A Backup System


For the last 6 years or so, my backup setup consisted of one unreliable 120 GB drive that I would manually update whenever I remember to do so. That’s pretty much a pathetic way to go about it and I’ve been extremely lucky to not have had a catastrophic drive failure.

I’ve been meaning to get serious about my file management, but I never did anything about it. That’s until I read Frank Chimero’s insightful article about his setup and how he deals with file management. It motivated me to finally put a system together to protect my important files, and to write this article detailing my current setup. I figured that it can’t hurt to have more information available on the subject for those who are interested.

The Equipment

Right away, I knew that my lame 120 GB drive wouldn’t make a good base for my setup. The key factor in any good backup system is redundancy. The more copies you have of your data, the safer you are. I first looked into RAID 1 systems. A RAID 1 system is essentially made up of two drives, one drive is where you backup your data, and the other drive is used to mirror that drive, creating a backup of your backup. The benefit of a RAID 1 is that it all happens on the fly, so when data is stored to the first drive, it’s instantly mirrored to the second drive. I found a few options that might work, but they were either too expensive or noisy.

I then looked into single hard drives, which had to be quiet and large enough to store all of my data. To create redundancy I knew that I’d needed two separate drives. After a few days of researching and asking on Twitter, I purchased two Lacie Quadra 1 TB drives. They’re silent, affordable, offer four connection interfaces and look damn sexy.

To build on the setup, I also signed up for Backblaze, an online file backup service that’s really cheap and easy to use. The service constantly checks your machine and external drives to see if anything has changed and needs a backup. It all happens in the background, so you just set it up and never think about it again. The first backup does take a few days, though, depending on the amount of data you’re storing. They have a free 15 trial, which is a great way to test it out.

I also purchased SuperDuper, an inexpensive desktop app that allows you to completely clone your machine, creating a bootable copy. You can even schedule backups, which is great.

Finally, the system also makes use of Dropbox and Apple’s iDisk. More details below on how I use these two services.

The Setup

I put together this diagram to help visualize my setup. Here’s how it works:

All of my data is kept on my iMac’s internal drive. Current and archived work files, important documents like my resume, and my Aperture Library Backup, live in my Dropbox folder. I do this to create more redundancy for my most important data.

I’ve kept my old 120 GB drive and use it to store really old work, videos, pictures and my iPhoto Library. This is not precious data.

Every other day I have SuperDuper clone my iMac to one of my Lacie 1 TB drives, lets call this one Drive A. Immediately after that is done I have SuperDuper clone Drive A to my other Lacie 1 TB drive, let’s call this one Drive B. Once a month SuperDuper clones my 120 GB drive to Drive B. I only do it once a week because the data on that drive won’t change that often. All of the SuperDuper backups are set to Smart Update. It’s a great feature that only copies files and folders that are new or have changed. This considerably speeds up the process after the initial backup.

Once a week the current work folder in Dropbox, my Address Book and iCal databases, Safari settings, keychain, fonts and current photos are copied to iDisk using Apple’s Backup app.

For extra security, I’ve setup Backblaze to constantly backup my iMac’s internal drive, which includes my Dropbox local folder, and the 120 GB drive.

During all this I have Time Machine constantly backing-up to Drive B.

This setup creates 6 copies of my vital data:

– Internal iMac Drive
– External Drive A
– External Drive B
– Dropbox
– iDisk
– Backblaze

and 3 copies of my unimportant data:

– External 120 GB Drive
– External Drive B
– Backblaze

This is a good amount of redundancy and will provided a good level of security and piece of mind. I’ll probably expand on this in the future. Those Lacie drives are cheap, so why not get another one to clone one of the other drives. Eventually, I want to have an off-site drive, just for added security.

When I was first looked into backup systems, I had no idea where to begin. Hopefully this article has been helpful to those who are still unsure on how to proceed. I also suggest reading this article by John Gruber for more information on the subject.

12 thoughts on “A Backup System

  1. Thanks for explaining your setup! I’m always interested to see how others have done it. Quick question, though. Why do you clone your Drive A bootable clone of your iMac to Drive B, and not simply clone your iMac’s internal drive to Drive B, just like how you made the clone to Drive A? I’m sure it would be faster, too, considering your data does not have to go from one external USB (or FireWire, if you use that) to the other.

    Also, have you checked out software RAID? OSX has pretty darn easy to use software RAID support built-in. Using that you might make your workflow a bit easier still (with, for example, Drive A and Drive B being software RAID).

    Oh, and just in case you didn’t do this already, be sure to enable the unlimited undo feature in Dropbox, it’s free with all paid accounts as far as I know. Check your account page at dropbox.com! 🙂


  2. Dave, you can set it up that way as well. I did it this way because I might partition out Drive A and add other data to it that might not live on my iMac.

    In reference to speed, after the initial backup is done it all happens pretty fast. SuperDuper has a feature called Smart Update that only copies over new files or files that have changed.

  3. Thanks for sharing. You’ve gone from not-very to oh-my-god-how-secure in a single leap 🙂

    Regarding an affordable RAID solution I recently picked up a D-Link DNS-320 after I tested one for work. It takes two SATA drives and I decided I needed one after I bought an SLR and wanted to make sure all my photos didn’t disappear one day.

  4. This is an awesome post, and the nice minimal diagram you put together to illustrate how everything coordinates in your set-up is super helpful.

    I am currently recovering from a data loss scare, which turned out to be a simple corrupted power supply. This close call has given me the necessary incentive to take some serious steps to protect my data. Something modeled off your system is surely in the works!

    Cheers, and thank you for sharing!

    – Max

  5. My setup is approaching this level of complexity. I keep thinking maybe it makes more sense to just bite the bullet, buy a drobo for all the local backups and use cloud for offsite. I’ve got an external drive for duplicates if important data, one for time machine, and crash plan takes everything to the web. My issue is storing photo and video archives – do I keep em local, on the external and in the cloud? How to i remember where everything is? Making archived and backed up data searchable and rational is important

  6. Nice article, I’m setting up a similar system right now. Copying the internal drive to two WD Elements 2tb drives.

    I’m also looking at getting a BluRay burner to burn the most important files on discs every six months or so and store off site for extra safety.

  7. hey, nice setup. using a similar approach 🙂
    one question: with which program did you make this fancy diagram, looks good 🙂

  8. I am late on the game in this article but wanted to add to it as well. My setup isn’t nearly this complex (yet).

    Currently I am just use my iMac and then a time machine to an external 1tb drive. Now I may seem squirrley on this part, but the drive i am using as my time machine is just a USB2 portable WD drive. I have a tri interface lacie sitting in front of me, as well as a tri interface seagate freeagent, and a slew of other drives. I actually bought the freeagent to be my time machine. Since it is a desktop model i was not a fan of having to use a power source, for it having it be “on” all the time, a little bit of noise, ran kind of hot etc. So i went back to using a portable drive. Love that it is bus powered, super silent. For theft protection i have it routed up under my desk and secured with velcro. In my mind if someone did break in and steal my imac, they probably wouldn’t find the time machine and i can restore everything. I have even had to restore my imac once since a sector was bad on the new 1tb internal i put in. Being USB2 it took a bit of time, fw800 would have flew, but the benefits on a day to day basis win for me.

    I am planning on getting a new 2tb drive and putting it in the lacie enclosure soon, it is current only a 500 gb and at this point I will probably start in on some redundant backups. Might sell the freeagent too, jut not a fan, and without even updating the lacie right now, i have 3 tbs of space in front of me.

    Going to add in the dropbox soon too. Just started using it, so my design files and stuff will probably get stored here as well. Along with resume, portfolio, etc, the important stuff.

    hopefully you won’t mind but if anybody wants to try dropbox, this is my referral link. We’ll both get a 250mb bonus if you sign up through it. we can all use more space!


  9. Thanks for the thorough description and inspiration to get organized. I have a couple quick questions:

    How do you have drives A, B, and C connected? Are they all daisy-chained to each other, individually connected to your iMac, or are they connected through some sort of fire wire or USB hub?

    Are any of these drives accessible wirelessly? (for instance, if you were to have a second computer or laptop in your house)

  10. That is what I call taking backup seriously! Lots of copies all over the place, very solid idea. I would just like to add that the software (and hardware for that matter) options keep changing and quite dramatically. The emphasis is definitely now on cloud storage and Backblaze is good but people might want to look at other ideas too.

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