Monday, August 11, 2008

Bulletproof Backup Strategies

We've all heard stories of friends and colleagues who've lost weeks of work, irreplaceable pictures of their families, or their entire music collection because they didn't backup their computer regularly. Recently, my external hard drive — containing my only backups — crashed without warning, so I took that opportunity to reassess my own backup strategies.

It's impossible to hear this too often: if you don't backup regularly, you will regret it.

The ideal backup system should be invisible — that is, you should "set it and forget it," but trust that it will work when you most need it. Fortunately, the price of online storage and of external hard drives has plummeted in recent years, and backup systems have become simpler, more reliable, and less expensive.

On the Clinical Cases and Images Blog, Dr. Dimov discussed the strategies he uses for backing up his PC. In this post, I'll discuss some newer strategies that I use for backing up my MacBook Pro. (When applicable, I'll also discuss equivalent alternatives for the PC.)

Time Machine is a perfect example of a "set it and forget it" backup strategy. This application, built into the Mac's Leopard operating system, performs automatic hourly, daily, and weekly backups of your data to an external hard drive. If you have a Mac running Leopard, and you don't yet have a backup system, here's my advice: immediately purchase an external hard drive that's twice the size of your main computer's hard drive, plug it in, and run Time Machine. It's really that simple. (For Windows XP users, an alternative that performs the same function is SyncBack.)

But what if both your backup and computer are stolen, damaged, or corrupted? One solution is to keep two backups, one at work and one at home. Another solution is to use an inexpensive system that backs up your data online: I use and recommend Mozy. For $5 a month, Mozy will back up the contents of your entire hard drive and the contents of any external hard drives. It even provides 2 GB of storage free so you can try it out. While it's unlikely that you'll need an off-site backup, for $5 a month, the extra security is worth it. (Mozy works on both PCs and Macs.)

Of course backing up is important, but what if your computer's hard drive crashes and won't start? You may have a backup, but that won't help if you're trying to meet a deadline and can't access your data. In this situation, having a "bootable backup" — that is, a backup that can substitute completely for your main computer's hard drive — is critical. The best application for the Mac capable of making bootable backups is SuperDuper. I use a SimpleTech 250 GB external drive to automatically backup my 160 GB Macbook Pro every night. (If you know of an equivalent application for the PC capable of making bootable backups, please leave a comment.)

But what if you have hundreds of gigabytes of data to backup, such as scientific data, pictures, and/or movies of your family? I shoot uncompressed images with a Canon Digital Rebel XTi, take lots of movies with a Flip camera, and download hundreds of hours of video with Miro. Without additional space, I would quickly fill up both my main and external hard drives.

My solution? The Drobo — a "data storage robot" — recently dropped in price , so I purchased one when my old drive died (older, less expensive Drobo here; newer version here). For the last several months, it's worked great, and I couldn't be happier with it.

Drobo is designed to provide simple, invisible, expandable storage, and it works on both Mac and PC. It's based on the concept that every individual hard drive, sooner or later, will die unexpectedly. Drobo is a black box — figuratively and literally — in which you plug in up to 4 SATA drives of any size, for up to 4 terabytes of total storage. All the data you write to Drobo is fully backed up among the 4 drives. If one dies, no problem, the Drobo is "self-healing" — the drive bay LED will turn red, and you can pull the dead drive out and replace it with a new one. Your data remains safe. Drobo is particularly useful for storing movie files, archives of photos, or other data that doesn't need to be on your main computer. Drobo will also work well with Time Machine, and Mozy can slowly backup the contents of your Drobo for additional security.

That's my backup strategy. Any additional tips or comments on backups are welcome.

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Philippa Kennealy, The Entrepreneurial MD Coach said...

An additional backup service that is remarkably cheap is Carbonite at ($49.95 a year for unlimited storage).

It took me about 6 days, with it working in the background, to get all my stuff stored at the beginning, and now it instantly stores anything new as it is constantly "on".

Robin said...

Even when a hard-drive has crashed, the data is usually there and extractable if it will spin at all.

I use a ATA/ATAPI/IDE/SATA to USB 2.0 Universal Adapter to connect my "crashed" hard drive to my USB port on a computer with good hard drive.

Some laptop drives have adapter covers which have to be removed before the cable will fit. And if the disk is clicking/making funny noises, freeze it for 24 hours in a ziploc or antistatic bag (to prevent moisture getting in) and try. It will usually work long enough to extract the data.

If the disk won't spin at all...well, SOL....

Love the idea of online storage for multiple reasons, including easy access from anywhere as well as good backup. I use that where I work and it automatically synchs when I shut down or even when I log off my laptop.

Love your site...excellent info.

Joshua Schwimmer, MD, FACP, FASN said...


You're right -- I should have mentioned Carbonite as a Mozy alternative. I prefer Mozy because it allows me to backup external drives too, which I don't believe Carbonite allows.

Robin, I didn't mention it, but that drive that died, that my computer wouldn't even recognize? For the hell of it, I actually ripped the drive out of its casing, plugged it into the Drobo, and it was able to format it and use it as extra storage. Amazing.

Robin said...

Yep with that $20 cable I mentioned above you could have used it as a drag/drop drive (similar to any USB drive) then. Did you reformat it? Bad clusters? (Just curious...)

davidanders said...

Acronis TrueImage (rather than Norton Ghost) is what I use for bootable drive images for Windows.
There are Linux boot CD's that will do it, but are very geeky.

Rachel Gross said...

I completely agree with the statement “if you don't backup regularly, you will regret it” but I think it begs the question how often is regularly?

My company, Memeo addresses exactly the concerns that you raise in this blog. For example, we have a unique feature as part of our backup tool that will instantaneously backup your files without any prompting. So the moment you save/modify/add a file it is backed up.

The other point you make is about having your backup available when you need it. With Memeo, you can backup data to any kind of destination, whether that is an external hard drive, USB drive, iPod, FTP site, Network drive, etc. And just in case your computer and your back up drive are corrupted/stolen/misplaced Memeo even has a secure off-site backup option. It is the best of both worlds, fast local backup and safe, online backup.

You should check us out. All the major hard drive manufacturers rely on us to provide their customers with backup software.

Martin Wright said...

There are always discount codes for Mozy available at

Check before you sign up to Mozy to save at least 10%.


Joe said...

I agree with your imaging your hard drive (using SuperDuper on a MacBook).

Part of why I moved to a MacBookPro was that imaging in the WinTel world became impossible since Windows XP sp2. I should say, you can't boot an imaged drive, because the serial number of the drive original drive is written in the MBR of the copy, and windows sees this as a licensing violation.

Does anyone know if Apple does something similar?