Journal: News & Comment

Friday, October 11, 2002
# 7:42:00 AM:

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I was going to quote from an old article of mine from My Mac Magazine in July 2000, but it seems to have disappeared from the archives there. I'm republishing it now. While I have fixed or removed some of the dead links, my backup regimen has also changed, since I don't have a separate office to take backups to anymore -- and Zip disks are way too small to hold my stuff these days...

Why You Will Become A Backup Obsessive Like Me
by Derek K. Miller, July 2000

Four years ago, almost to the day, I came to bed very late and obviously agitated. My wife, half awake, asked what was wrong.

"I think I just nuked the computer's hard drive," I said, quivering.

"Yikes," she said, and wisely left asking the details till morning.

When the time comes for you to ask yourself, as I did that night, whether you have a backup, you won't ask the question calmly.

The Screaming, Swearing Little Voice

What I mean is, the little voice in your head will not say, "Gee, I wonder if I have a backup? Perhaps I'll go make a cup of tea and take a look."

No. Your little voice will first create a strong series of swear words, which you will then say out loud. Then it will proceed:

"Do I have a backup?! DO I? WHERE IS THE #@$% BACKUP?"

Your little voice will get louder (and probably cruder) to try to drown out the icy crackle of your stomach as it sinks into a dark, cold pit. For in your heart, you will know the truth: there is no backup.

I should have learned the first time, in 1988. That year, on a Saturday night, I was finishing an issue of the student newspaper I edited, when the 40 MB external hard drive for the Mac SE died. I was up until Sunday afternoon re-doing everything from scratch, running PageMaker from floppy disks. In my harried state, I forgot to call my mom on her 50th birthday.

Why Learn the Easy Way When You Can Suffer Instead?

Recently, I questioned some current and former software tech support people I know. How many of users' tech support crises, complete with icy stomach-pits and swearing and forgotten birthdays, could be avoided if their data was properly backed up?

About 80%, most agreed.

But the customers of my tech support friends are like you and me. They, or you, will never do proper backups until you're bitten. Hard. Maybe by a hard disk failure, maybe by a thunderstorm or brownout, maybe by burglars or lost luggage or sweaty hands trying to clutch a laptop while you're sprinting to catch a bus across hard, hard concrete.

Maybe they, or you, will click OK when you should have clicked Cancel, like I did.

The Obsessive's Agenda

I'll tell you what I do now.

  1. Every night at 10:00 p.m., my Power Mac fires up its Retrospect Express backup software and copies my family's e-mail databases (including over 15,000 archived messages) to a Zip disk.

  2. Twice a week, I take that Zip disk to my office downtown, along with another Zip disk of the same data, which I make using a regular Finder folder copy.

  3. I duplicate those Zips onto the hard drive of my UMAX Mac clone at work -- in two separate folders, in case one gets corrupted. So, right now, for instance, I have five copies of my e-mail database in two locations about 15 kilometers apart. One copy is "live," while one is six days old, and the other three are somewhere in between.

  4. Once a month, I burn the entire contents of my hard drive onto CD-Rs (good gold ones, not the cheapies). The newest such backup sits on a shelf near the computer for easy access. Older ones are on a spindle in my office, again 15 km away. And whenever I find there's extra room on another CD-R I'm going to create -- to archive system updates and shareware, for example -- I add some documents for backup too.
So unless there's a nuclear strike or cometary impact that vaporizes Vancouver and its suburbs (and me with them), my data will survive.

I'm not like this in real life, I warn you. Sure, like the rest of my family, I'm a bit of a pack rat, but I don't always pay my bills on time. My laundry piles up. I procrastinate about many things (such as writing this article, five months after my last one). But I back up every day.

Biting Big, Biting Small, Biting Them All

The wisdom of my current obsessive approach to backups became obvious when I talked to my cousin's boyfriend this last Canada Day. He'd just had a hard drive expire, taking seven years of accounting records with it.

And you guessed it: no backup. The estimate from a data recovery firm was several thousand dollars -- in U.S. funds. If they could get the data back, that is.

And it's not just small-time operators like me and my acquaintances who have to learn the hard way. Earlier this year, the massive telecommunications company Verizon lost thousands of customers' voice mail archives. No backup, apparently.

Are Computer Makers Negligent?

So it's sadly no surprise that unless they're selling you a fairly high-end server, computer and operating system manufacturers, including Apple (who should really be ahead of the game here) don't make it easy to reliably back up your system out of the box. Yeah, they'll chuck in a DVD drive and a free movie, but how about a tape drive or CD-R drive and a Backup Configuration Assistant that runs the first time you fire up the machine?

Palm, for one, has the right idea. Every time I HotSync my PalmPilot (vintage 1997), it backs up almost everything to my desktop Mac. If I lose, destroy, or accidentally wipe out the handheld, I can still get at the data on it. In fact, I wrote the first draft of this article on it, and one benefit is that I have three copies (one on the Palm, and one each on my home and office Macs) at any time.

The Backup Obsessive's Toolkit

Have I convinced you? Are you a born-again backup obsessive yet? If so, here's a list of some good backup resources to get you started.

  • Dantz Retrospect and Retrospect Express - The standards for backup on the Mac. Retro Express won't back up multiple machines, won't work with networked drives, and doesn't support tape backup, but it's much cheaper and does work with all sorts of removable media, CD-Rs, and even with FTP. The full Retrospect will back up almost anything (including Windows PCs) to almost anything. There is other software out there too, including Backup Mastery.

  • Adaptec Toast - The venerable CD-R/RW burning software can also help you do incremental backups to CD, if you read the instructions carefully. Retrospect Express makes it easier, however, but if you have Toast already you can give it a shot.

  • Apple's iDisk - In a pinch, users of Mac OS X (or people with earlier Mac OSs and some ingenuity) can have 20 MB of free [well, not anymore in 2002, but it's 100 MB with a subscription - Derek] network drive space on which to store documents or other not-too-huge backups. Of course, a fast Internet connection like ADSL or a cable modem will help make your iDisk more useful. And make sure not to put your backups somewhere everyone on the Net can see them, like the Sites folder!

  • Backed Up Today? - A great series in the great and long-running Mac newsletter TidBITS. Read the series and accompanying TidBITS-Talk discussions on strategies, media, cost, and backing up on the Internet. Then subscribe to TidBITS and read it every week. It will make your Mac experience better. Thank me later.

  • The Tao of Backup - Funny and truthful, probably more of either than my article here.

  • PowerOn Rewind - It's not really a backup in the proper sense, since it uses your existing hard drive, but this brand new product, awarded a Best of Show at Macworld Expo 2000 NY, is just too cool not to mention. Like Adaptec's similar GoBack for PCs, it uses a portion of your hard disk as "undo" space, so if you screw up a document (or your OS), you can go back to where you were yesterday or even a few days ago. I haven't used it, but it's worth looking at as an addition to a proper backup strategy.

(And if you're not convinced, come back to this page once you've experienced the Sinking Stomach of Doom. But don't bother with a browser bookmark -- that will be gone when you need it, along with everything else. Try a scrap of paper.)


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