Backup Basics

One of the things that sucks about my job is sometimes having to explain to people who are first calling me that, for whatever reason, huge amounts of their electronic life are forever lost. I get one of these calls every two or three months, and it is rarely easy. No matter how good your computer and how pristine your conduct, various bad things can cause data loss. From inattentive mistakes to spills to theft, any data can be destroyed and so it is a good idea to understand the basics of backing it up.

How Much Are You Willing to Lose?

When people ask me what sort of backup strategy they should have, the first question I ask them is how much they are willing to lose. Some people keep nothing important on their computers and so won’t miss much. Others would be bummed to lose a week or month’s worth of data, but could probably reconstruct it. Some people are so high-strung that they are positive they could never lose ANYTHING (and this is possible) but the answer to this question determines almost everything else. At what point would you swear? Or cry? Get drunk or break things? Knowing this point is the beginning of a good backup strategy.

What Matters Most?

Even monkeys fall from trees, and almost everyone loses data at some point. Identifying how much you are willing to lose, though, helps you decide what matters most to you and to focus on saving that first. For some people, the thing they value most is their writing, or their photos, or their email. For some it may be music, or web bookmarks or financial data. On Jesus Matthew 6:12 theory of backups, figuring out where your treasure is tells you where your heart is also. And knowing that is the beginning of wisdom.

Preserving Email with Archives and Servers

If you are the sort of person who lives and dies on the sword of email, you will want to come up with a strategy which protects (1) your oldest and most important email and (2) your recent and most important email. The first you will want to back up to CD, DVD or a hard drive on a regular interval, and to do that you will need to know where the email “lives.” With the exception of webmail services such as Hotmail, Yahoo and Gmail, every other email program stores your old messages as files somewhere on your hard drive.
  • OS X stores mail in the “Mail” folder of your home folder “Library”
  • Eudora stores mail by default in “Eudora Folder” within your “Documents” folder
  • Entourage stores mail as identities within Documents’ “Microsoft User Data”
  • Thunderbird stores data in its own folder within “Library” as well

Once you understand where this data is, you will want to back it up at an interval that makes sense to you, using whatever medium (CD, DVD, USB flash drive or hard drive) makes sense to you. But what about the mail that comes in just after you back up?

Fortunately, most email programs have a preference which allows you to store messages on the server for specified amount of time, but this is not the default behavior. By default most email programs follow a simple procedure which erases your mail

  1. You open the mail program and tell it to check your mail
  2. The mail program uses your password to log into a mail server
  3. The program downloads copies of messages and attachments to your hard drive
  4. The program thanks the server and tells it to delete its copy of those messages
  5. The program stores files locally until you delete them

To protect your most recent mail you can simply go into the preferences for your program and tell it NOT to delete messages immediately. If you back up your local folders every week, for example, you might want to tell the server to hold messages for a month or ten days. How you do this varies from program to program, but it is always possible. If you never delete messages from the server you may create problems later and annoy your ISP, but know that you can keep messages for a week or so quite easily. Just find the appropriate place in your mail program’s preferences and do it.

Saving Bookmarks and Address Books

If you have an address book program or web bookmarks (favorites) these are also stored by your program, usually in the “Library” folder of your home folder. If you synchronize your address book with a device such as a Palm device or mobile phone, a backup is made on the device each time you synchronize. If you use an online address book such as with a webmail program, those too are preserved on the Yahoo, Gmail or other server. If you store your addresses in Address Book, Palm Desktop or Entourage, though, it is a good idea to periodically export your addresses or create a backup that can be burned to CD or stored on a flash drive, just in case.

The same goes for web bookmarks (or favorites) and each browser stores these in the “Library” folder of your home directory. Where exactly varies from program to program, but most allow you to export your bookmarks as an HTML file, and this is a good thing to do, if you remember to back up to CD.

Backing Up the Entire Library, Home Folder or Boot Drive

With OS X programs storing so much data inside the “Library” folder, it may make sense to just back THAT entire folder up at a pre-set interval, or to back up your entire home directory. This usually requires an external hard drive. Firewire drives are fastest, and I recommend a backup drive that is at least TWICE as large as your boot drive. To do this well, I suggest that folks use a utility such as Carbon Copy Cloner or Super Duper to create a full bootable copy onto the external hard drive, and then periodically back up just the home directory, thus:
  1. Quit all open programs
  2. Mount the backup drive and open it
  3. Double-click your boot drive then double-click “Users”
  4. Drag the “little house” home folder to the backup drive
  5. Release the mouse when you see the green “plus sign” and wait
  6. When the copy is complete date the COPY on the backup drive

This technique backs up the entire home folder and requires you to occasionally throw away older copies of the home folder from earlier backups, but should copy all files in your home directory. Unless you have done something to actively bypass OS X’s default behaviors, this will be your individual files. The Mac OS and applications can be re-installed from CD or downloads if needed.

Backing Up Pictures and Music

Many people are shutterbugs or music hounds, accumulating large numbers of photos or music in programs such as iPhoto and iTunes. Fortunately both of these programs have the option to burn backups directly to CD or DVD directly from within the program. The earliest versions of OS X iTunes had an option within Preferences (in the “advanced” tab) to burn a data CD or DVD and this will work. Newer versions of iTunes, though, have a “Back up to Disc…” command beneath the “File” menu which will automatically back up your entire iTunes library to CD or DVD, and this is surer for most users.

Within iPhoto, the “Share” menu has a “Burn” command which will copy currently selected albums, events or photos to a CD or (if it will fit) even an entire library to CD or DVD. This is a handy way to offload a few old albums, perhaps every year just before the holidays or as needed. These CD’s or DVD’s can then be inserted back into your Mac and will appear (with comments and ratings and albums) directly within iPhoto the next time you need them, making it a terrific way to share photos with other family members or friends who also have Macs.

Automated Programs for Backup

If you have purchased Apple’s “.Mac” service it includes something called iSync and a program called Backup which works for very small things and to back up small amounts of constantly changing data (such as Address Book contacts, Safari bookmarks, iCal events and such) to the “.Mac” servers so they can be accessed from a web page later. This more or less works, but is slow and a little annoying.

OS 10.5 “Leopard” is supposed to have an automated backup feature called “time machine” when it is released in October or November of 2007, but this will also require a large external hard drive and probably take time and affect performance. Third-party programs such as Lacie’s SilverKeeper or Dantz’ Retrospect and Retrospect Express can work, but involve a certain amount of set-up, particularly in a workplace environment or over a network.

If you are considering such automated systems, you may wish to schedule some time with Mac Rory at (360) 695-6929 to decide on a system that will work well for you over the long term.

One Copy is Next Door to No Copies at All

The important thing, though, is to know you need a backup strategy, and to do something before you think you’ll need it. Backups are different from archives, but that is something for another time. If you plan to keep it, back it up and (better yet) keep at least one copy in another building or city.

Have a Backup Plan

There are two kinds of computer users, I have been told: those who have lost important data by accident and those who are going to. Have a plan for when it is you.

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