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 Comments on "A Backup System"

  • Dave says

    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 drop​box​.com! :)


  • 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.

  • Phil says

    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.

  • 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

  • Chris says

    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

  • 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.

  • sven says

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

  • Josh says

    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!


  • Matt says

    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)

  • Matt, Dri­ves A and C are con­nected directly to my Mac. Drive B is daisy chained to Drive A. None of the dri­ves can be accessed wirelessly.

  • Matt says

    Thanks Anto­nio. Very helpful.

  • Frank says

    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.