Back It Up Part 2

In part one of this series, I discussed what files to backup and what types of backups were possible. Whether you choose to archive, backup, or clone data, if you haven’t started a backup regimen, you’ll want to start one.

This isn’t a review of the backup programs available for Macs. Instead, we’ll learn from mistakes I’ve made backing up data. Hopefully, you will avoid similar mistakes.

Cloning Issues

As you can see from the reviews, there are various options available for cloning your Mac. In fact, you can use recent versions of Disk Utility to clone/restore your Mac. Here are a few things that you should know before making cloning part of your backup strategy.

All Cloning Tools Are Not Created Equal

The Lion recovery partition added a new wrinkle to cloning your Mac. Not all cloning programs handle the recovery partition. The thinking seems to be that if you have a clone you do not need the recovery partition. I understand that thinking but my personal preference is to use tools that do clone the recovery partition properly. If you want the recovery partition to be part of your clone, make sure you have a tool that can do the job.

Incremental Cloning Is A Real Time Saver

The gargantuan size of modern hard drives has allowed the digital pack rat in me to come out in full force. Unfortunately this adds significantly to the time needed to clone my drive. Incremental cloning solves this problem: Once the initial clone is completed subsequent clones only copy files that have been changed. While a full clone can take a few hours, incremental cloning reduces the time needed for subsequent clones significantly. Not all cloning programs support this feature. In fact, it’s the main reason I don’t use Disk Utility as a cloning tool.

Always Test Your Clone

I’ve been cloning Macs for several years now. In all that time I have only had two clones not turn out properly. The first time something went wrong several folders that are normally invisible were suddenly visible. The clone worked but looking at those folders was still somewhat distracting.

The second problem was more annoying because the clone didn’t work properly. It’s the reason for my “Always Test Your Clone Rule”.  On a day when I needed the clone, I discovered it wouldn’t accept my login password.  Have you tested your clone recently?

Time Machine Backups Are Not Bootable Clones

Time Machine makes archiving your data almost painless but the resulting backups are not directly bootable. This seems to be a common misunderstanding about the way Time Machine operates. Time Machine will copy your system files unless you exclude them. The catch is that even if system files are part of your backup, in a catastrophic failure you must boot from something else (DVD, recovery partition etc.) then restore the files from your backup in order to completely restore the system.

Backup Program Questions

Many questions I ask about backup programs, such as support for incremental backups, are the same as those asked when choosing a cloning program. Here are a few others to consider that are specific to backup programs.

How Do I Backup/Restore Files?

This may be the most important thing to ask about a backup program. A good backup utility should relieve stress not cause more because we don’t understand how to use it.  The more difficult a program is to use, the less likely it is that it will be used.

Pay particular attention to whether you need the backup program installed in order to restore files. I have used programs that created “Finder aware” backup sets. Programs that create Finder aware backups are essentially automating the drag and drop process you use to copy files from one drive to another. The backup files are in the same format as the original files were. Since there is no data compression or other changes, no special software is needed. Restoring files is as simple as opening the backup set from the Finder, navigating to the needed file, and dragging the file back to the hard drive. One thing to note is that this feature is not always referred to as “Finder aware backups”. The backup program Retrospect, for example, implements this feature by making a distinction between backups and duplicates.

Do I Understand My Program’s Special Features?

Many backup utilities offer special features such as scheduled backups, support for removable backup media, and data compression (e.g. ChronoSync, Data Backup). Make sure you understand what these features do, how to enable/disable them, and their implications: Does enabling data compression, for example, mean using a proprietary backup format that means the program must be present to restore lost files? Find out before enabling these features.

Given my usual “real men don’t need software manuals” attitude, I hate to say this but download the manuals for programs you find interesting and peruse them before making a decision. You may even want to try a demo of the program. This is a good way to find out whether you understand or even need those special features. If you go this route though, make a copy of several files, preferably non-critical ones, and try the demo with those. Don’t trust critical data to a backup program until you’re pretty sure it works well.

No Time Machine?

Hopefully this has you thinking about questions specific to your needs. You’re probably even wondering why I haven’t mentioned Time Machine more often. That may come in the near future if there’s enough interest.