One of the best New Year’s resolutions you can make is to establish a regular and reliable routine to backup your computer’s hard drive contents. While many of your documents are important — some are probably irreplaceable, like family digital photos/videos or critical work projects. It’s essential that you have a smart backup plan. In this post I’ll explain my backup system to help you decide what’s best for your situation.

Here are three essential data rules to keep in mind:

  • Your hard drive will fail and you’ll lose the data stored on it. The only question is when.
  • Your data is not safe unless it exists in (at least) two physical places.
  • One copy of your data should be “off site” — in case of fire or theft at your main computer.

Look at this chart to determine your risk exposure.

Your backup risk

My Backup Routine

I’ve used external USB 2.0 and Firewire drives over the years for backing up my data, but I always run into the same problems: the external drive’s not mounted, it’s too small, it’s too slow, etc. It finally dawned on me that the easiest way to backup my files reliably and frequently is to have a drive mounted at all times.

My main computer is a Mac ProMy main computer is a Mac Pro, which is a tower desktop unit containing multiple hard drive bays. The main internal hard drive is 750 gigabytes. I decided to purchase a second internal hard drive so it would always be powered up and available. But what size? Since hard drive prices continue to drop, the cost differential as you go up in size is not great. So I purchased a drive twice as large as I needed: 1.5TB. After installing internally into the second drive bay, I partitioned it into two equal volumes of 750GB each. I named one volume HD Duo, which I use as my target backup device. I use the second volume as temporary storage — anything that isn’t very important and I don’t care about losing!

My Daily Backup

There are several good backup software utilities on the market, and I’ve used most of them. Retrospect, Carbon Copy Cloner, Synk, ChronoSync, Synchronize Pro X, to name a few. But I’m using SuperDuper from Shirt Pocket Software — which works very well for me. It’s fast and reliable.

I set up SuperDuper to backup the entire contents of my main Macintosh HD internal hard drive to my HD Duo volume. The first backup took several hours since it transferred over 500GB worth of data. But now it takes about 10 minutes, since it only has to back up the files that have changed since the last SuperDuper backup. I run this backup script once per day.

This daily backup insures that I have a duplicate copy of everything in the event of a problem with my main hard drive. My HD Duo contents will never be more than 24 hours old.

But what about fire, flood, theft, etc? That’s where an off-site backup is essential.

My Off-Site Backup

Over the years, I’ve tried may different ways to do off-site backups — carrying external hard drives to family, neighbors, business associates, and my bank’s safe deposit box. Even burning DVDs and putting them in a fire-proof safe.

But these offsite methods all had one BIG problem: The hassle factor was way too high. Consequently, I never got into a reliable routine and my off-site backups were always woefully out of date.

I investigated online backup services. MobileMe’s iDisk, Backblaze, Carbonite, CrashPlan Central, IDrive, Jungle Disk, and MozyHome. The concept is simple: you install a software utility on your computer that encrypts your data and sends it over the internet to the company’s data storage servers. You can then download your files back to your computer (or any other computer) whenever you like.

After trying several services, I chose Backblaze. The subscription cost is $5/month per computer. It was easy to install and use, and I thought $60/year was a fair price to pay for unlimited offsite storage.

But initially backing up 500GB of data took a LONG time — several weeks, in fact, even with my high-speed Verizon FiOS connection. But now that the first pass is complete, Backblaze runs in the background continually, quietly encrypting and transferring new/revised files offsite, just in case I experience a serious problem with my office computer that can’t be resolved using my internal hard drive clone.

UPDATE 5-21-10: I discovered that Backblaze was taking way too long to upload my files. It was always working but never finishing. I solved the problem by changing the Backblaze System Preference panel’s “throttle” setting. I moved it to the Faster Backups. Everything’s working smoothly now!

Online Reviews

A good starting point to select an online backup service is OnlineBackupsReview.com.

Summary

Here’s a diagram of my current backup system.

Multi-level computer backup system

11/3/2010 update: My hard drive crashed! Here’s how I recovered by using my daily backup.