Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Backup in Mac OS: How I do it and Suggestions for Time Machine Improvements

The Time Machine backup capability was the best new feature of Mac OS Leopard, when it was introduced in 2007. Over the years many new features have been introduced to Mac OS, but few have had the impact and sticking-power of Time Machine.

However  there are still five key features that I crave in Time Machine. I hope Apple introduces them sooner rather than later:
  1. The ability to have two separate time machine volumes, with automatic switching between them. This would be incredibly useful for people. such as myself, who use their laptop at home and at work. On several occasions I have been saved by Time Machine when using it at home (where my Time Machine volume resides). On these occasions, I have realized that I made a major mistake several hours previously and have been able to retrieve it. At work,  operate without these hourly incremental backups. I would like to have auto-backups in either location, simply activated by plugging in the appropriate external disk at that location.Some people physically carry their external disk with them, but this means that if they lose the bag containing their computer, they are likely to lose their backups too.
  2. The ability to fine tune the frequency of backups. With a fast computer, Time Machine often takes only a few seconds to do its hourly backup. So why can't I choose to have backups taken every 15 minutes? I would also like to preserve the hourly backups for 2 or 3 working days, so I can go back to find something I know I lost in the middle of the day. Currently Time Machine saves hourly backups for 24 hours,  daily backups for a month, and weekly backups until the backup disk is full. This might be a reasonable compromise, but power-users would benefit from the ability to change the defaults.
  3. The ability to query what was changed. Time Machine knows what has changed, but there is no interface to display this, which could be quite useful sometimes.
  4. Quick-eject of the Time Machine volume. It can be a pain when rushing off with one's laptop to have to eject the Time Machine volume first. It would be nice to be able to safely unplug the cable, but I know the ability to do this is constrained by the Unix underpinnings of the operating system. How about adding a menu item in the Time Machine menu, and also an optional hotkey to rapidly eject the volume?
  5. Booting direct from the latest Time Machine backup on a volume. Why not allow this?
I see that with the upcoming Versions and AutoSave features in Mac OS Lion, Apple intends to facilitate recovery of documents and allow exploration of their history, from within an application. My suggestion number 2 would apply to that as well.

I am fastidious about backup. Over the years I have lost work due to accidental deletion, bugs in programs and disk errors.

Here's how I do backup. I use a three-pronged approach that gives me a combination of multi-site offsite and cloud-based storage, bootable recovery disks and multiple incremental versions for recovery from any point in history. All of these facets of backup are important.

  • Time Machine is my first line of defense. But as I mentioned above, it only operates at home. I connect a 2TB LaCie disk using Firewire 800, which makes it much faster than using wireless. I plug in the cable and let it run whenever my laptop is on my home desk.
  • I also use the Backup cloud-based program built into Mac OS. This  copies a selection of my most important directories to my iDisk on MobileMe. This works whenever I am connected to the Internet at 1 p.m. every day. I sometimes trigger an extra backup at other times, particularly if I am travelling and only sporadically connect to the Internet. I have never actually found a reason to retrieve files in an emergency from MobileMe, but I have practiced doing it to prove to myself that it works. I think cloud-based backup is an important adjunct to Time Machine since I travel frequently and it could save me if my Time Machine disk fails.
  • I also use SuperDuper every week or so to create a complete bootable copy of my main hard disk to a separate partition on an external drive. I do this both at home and at work. It takes about 20 minutes to do an incremental backup, but it gives me one more line of defense. If my main disk crashed, I could just continue working until I could replace it. I would first have to restore recently modified files from time machine or my MobileMe iDisk, but at least I would have a functional computer. I incrementally update my SuperDuper partitions after major projects are complete, after major system updates and after installing important new software. Apple's Disk Utility program can also create a bootable duplicate disk, but it doesn't have a capability to do so incrementally.

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