A Story of One Man's Backups, and how they saved his bacon

Everybody says “back up your important data.” Some even say “back up everything, no matter how important or trivial.” Me, I’m in the latter category. But even if you’re backing up everything, having multiple concurrent backup strategies can save you a lot of time and tears.

Here is my story:

Today, my computer started acting extremely sluggishly, as if a program had decided to consume all of it’s resources. Unlike past incidents of this nature, it wasn’t overheating as far as I could tell. Dashboard widgets were not updating weather information, various parts of the interface took minutes to respond to my clicks, and when I tried to use CMT-Tab with CMD-Q to quit the biggest resource hogs, they very slowly began to save data or prompt me to save it, and then quit. Except that only a few would do what they were told. After 1/2 hour of this, I shut my laptop and took it to work.

Upon opening my trusty four year old macboook pro, it showed a blank screen, sounded a boot-up gong, and then the grey screen, apple logo, and spinning activity indicator. For another twenty minutes, that’s all I got.

So I powered the computer off, hooked up my week-old SuperDuper! backup via USB and held down Option while hitting the power button. It booted just fine, I set Disk Utility to repair the disk, and three hours later, it reported that it couldn’t be repaired. I couldn’t even mount it.

I had tweaked a lot of settings for software I already had, and updated a couple of them for free (such as Scrivener 2.0.3). No problem, that’s not a huge tragedy to loose those tweaks, and I can re-download all of my updates. But I had also been working on a book for the last week, and had added several thousands of words since my last SuperDuper! backup. clutches chest I took a deep breath, and considered my options.

My assets:
1 week-old clone of my hard drive at work.
2 A slightly fresher Time Machine backup at home (I hadn’t worked in my office since the weekend).
3. A thumb drive that automatically makes a copy of my Documents folder whenever I plug it in (two or more weeks stale).
4. An iDisk folder to which all of my Scrivener backups are written.

The last was the most important, because it’s done automatically, no matter where I am, so long as I’m connected to the internet. I have Scrivener set to automatically back up when I close a project, and I often manually click the backup icon if I don’t want to quick Scrivener just then.

I logged into me.com, browsed my backups directory, and there it was: a date-stamped backup from 10:30pm yesterday. I immediately popped in my thumb drive and copied my manuscript backup to it. My day was saved!

I now have several decisions to make regarding my current laptop’s hard drive: Should I just reformat and restore from backup? Replace it with a 500 gb hard drive like I’ve wanted to for years and then restore from backup? Download a utility to see if the hard drive is somehow broken? But there is one thing I won’t have to decide: How to re-write a week’s worth of my book.

So please, consider at least TWO backup strategies, one of which should be zipped backups to either Drop Box, iDisk, or any equivalent on-line storage that does it’s thing AUTOMATICALLY. Do not rely on backups that require you to be present in a particular place (if you use a laptop), or for you to put thought into making the backup.


I’m glad I did.

Not to be a technological dimwit (not that I can help being a technological dimwit), but how do you automatically backup your Scrivener projects to your iDisk? I have autobackup set to the default location, in the Library folder, and have Time Machine running all the time, and clone the entire hard drive weekly to a separate hard drive using Super Duper. And now and then, when I remember to, I copy the scrivener backups to my iDisk. But doing that automatically . . . Now that sounds useful.

In Scrivener’s Preferences, you can change the location of Scrivener’s automatic backups. When you find the setting, just click on your iDisk in the file chooser window, and then on a sub-directory of the iDisk where you want your backups to go (you might want to make a particular directory for Scrivener backups in a place that makes sense to you).

Also, you can go to the Apple System Preferences and somewhere in there you can tell it to cache your iDisk locally, so that it’s available when you’re not connected to the internet. This is helpful for the obvious reasons, and it automatically syncs up the next time you are on the internet.

One point of concern with using iDisk as your sole backup is that (at least historically speaking), Time Machine will not back up the data on it, even if you cache it locally. Now Apple may have fixed this, but definitely verify with test restores using a file or two from several versions back, and make sure your iDisk is included in TM. If it isn’t do some Google searching for iDisk and Time Machine, you’ll find some solutions for getting this to work.

I was hoping to use iDisk as a third backup location, sort of like a belt, and suspenders, and permanently sewing on my trousers. So that I have my Scriv zips in my MacBook’s library folder, and also on Time Machine on an external hard drive, and also, weekly, on another external hard drive that receives the full-up clone of all things clonable, and also, episodically, on iDisk’s distant servers.

Right now, I visit iDiskland when I remember to and drag zips out of the Library folder. Automating that would be a Godsend for a man of a certain age, who’s averaging three trips to the root cellar to emerge holding a potato.

Hmm, I wasn’t aware that the iDisk cache is (or might be) skipped by Time Machine and/or SuperDuper… but I guess that makes sense, since they don’t (in theory) back up other caches, and the iDisk is a remote drive. And here I thought I was increasing my redundancy, rather than eliminating it… I guess I’ll have to use my installation of ChronoSync to keep the idisk backup synced with a folder in my documents (or the default Library location of the backups).

Thanks for pointing that out, Ioa.

Ahab, maybe you should look into DropBox to supplement your on-line backup strategy. It’s a free iDisk-like service that will sync to any folder you choose, so that your backups will be in “the cloud” and on your Time Machine backup automatically. If I hadn’t already purchased a license for Chronosync and learned to live with it’s limitations, I wouldn’t have much use for it today.

There’s also “Backup” support.apple.com/kb/DL1025, but since they don’t advertise it on the MobieMe website, I don’t know if it’s very well supported.

Backup, the amusingly named utility from Apple, hasn’t been supported for donkey’s years, as near as I can tell. It may come to DropBox; it would be handy to simply sync all important backups to a remote folder–houses do burn down, computers with tethered external hard drives do get burgled. But I’m kind of locked into the whole Mobile Me thing; changing email addresses is more hassle than changing telephone numbers. All those business cards to toss away. All those rolodexes where I am Known.

I use Apple’s Backup and it works well. Every night, at 2am, it backs up all my thesis data (including my Scrivener project) to iDisk. Once set up, it doesn’t require any other effort.

I just confirmed that cached iDisk data is backed up to Time Machine as a sparsebundle under ~/Library/FileSync/

There’s a directory there made of hex numbers (network hardware address from the looks of it), which contains the sparsebundle and a couple of other files named SyncSets and SyncSets-journal. If you ever have to restore from backup, just copy that from your Time Machine backup, and you’ve got all of your data back!

To get your iDisk syncing, you just have to go to System Preferences -> MobileMe, click on the iDisk tab, and then Click on the “Start” button under iDisk Sync, or verify that it says “iDisk Sync: On”. I have mine updating automatically, which is the default, and the “Always keep the most recent version of file” checkbox is checked.

That’s a relief.