A reasonably comprehensive OSX backup strategy

It’s good practice to keep backups in different locations to guard against disasters like fire or theft. This is now becoming quite easy to implement using cloud backups. I also use multiple different pieces of software. This may sound a bit paranoid, but it mitigates against lots of nasty possibilities. For example nasty software bugs do happen which can render your backups useless. So there’s more chance of recovering if you have other fallbacks. Different software solutions can also incorporate nice features into your backup strategy such as reducing disruption for your work by having a 1:1 bootable copy of your hard drive.
Below is a brief outline of the different backup methods I’m using and some of the advantages they each bring to the party.

Cloud Storage (Dropbox)

Keeping all of your files in Dropbox is not a great backup solution but is basically a first line of defense. I’ve had laptops die in the past when I don’t have access to my Time Machine disk and being able to sync Dropbox on a new computer and get straight on with work is a real time saver.

Incremental backups to disk (Time Machine)

The built in macOS software is by far the most convenient and easy to use option. Plug in an external drive and select to use it as the Time Machine backup. Done.

One of the cool but less well known features is that you can use multiple disks for Time Machine. This makes it trivial to keep backups in multiple locations. For example I backup to a USB hard drive at home and a NAS drive at work. So already I have two copies in two physical locations.

Using networked drives or a wireless Apple ‘Time Capsule’ for Time Machine is a really good idea because you can’t even forget to plug the USB drive in. It does make restoration a bit slower though.

Cloud backup (Arq)

Given the speed and bandwidth available on modern internet connections it’s pretty easy and inexpensive to backup to cloud storage. This has some great benefits because you can choose a very different location from your other backups (like another continent if you’re really paranoid) and you can potentially recover files remotely even if you’re away from your normal backup disks.

The downside is the potential for all your data to be stolen an misused. It can also be very slow or unexpectedly extremely expensive to recover the backups.

I’m using Arq for my backups at the moment. It’s a nice bit of software with an open data format macOS and Windows implementation and your choice of many different cloud storage platforms. It makes incremental backups in a similar way to Time Machine but the configuration is more of an ‘opt in’ to select folders to backup rather than ‘opt out’ in Time Machine where you choose folders not to backup. I’m using Amazon S3 storage in the Tokyo region (i.e. nearby) because it is noticeably faster than other options such as Dropbox and dirt cheap (I’m paying about 1.5 USD per month for about 50GB). It also means my cloud storage is independent from my cloud backups. You can even backup to multiple different storage locations including local disks.

The backups are encrypted on your computer before being transferred to the cloud. This keeps them reasonably safe in the case of your cloud storage being compromised (or the NSA accesses it).

Arq can slow down my connection a bit. It has a automatically throttle but this seems to slow it down too much on really fat connections, like at the university where I can his 10’s of MB/s to S3. So I configure it to only backup between 7:00-20:00 when I’m not likely to be watching Netflix.

Bootable backup (Carbon Copy Cloner)

This creates a 1:1 bootable copy of my entire hard drive to an external drive. I configure it to automatically backup when the drive is plugged in and eject when finished. This drive is then kept ‘cold’ i.e. not plugged into the laptop. Then if ransomware also encrypts external drives, this one should be safe. Carbon Copy Cloner also reminds me every couple of days if I haven’t made a new copy.

I’m using a super small and crazy fast Samsung T3 SSD drive for this. It’s the same size as my internal disk so can always keep a full copy. These things are not cheap but the high speed means I don’t get lazy about backup up because it finishes in less than 5 minutes.

Because this backup drive is bootable I can plug the drive into any Mac and boot my entire system from the drive. This could be very important if your kill your work laptop on a long business trip and can’t replace it without returning home. Because I take this drive on business trips it is also encrypted so if I loose it my data has a reasonable chance of staying safe. Carbon Copy Cloner has a great walk through about how to encrypt the drive.

Photos

I’m a little bit extra paranoid about photos. I’m not so concerned about keeping every single photo I’ve taken, but to make sure my favourites are safe. I also would like the photos to be accessible for posterity. If I have some mishap it would be nice for my family to be able to recover the photos easily. One of the original reasons I started using Flickr was as a backup for the photos I’ve taken that I wouldn’t want to lose.

I now also use Google Photos which gives unlimited free storage for jpegs less than 16 megapixels. It also is convenient for sharing and searching.