My Data Backup Routine

One of the most neglected areas of personal computing is data backups. Why is that, when most of us know the pain of a hard drive crash, or have at least heard a friend or colleague describe their own experience with Murphy’s Law? The loss of important information can have a lasting impact when one considers that many of us keep things like passwords, account numbers, receipts and documents on our computers. Many of us also maintain vast collections of music, video and movies on hardware that is not meant to last forever and is prone to failure. If you own your own small business, you might don’t differentiate between a personal and work computer, because they are probably one and the same. Not only can a dead hard drive be costly in terms of lost memories and time, it can potentially be a big financial headache. Given all this, I thought it was time to write something about how I back up my data. This is not a blueprint that everyone can or should follow, but I think that I have all the bases covered and this should work for most users.

To begin, I have an iBook G4 running Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger, and I do three types of backups on a regular basis.

  1. Daily: Individual folders backed up to an external FireWire hard drive
  2. Weekly: Full hard disk clone to the same FireWire drive
  3. Weekly: External drive backed up to another computer

The difference between the daily and weekly backups above really comes down to timing. Certain files and folders on my drive are updated more than others, such as my development folder. For these individual folders, I make a backup once daily.

I have this daily backup automated for me with an Automator workflow and an application called CronniX. CronniX is a GUI app that lets you edit the crontab for your user account. The crontab keeps track of all the scheduled processes that you have added to it over time. CronniX just makes working with your crontab very simple. Basically, the crontab for my user account is set up so that it runs the Automator workflow daily, copying all my important folders to an external FireWire hard drive that is connected to my iBook. The script also happens to add all the folders to a new disk image, which it creates, so I can compress the whole thing down to a nice, small size (disk images are great if you need to compress something). Creating the disk image isn’t really necessary, but I added it as a way to minimize the size of my backups folder.

I also do a full clone of my hard drive on a weekly basis, to guard against losing everything else that I don’t back up daily. For this, I use an app called SuperDuper, from Shirt Pocket. This software, which sells for $19.95, shines when it comes to making a clone of your entire hard disk. The first time you run SuperDuper, you will notice that it takes a great deal of time to create the clone. About 25 GB of data on my iBook took just over and hour to back up to my FireWire hard drive. But, this was the last time I ever saw a clone time anywhere near this long, because I have SuperDuper set to back up files incrementally going forward (SuperDuper calls this a “smart update”). Now, every week when I run SuperDuper, it looks at the backup on my FireWire drive (I have the drive partitioned into two volumes, one for the SuperDuper clone and the other for miscellaneous file storage) to determine which files have changed in comparison with my iBook’s hard disk. Once it knows the files it needs to copy over, it begins the process of copying them. It will even determine which files have been deleted on my iBook hard disk and delete them from the backup drive, maintaining an exact clone of the disk. Each week, my backup takes about twelve minutes to complete, which is considerably less than the hour it initially took to back up the drive.

The best part about making a clone is that it’s bootable (if you use a FireWire drive), meaning that, if I need to boot into the backup itself, it will function as if I were using my hard disk. This makes the loss of a hard drive less of a problem. Imagine your hard disk crashing on you. Now tell yourself that everything is OK and get up from the floor. If you still have support on your Mac, you can send it back and have the drive replaced. If you have a second Mac, you can just plug in your FireWire drive and use the second Mac to boot into the backup. You can continue working until your drive is replaced, and then just do a full restore on your new hard disk, returning all your data, applications, and settings back to their original location in about the same time it took to make the initial clone.

SuperDuper will also let you do things like back up to a disk image, and it comes with four predefined scripts that let you choose the type of backup you wish to perform. You can create more scripts if you need to, but I’ve found that I only use the one that creates a clone of my hard disk. The other scripts included, however, will allow you to backup just the user files (all the folders under your user folder) and make safety clones of the shared users and applications.

Despite it being great at making a clone of your hard drive, there are some things that SuperDuper cannot do. If you are looking for software that will back up your data to CD or DVD media, SuperDuper might not be for you. It seems to be designed around backing up data to your internal hard drive or an external USB or FireWire hard drive.

The other feature that is missing from SuperDuper is the ability to schedule backups. Shirt Pocket states on their Web site that this feature is coming soon, but, until then, users are forced to use the AppleScript file that comes with SuperDuper and schedule it via the crontab (this is when I started using CronniX). For my purposes, however, scheduling SuperDuper backups isn’t really practical, because I clone my entire drive. When running a clone job, it is best to make sure that all applications have been closed first, so if I were to schedule the backup, it might start running while I have applications open, and I may not get a clone of every file.

Now, the part above about scheduling backups is only half true. I do, in fact, schedule my backups. I have modified the script that came with SuperDuper so that it asks me, before it tells SuperDuper to run the specified backup script, if I would like to run the backup now, logout, or cancel. Usually, I’ll see that little message pop to my screen and I’ll click the “Log Out” button so I can log back in with my login items deactivated. To do this, I simply hold the shift key down after I type my password at the login screen, and then click the login button. This ensures that nothing starts up in the background during the login process. Then, I can run the script again (it’s in my script menu for easy access) and tell it to go ahead and run the backup. Then I have twelve minutes to kill, so I usually switch to my Windows PC (which doesn’t get much of my attention anymore) and do something else.

I should also mention that there is another application, called Carbon Copy Cloner, that will also make a clone of your hard disk. I didn’t choose to use this software because it was not Tiger-ready at the time. It is now fully compatible with Mac OS X 10.4, however, and may be a great choice for many users, especially if all you want to do it create a clone of your hard disk. It does not have some of the added features of SuperDuper, but it does have something that SuperDuper does not, and that’s a scheduler. When you schedule something with CCC, it will create a shell script and add an entry in the system crontab to run the script at the specified time. It’s similar to what I’m doing with CronniX, but it’s included in the app, which is a big plus. The best thing is that it’s free, so you won’t have to pay to make a clone of your hard disk (so now you have no excuse).

At this point, you might be saying, “All this is great, but what about that FireWire drive that you use to store ‘miscellaneous’ files?” Good question. There is an application, called Archive Assistant, part of the SuffIt Deluxe suite of apps, that I use to copy the entire contents of the second partition on my FireWire drive into a compressed archive, which is saved to my Windows PC. I have a task set up in Archive Assistant so that all I have to do is click the “Run Task” button and the process starts. It takes a couple of hours, and it’s not incremental, but it gets the job done. My Mac can see my Windows PC, so sending the files over the network is not a problem (it is the cause of the slow speed at which the process runs, however). I wrote a simple little AppleScript that displays a dialog saying that it’s time to back up the files on my FireWire drive, and scheduled it via CronniX, so I can get a reminder once a week. This may all seem complicated, and I suppose it is more complicated than it needs to be. The thing is, I only have one Mac and one FireWire drive, and backing up all the files on my FireWire drive to a Windows PC requires that I compress them first, so that none of them can be touched in any way by the Windows operating system. It’s really just a cheap way to back up my Mac files without having either another FireWire drive or another Mac. Frankly, Archive Assistant isn’t even necessary, as I could use the Finder to create an archive and have it saved to my Windows PC. I just like that I can set everything up in Archive Assistant and then simply click a button to get the process going.

I’ve found that making backups is something that I seriously neglected before, and I don’t really know why, considering just how easy it is to get into a backup routine. The method or software you use to make your backups doesn’t really matter as long at you meet two criteria: backup allyour important data, and do it in a way that is comfortable and convenient for you. For many people, backing up the users folder, located at the root of your hard disk, is enough. For me, a little more is needed, but that’s because I don’t want to have to reinstall all my applications and get things set up the way I like it after a hard disk crash.

I hope that my backup routine helps someone else who might have questions about backing up their data. If you have any suggestions, please feel free to comment on this article so others can benefit from your experience.

More Information

Tip: Auto-Create Playlists with Album and Artist Name

If you have a group of songs in iTunes, and you want to add them to a playlist, you can simply drag them to the left pane of the iTunes screen. However, if you have a group of songs by the same artist, or from the same album, or both, you can drag these songs to the left pane and a new playlist will be created in the format “ArtistName – AlbumName”. It’s a pretty cool feature and I use it every time I download a new album from the iTunes Music Store. It’s also smart, and if all the songs being dragged are by the same artist, but on different albums, or on the same album, but by different artists, iTunes creates the playlist name based on which is common among the files. It saves time, especially if you are creating more than one new playlist based on a group of song files.

Tip: Add a Path Dropdown Menu to Finder Windows

One thing that bothers me a bit about the Mac OS is that you don’t have the ability to show the full path of an folder in your Finder windows. In addition, you have no button that allows you to quickly click to go up one level in the current folder hierarchy. Both of these features are available in Windows, and I use them all the time. There is a similar feature in the Mac OS that sort of combines both Windows features into one compact little icon on your Finder window’s toolbar.

Open a Finder window and click View -> Customize Toolbar (or Control + Option + Click the oval-shaped button in the top-right corner of the Finder window). A slide menu will drop down, allowing you to add additional items to the Finder window toolbar. The changes made will affect all Finder windows, so keep this in mind.

You can add several things to the toolbar, such as an Eject icon, a Burn icon, and separators (for aesthetic purposes), but what you really want here is the Path icon, which is the second from the left in the first row at the top. Drag this icon onto the toolbar and release the left mouse button. Now, the next time you want to find out exactly where you are in a hierarchy of folders, you can click this new button and get a dropdown list of folders, with the top one in the list being the current folder. The list is clickable, meaning that you can click any of the folders in the list to switch to that folder.

Advice for Apple: Add this icon to Finder window toolbars by default in the next release! Users shouldn’t have to add something that they’ll be using often.

Review: FolderOrg

This is just a quick review of a piece of free software that I just saw listed in the “50 Mac Gems” section September 2005 issue of MacWorld (US Edition). FolderOrg is an AppleScript Folder Action that organizes files and folders by moving them into dated subfolders.

FolderOrg sounds like a great folder action for those who have a large number of daily downloads and want their files organized by date without being required to create the dated subfolders manually. It might also be a big help to people who batch-process a large number of files on a daily basis. Keeping things organized is fun, isn’t it? Well, maybe not fun, but it makes getting what you need later much easier.

You will want to read the section in the readme file that details how to set the options for FolderOrg. In a nutshell, you must first copy the FolderOrg.app file to the /Library/Scripts/Folder Action Scripts/ folder, and then double-click the file. This will prompt you, one at a time, for three settings. FolderOrg still works as a folder action without doing this first, but you may prefer to use the options to turn off some of the default settings. For example, I told FolderOrg not to activate the Finder or open the folder that contains the files just moved. I prefer to move the files into the folder and have the subfolder created in the background, and the file moved into it, without being bothered by windows popping up when it’s done. You may prefer different settings.

According to the “readme” file that accompanies the software, “FolderOrg 1.2 is somewhat incompatible with Firefox, Camino, Mozilla, and other Gecko-based browsers due to file renaming” and “FolderOrg 1.2 is not compatible with FileVault. This is due to issues with the way AppleScript handles (or rather doesn’t handle) mounted disk images.” If you are using FireFox, this means you will need to drop files manually into your folder to get the desired result. In my case, I’m interested in this software for other purposes, and not so much to manage my daily downloads, so this doesn’t really bother me. If you are using the FileVault security feature of the Mac OS, you may not be able to use this folder action.

FolderOrg is a neat little AppleScript action written for a specific purpose, and many will find it to be very useful. I’m guessing that this is why MacWorld gave it a four mouse rating. The author, Doug Everly, should be proud of himself for releasing a simple, compact mini-app that does one thing and does it well. The fact that it’s free software makes it even better.

For more information on FolderOrg, and to download a copy for yourself, please see the following link.
FolderOrg: http://www.macupdate.com/app/mac/17432/folderorg

Tip: Grab a Color

If you’re ever working in Photoshop, or a similar application, and need the exact color of a graphic on a Web site, or another document, you can quickly get it by using the DigitalColor Meter. To open this application, look for it in the Applications -> Utilities folder. You can move your mouse anywhere on your screen and DigitalColor Meter will display the color just under the mouse’s current position. It’s a great, simple app for grabbing color values, and it’s free with Mac OS X.

Tip: Auto-Resize a Finder Window

This is a pretty basic tip, but I find that most Windows users don’t know they can do this, so I figured there would be a Mac user or two who might benefit from the info. If you’ve ever opened a Finder window to find that there are elipses (…) in the middle of a file name, this means that the file name is too long to display in the limited space provided. You can correct this, of course, by simply dragging the slider widget and making the display space bigger. Double-clicking the widget, however, does this for you automatically, and resizes the display space to be big enough for the longest file name to be displayed. It’s a time-saving tip you’ll find yourself using every day. Seconds add up to minutes, minutes to hours, and hours to days. At the end of your life, you’ll have a few days to spend doing whatever you like.

Tip: Moving the iPhoto Library

The default location of your iPhoto library is inside your home directory on your startup disk. You may have another disk drive, such as an external hard drive, that you want to use to store all your pictures. This is easy to do, and iPhoto will use the new location to store all current and new pictures.

To change the location of the iPhoto pictures folder, perform the following steps.

  1. Quit iPhoto. It cannot be running when you perform the steps that follow.
  2. Using the Finder, locate the folder that contains your iPhoto library.
  3. Drag the library folder to some other location, being sure to move it, not copy it, if you are dragging it into another volume/disk.
  4. Launch iPhoto again. You will get a dialog that tells you that iPhoto cannot find its library.
  5. Click the “Find Library” or “Choose Library” button and another dialog appears.
  6. Use the new dialog to find your library folder.

That’s it. You now have a new

LaCie Firewire/USB Hard Drive Has Arrived

The LaCie firewire/USB hard drive that I purchased has arrived today. Right now, I’m testing out Carbon Copy Cloner to do a backup of the entire internal hard disk to this new hard drive. After that, I’m going to install a copy of OS X for development purposes on a partition of the new drive.

One thing that I do want to say about this drive is that it couldn’t be easier to use on OS X. I’m not sure if that is attributable to the OS, the drive, or both, but I’m happy. As soon as I opened the box, I plugged the drive into the firewire port with the cable provided. Then I partitioned the drive into two volumes, one for backups and files (miscellaneous things, really), and the other for a copy of OS X. I used Disk Utility (Applications -> Utilities folder) to do the partitioning and formatting. Creating partitions with Disk Utility is about as simple as it gets. I had the drive ready to be formatted with both partitions, clicked the button, and the formatting was done in just under ten seconds! I was completely shocked. I had just taken a drive from a FAT32 filesystem to HFS+ (Journaled) in less time than it takes to check the Weather widget on my Dashboard.

Coming from the Windows world, this is simply unheard of. Partitioning a 100 GB drive on a Windows machine will take a variable amount of time, but we are talking at least ten minutes, and, if you are running a slower machine, up to an hour. This is an iBook G4, one of the lower-end machines that Apple produces, and to see this kind of performance was a shock.

Also, I should mention that the drive itself is quite nice-looking. It’s gray plastic with what appears to be an aluminum plate on the front. It only has one tiny light at the front of the drive, and three ports in the back: 1 firewire, 1 USB, and 1 USB power/AC power. They definitely took the minimalist approach with this drive, and it has paid off. In terms of power, if your computer cannot power the drive by FireWire or USB, you may need to connect the additional USB power cable (provided) to the port in the back and connect that to any available USB port. If that doesn’t get it powered, you may need to purchase the optional AC power supply from LaCie. I didn’t need anything other than the firewire cable, and the drive is fully powered and ready to roll. I did see a post on the CNet Web site, where this drive was reviewed, that was left by an unhappy customer who said that the drive didn’t work on PowerBooks. I’m not sure what she meant (maybe an older model PowerBook), but this drive works on my iBook just fine so far.

I can’t wait to put this drive through its paces and write a review. I’ll give it a few days, but I’m moving my iPhoto and iTunes libraries to the drive tonight, and going through my hard disk and moving any files that I can in order to ensure 10 GB of free space. I’ll keep everyone updated as I work with this new drive.

Tip: Edit HTML Files in TextEdit

One of the things that annoyed me about TextEdit when I first started using it was the fact that HTML files are rendered as Web pages by default. I found a way to change this, however, so the files can be viewed as code and edited in place. To do this in OS X 10.4 Tiger, open TextEdit and click TextEdit -> Preferences. Now click the Open and Save button at the top of the preference panel and look for “Ignore rich text commands in HTML files”. Check the box next to this line, and you’re done. The next time you open an HTML file, you’ll see the code, and not the output. To do this in OS X 10.3 Panther, you’ll need to go to the “Rich Text Processing” pane, and click the same line as in Tiger.

Tip: Fast Window Switching

Most users know about the Command+Tab keystroke (Alt+Tab in Windows) that allows you to cycle from one open application to the next. However, there are probably a least a few users who don’t know about the Command+` keystroke (that’s the accent grave character, just to the left of the 1 key) that allows you to cycle from one open window to another in the same application. If you have ten Word documents open, this key combo is very useful when you need to get from one window to the next. It also works in all other apps, including the Finder.Command+Shift+Accent Grave cycles through in the opposite direction.