Multiple Backups with Apple Mac OS X Time Machine

I find Apple’s Time Machine backup system to extremely annoying. After five years, it finally paid off!

Hard Drive Failures Do Happen

To be sure, when my MacBook hard drive failed four years ago, restoring from backup was extremely easy. Getting the hard drive replaced was, in theory, easy. I went to the Apple store at the Mall of America and they replaced it under warranty. Unfortunately this was the same weekend the iPhone 3G was released. We spent all day waiting for the hard drive replacement!

But once I got my MacBook home, I plugged in the backup hard drive, which is maintained by the Time Machine backup system, and it restored everything from there. I lost up to four hours’ worth of email, but absolutely everything else was preserved. Nice!

How does Time Machine work and why do I find it so annoying?

Backup Hard Drives

I have a 1000-GB (i.e., one terabyte) external hard drive which I use for Time Machine backups. I have three other external hard drives plus the laptop internal hard drive. I keep things organized, but I do have a lot of files!

Apple Time Machine Every Hour

What’s annoying is that Time Machine kicks off every hour. Time Machine needs to deal with anything changed, on any of those four hard drives, since the last backup, and that definitely bogs down my five-year-old MacBook laptop. So far as I can tell, Time Machine makes a “delta” backup. It records what has changed from one hour to the next hour. It makes hourly backups for 24 hours; daily backups for the last month; weekly backups back to the beginning of time.

Of course, “the beginning of time” is when my backup drive is full. This means that, every backup, Time Machine needs to delete the oldest backup to make room. This seems to involve deleting a LOT of files, and re-backing-up several gigabytes’ worth of files. So, Time Machine runs every hour, and seems to bog my machine down for quite a while during a lot of those backups. When I’m trying to get stuff done, I find that annoying!

This is actually a good thing. Four years ago, I needed that backup. The laptop hard drive failed, and I restored it from backup. Piece of cake.

Took Time Machine Back in Time

Today, the incremental backups finally paid off. I cleaned up some portions of the Strong Family Association Web site two weeks ago. Today I discovered that I had deleted a folder of photos still in use. I’ve had broken links for two weeks!

I do a daily back of my web server. Every night, my laptop automatically copies every database and the contents of all files on the web server. In other words, I use rsync to mirror all domains daily, including daily database dumps. These become part of the hourly Time Machine backups as well.

Unfortunately, since I deleted the folder on the server, my mirrored copy of the server has long since had that folder deleted as well.

Here is the good part! I had posted on September 3rd, that I had done some site cleanup. I went in to Time Machine, and looked at the daily backup for September 1st (before I did the deleting). Time Machine has a nice interface; I just navigate to the folder like always. I navigated to the hard drive containing my server mirror, drilled down in to the Strong Family Association mirror, and there was my images folder! I restored the folder, put things back on the server via sftp, and everything looks pretty again!

Backups are a major hassle – until you need them. Then they are NICE!

Off Site Backup

For the record, I also use Crash Plan to create off site backups. I use the free version. I have four other computers doing automated backups to my MacBook. My MacBook, in turn, does an automated backup of everything to my son’s computer in North Dakota. All of these backups are encrypted; I am not able to read any files which are backed up to my MacBook.

This encryption factor is another reason that Time Machine goes nuts every hour and annoys me. Crash Plan packs all of its files into large single encrypted archive files. Time Machine can’t distinguish the contents, and therefore has no choice but to back up the whole archive all over again. This means my Time Machine backup does a lot of “churning.” I currently have about four weeks’ worth of backups. That’s not bad for backing 600GB into a 1000GB backup drive.

You Must Automate Your Backups

If you are not already doing so, please find a way to do automated backups of your entire computer. If you do things manually, it will only happen when you remember and get around to it. It’s almost guaranteed that you’ll make a current backup immediately after you really needed it! Automate things to run at least daily, and test your backups before you need to!

If you do a lot of things, such as maintain web sites (why else would you be reading this?), be sure you’re making automated backups of those files and databases too. There are plenty of no-cost options out there. Please find something that works well enough, and automate it!

Cloud Storage

I’ve done some experimenting with DropBox and Windows Live Mesh. Those are good cloud storage options. DropBox may be all you need. When you get in to the hundreds of GBs of data to store, and millions of files large and small, you need bigger options. I have a relatively complex data-flow of backups, but it does work, and has been tested!