How to set up a complete backup strategy for your Mac: Time Machine, cloning, and the cloud!

How to set up a complete backup strategy for your Mac: Time Machine, cloning, and the cloud!

Make sure to have multiple backup strategies to make sure you never lose a file

It's one thing to back up your Mac. It's another thing to have a coherent backup strategy that includes local and off-site components. That makes sure you're never more than a few minutes from recovering in the event of a critical failure or problem. In this how to, we'll look at how to set up just such a routine using a combination of backup strategies .

In my second job at an Apple retailer, I'll regularly get customers who proudly tell me they've never backed up their Mac. "Seven years without a hitch," crowed one customer a few weeks ago.

I diplomatically suggested she consider a Time Capsule or external drive to back up to, but she thought I was trying to upsell her to something she didn't need, and left without making a purchase. Inside, I wanted to scream.

Look, I love my Mac. But as good as Apple is, it and its equipment are not infallible. Equipment failures are going to happen. It's just part of life. The best thing you can do is to be prepared for when they do, so when failures happen, they're as non-disruptive to you as possible.

First, let's cover the fundamentals. If you haven't already gotten started, here are some links to get you familiar with the basics of backing up your Mac:

If you're using any of these individual techniques to make sure your Mac is backed up, you may be wondering why you have to combine strategies at all. The main reason is redundancy: You don't want a single point of failure in the system to keep you from gaining access to the files that you need.

Time Machine — your first line of backup defense

Time Machine is arguably the best solution to make sure you always have recoverable files close at hand. Time Machine will work with an external hard drive or a Time Capsule, providing you with immediate access to your entire hard drive's file system. In fact, you can recover your Mac using a Time Machine backup, too.

But over time, Time Machine backups can fail. Hard drives sometimes stop working, including the one built into your Time Capsule. You can ameliorate this by using more than one drive for your Time Machine backup. It'll take longer to rotate through each backup, but it'll also reduce the likelihood that a single point of failure will ever hose your backups.

Cloning — a good backup strategy for your backup strategy

Cloning using SuperDuper, Carbon Copy Cloner or another tool further reduces the risk. Periodically — and let your workflow be your guide here when it comes time to decide what the period should be — you can use a cloning app to create a perfect replica of your hard drive, which you should then put away in a safe place until the next time you haul it out.

Again, bear in mind my previous guideline about avoiding a single point of failure. If it's possible for you to budget two drives to rotate between for your cloning, you'll be better off. That way, if anything goes wrong with one, you're never more than the previous backup on the other from restoring your drive if and when you should need to.

One last thing — if you're rotating your clone drives and it's safe for you to keep one of your drives away from where your equipment is (in another place entirely), it's not a bad idea. Perhaps your desk at the office, or a relative's house is a good place to store a clone drive. Rotating a clone offsite makes sure you'll be able to recover from a disaster.

Cloud storage — Your final line of backup

Time Machine and cloning with rotation sounds like a pretty solid backup strategy, and for a lot of people it's more than enough. If time or budget has already limited you, you're welcome to stop here.

But there's a case to be made for using a cloud-based backup solution like BackBlaze, CrashPlan or Carbonite, or even one that depends on Dropbox or Apple's forthcoming iCloud Drive. Because something can always happen to your local equipment. If a fire or natural disaster strikes your home, for example, you can lose all of your equipment in a heartbeat — then no amount of local backup is going to save your bacon if you need to restore.

If you travel, cloud-based backup can come in handy. If you need to restore files while you're away from your Time Capsule or away from your clone drive, you're out of luck. Using a cloud-based backup service, you can restore as long as you have a network connection.

Whatever you do, make sure to back up

Regardless of whether you employ a one, two or three-tier approach to backing up your data, one way or the other, make sure your data is backed up. Because recovering data off a broken drive is expensive and time consuming. A small amount of planning, a bit of budgeting and a sound recovery strategy is all you need to make sure you never have to worry about whether your data is safe.

Hopefully I've given you some ideas for what you need to do to make sure you absolutely, positively can get your hands on your files regardless of what happens not just to your computer, but to the other devices and services you rely on in the event of a crisis. If you have questions or other ideas, let me know in the comments.

Have something to say about this story? Leave a comment! Need help with something else? Ask in our forums!

Peter Cohen

Mac Managing Editor of iMore and weekend Apple Product Professional at a local independent Apple reseller. Follow him on Twitter @flargh

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Reader comments

How to set up a complete backup strategy for your Mac: Time Machine, cloning, and the cloud!


@Peter As related to this article I picked up a prior generation refurbished time machine for a cool $150... I was smiling from ear to secure a deal like that. No more fears of losing ANYTHING.

Unrelated to this article at your request to follow up with you I did purchase the new iMac low end model for my daughters this past weekend and its now all set up and good to go. Performace wise it seems zippy and responsive and perfect to fit the needs of my young daughters (age 5 & 6) who will be using it for school purposes this upcoming fall school year. :)

Each component offers redundancy and additional functionality:

a) clone - you can boot from the clone and restore just the missing files from time machine to quickly get back up and running.
b) time machine - faster restore than cloud, especially with large volumes of data. historical backups that clones don't give you. One time machine can recover the file from an hour ago, two hours ago, yesterday, last week.
c) cloud - the ultimate "holy crap we lost everything" backup. There are unfortunately disasters big enough to make you lose just about everything. For a large volume of data you might need to pay to have a drive shipped to you instead of spending months downloading but at least the option is there.

I use Time Capsule and Carbon Copy Cloner. Then I lock up the CCC backup drives in a fireproof safe. No iCloud backup. Yet.

Just an FYI: Time Machine + Time Capsule used to take a freakishly long time, hog Airport bandwidth, and sometimes require extensive troubleshooting. But after upgrading to the latest-gen Time Capsule and Airport Extreme, with late-'13 iMac and MacBook Pro Retina, I don't even notice Time Machine running. So Time Machine isn't the ordeal that it used to be with older hardware.

Thanks for these articles Peter. I'm getting ready to replace my router so I have been weighing options on a new router and possibly a Time Capsule to better my backup system.

Right now I'm leaning toward:
1. Time Capsule with a Time Machine backup
3. Occasional cloning using the external hard drive I'm current using for Time Machine backups; and
3. Google Drive or Dropbox for cloud storage of my documents.

Since I scan and store almost all of my work files, I absolutely need my documents safe. I also would like to minimize down time for the inevitable unexpected problem.

Sent from the iMore App

I'm sorry, but I don't get the difference between Time Machine and "cloning." Would someone please explain this to the ignorant among us? Thanks!

"Cloning is a one time snapshot of a drive. Time Machine is a series of snapshots presented to you in a chronological sequence and automatically managed.

Perhaps the most important difference is that Time Machine backup(s) are not bootable. In the event of drive failure, you would need to replace the HDD (or SSD) re-install OSX and then restore your data from TM back-up. Easily a 2 to 4 hour process, more if you are storing a lot of data. OTOH a bootable clone means you can be back online in minutes (albeit through an external drive, which will be slower depending on USB2.0 vs USB3.0 vs firewire....) Another plus to the TM back-up: it is great for finding individual files you may have inadvertently lost/ thrown in the trash; i.e. not caused by drive failure. So both TM and cloning have their advantages and they don't necessarily overlap. Do both if you can. (I do only TM because I really wouldn't suffer if it was a day or two to get back up and running)

Great article, but cost and hard drive size often comes into play as well and that can force the end user to rely on Time Machine and local backups exclusively.

For instance, my iTunes library is now so large that I require a 3TB main drive, and thus the 3TB Time Capsule is my only reasonable backup. I have other, older computers full of other drives, but none of them are big enough. To throw this 3TB up into the Cloud is hugely prohibitive cost-wise, and time-wise.

You can expect the average user to be happy with Apple's computers and drive sizes and to also, if they are smart, buy a Time Capsule to back it up. To expect the average user to do all the other tricky stuff is not realistic IMO.

for things like that you can protect yourself by copying the 3TB to an external drive and storing that in a safe deposit box. You're not going to need to update that very often and putting it in a safe offsite location protects you against the "house burns down/someone steals all my computer stuff" scenario.

Another great tech post Peter. Backups are too often ignored. But it doesn't do much good if you are backing up corrupted files. I have close to 2 TB of media files. I'm less worried about music than photos and videos that I have shot. Any hints that Apple may ever move to something like ZFS or BTRFS?

Though I'd dearly love it if they adopted either, Apple has already punted on ZFS, and I doubt they'll bother with BTRFS.

Is there software that allows you to put an external drive at your parents' house or office that you back up your home computer to? Kind of like a personal cloud drive. Seems like this would be cheaper than paying for a subscription to a cloud service where you lose all your data if you stop subscribing.

I use Time Machine (backed up to an external HD) but most of my files are in Dropbox, iCloud or other web based storage (Google, Evernote, Pinboard, Flickr) anyway. The only local files are music ripped from CDs I own and software I bought outside iTunes/App Store.

Time Machine Mac backups to iCloud (Drive)? I don't see this implemented yet in Yosemite Beta, nor can I find any documentation. But seems like that should be an option, considering Apple now offers 1TB iCloud storage plan. Thoughts?