My personal backup strategy

For some reason a lot of people have been asking me lately about my backup routine, perhaps it’s the season, perhaps it’s the recent Sidekick trouble. Regardless, I figured that I should blog it and refer people to the blog, rather than write it over and over. 11  years of running IT for a regional newspaper company  taught me many things, including: 1) you can never have enough backup and 2) backup is hard and left to their own devices, people won’t do it. Hence, when I look for backup plans I look for something completely automated and easy. I prefer a layered approach to backup:

  1. Backup of web services
  2. Local backup for quick restores and constant connectivity
  3. Remote backup for safety
  4. Remote sync of mission-critical files

If you use Yahoo! Mail or Google Calendar, then you use cloud services, which means that you are counting on the service provider to make sure your data is safe. Frankly, this requires more faith in their IT infrastructure than I’m willing to place in them (ever suffered through a Gmail outage?). I use quite a few cloud services and have backup plans for each.

  • Evernote – I use this for notes and bookmarks. It keeps synchronized copies in the cloud and on your local drive by default, which means that my local backup routine keeps it backed up.
  • Gmail – use Mail.app to create a local version via Gmail’s POP3 interface
  • Google Calendar – create a local cache with iCal
  • Google Reader – use the built-in export tools to save a local OPML document. I also have this crazy Rube Goldberg setup that sends my Shared Items from reader to Gmail every day.
  • Google Docs – I used to rely on a combination of a Firefox plugin and a Greasemonkey script, but this is now built-in to Docs. It’s quick, easy and works from any browser. Read more.
  • Delicious – periodically use their backup tool to create a local HTML document
  • Publish2 – this bookmarking tool for journalists lets you also post your ‘marks to Delicious or subscribe to them via RSS
  • Twitter & Tumblr – All of my tweets are automatically picked up on my Tumblr blog (God, I hate web product names). Both of which rely on the same daily send-to-email service I use for Google Reader’s shared items.
  • WordPressRSS-to-email and the periodic full database export/backup.

UPDATE: Lifehacker has a post from this summer explaining backup procedures for a number of other  web services.

For local backup, I love Apple’s Time Machine. It just works. Plug in an external drive and you have backup. Note that Time Machine is not the same as Time Capsule, which is a wireless network hub with a hard drive for wireless backup. I keep a 1TB external drive on my desk at work and it backs up any changed documents every hour. With this setup, my entire drive is backed up – including all of the local backups of my various cloud services. But the external drive is local – sitting on my desk, waiting for the place to catch fire (or flood).

Which is why I’ve been looking for a good option for remote – or Internet – backup. It seems like it wasn’t until the last year or so that remote backup really became a viable option. The combination of rising broadband speeds and huge reductions in the cost of storage have made it much more reasonable. I’ve been waiting for a good, affordable Internet-based backup system for years and now there are plenty of options. My criteria for such a service was:

  • It must offer a flat rate for unlimited storage
  • It must be real-time (backup on the fly) and not scheduled
  • It must support multiple computers under a single account
  • It must be secure

After a bit of research, I selected Carbonite as it met most of my criteria. If I’d had more computers to backup then CrashPlan would have won the day as it gets more economical with volume. Carbonite installs a Mac System Preference pane (not fully compatible with Mac OS 10.6 yet) that is always looking for updated files to backup. You can define which locations on your system it should look in, to avoid backing up more than necessary. The process can be paused and you can tell it to operate in a low-priority mode to save bandwidth and system resources.

Because Carbonite encrypts your data locally before it sends it over a secure SSL session to the Carbonite mothership, backups aren’t lightning quick. The added layer of security is great to have but that encryption process does add processing time. Still, the whole point of  a product like Carbonite is that it is invisible – it sits in the background and just works. So far, it’s done just that.

Remote sync is a difficult one to describe. To most people, it resembles Carbonite’s invisible backup, but I prefer to think of it as having a virtual external drive that can connect to all of m devices at the same time.

For remote sync, I use Dropbox. The free version allows up to 2GB of remote storage, which is plenty for my needs. It installs as a menu item in Mac OS X and creates a “Dropbox” directory in your home folder. Anything that you store in that directory is immediately synchronized with the Dropbox service. You can install Dropbox on other machines and they also get added to this synchronized mesh of devices. In my use, I keep an account on my wife’s computer, with Dropbox installed.

I use Dropbox to store mission-critical files, such as my 1Password keychain, receipts, and original iTunes purchases. Thus I’m never without a copy regardless of which computer I’m on (I also sync 1P with my iPhone). Of course, these files are also backed up by Time Machine and Carbonite, but Dropbox isn’t a backup service, it’s real-time synchronized cloud storage. It is similar in that respect to Apple’s MobileMe iDisk but I find Dropbox’s method of using a local folder for the sync to be a far superior customer experience. One final note about Dropbox: they just released an iPhone app to view and manage your files from the phone.

Looking over this very long post, my system seems extremely complex but in practice, it’s nearly seamless. The only real interaction I have is when I have to perform periodic manual backups of some of my web services. Everything else is automated and relatively invisible – exactly how a good backup system should work.

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2 thoughts on “My personal backup strategy

  1. David Friend says:

    Seth: Thanks for mentioning Carbonite. I’m the CEO and I’d love to be able to correspond with you. Could you shoot me an email? THanks.

    Dave Friend

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