.

Hard drive failure is so likely to happen, I’d say that over the course of your life, you are almost 100% likely to experience a hard drive crash. Perhaps that number is coming down a bit with the advent of solid state drives—which are so much more reliable, but if for no other reason, it is absolutely imperative to have your data duplicated somewhere.

Thank Goodness for Time Machine, but Check to Make Sure It’s Running

Time Machine is the software that backs up your data to a connected external hard drive or network attached storage (like a Time Capsule for example). Apple introduced it with Leopard (OS X 10.5) back in 2007. At 10 years old, it is a very mature and robust method of automatically backing up, but it’s only as healthy as the medium it’s recorded on, and is susceptible to corruption due to continuous interruptions during the backup process, and the inherent fragility of hard drives.

Understand this: backups are designed with the knowledge that data loss will happen. It is just very unlikely for two sets of data on two separate drives to die at the same time.

In other words if your computer’s hard drive dies and you have a reliable backup—you’re safe. If your backup dies, and your computer is still in good working order—you’re still safe.

Take Care of the Portable Backup Drive

This is an important point that I’ve come across a little too often. Portable backup drives have the benefit of being very easy to unplug and be stored away during travel, or to satisfy the concern that a backup drive should not be always right next to the computer it’s protecting. After all, someone could steal it along with the computer.

The problem is that all too often, we don’t plug them in regularly enough. They sit on a shelf and do not get updated for months on end. When they do get plugged in, they get knocked about, picked up, and moved while they’re running, which just kills the poor things.

Portable backup drives are inexpensive, and very useful. Just treat them with care, and make sure you plug them in as much as possible.

Rules to Having a Successful Backup Strategy and Minimizing Data Loss

  1. Have a backup that resides on an external drive, and periodically check to make sure that it is running.
  2. If you have data that is invaluable or mission critical, test the drives that it is stored on periodically.
  3. Consider having an additional backup that you can take offsite in addition to a permanently connected drive.
  4. If you use a laptop, consider getting a Network Attached Storage device (NAS) that will allow you to wirelessly backup while you are on your home network, without the need to plug in.
  5. Don’t move or knock hard drives while they’re running. This can cause significant problems with data corruption.
  6. Always eject your drive by dragging it to the trash or right-clicking to eject, and wait patiently for it to unmount. Unplugging a drive while it’s being written to will lead to data corruption.
  7. Be prepared to wipe and restart a fresh backup every 18 - 36 months.
  8. Don’t use your backup drive as external storage—if the drive fails, your data will not exist anywhere else.
  9. Expensive computers and expensive digital cameras need backup solutions that compliment their level of investment.
  10. iCloud only back’s up iPhones and iPads—it does not backup your computer
  11. Consolidate your photo library and consider getting iCloud Photo Library and paying for storage. At least if for no other reason to have a backup, your photos will be backed up to an online cloud solution.

Get Help if You Need It

I’m not one for the hard sell in these newsletters, but this is one thing that we all really care about, and we’re here to help you. At Mac Zen, we’re working hard on a product offering that will eventually help get more backups into more people’s hands. It’s that important.

I’ve seen too many people coming to me in tears because their computer died and they fear that they’ve lost their children’s photos, only to have me break the news that the data really was unrecoverable.

It All Comes Down to This

Over the last few months we’ve talked about taking everything paper and making it digital. Capturing everything into a digital form, is meaningless unless you can confidently shred all that paper. Having an effective and reliable backup is an insurance policy that is worth investing in to protect the digital you that exists nowhere else but inside your Mac.