Random Advice

Picking the Right Hardware, Software, and Strategy for Effective Backup

- 2006.01.31

In my first column (Simple, Cheap, Low-end Mac Backup: Do It or Else) I discussed a simple method for backing up your files aimed at those of us whose needs are pretty simple. That method is perfect for someone, such as my mother, since she creates only a few "permanent" documents and spends most of her time on the Internet, selling stuff on eBay and other auction sites.

Once her items are sold, she simply deletes the files (pictures and text) and continues on her way. Simply dragging the files she does need to a floppy disk or two is just fine for her.

If that's not you, or if you really don't relish the idea of manually tracking all those plastic disks, or if you have a lot of data you want to back up, that "simple" method is not your best option. Instead, I would suggest better media and a dedicated backup program.

Hardware

Backup programs are designed to do a few targeted tasks: organize your data and back it up, most often to some sort of media drive, such as a Zip or Jaz drive, an optical device (such as a CD or DVD burner), or, in these days of cheap mechanisms, an external hard drive.

Using larger devices such as these saves you from having to deal with lots and lots of floppies, which is a lovely thing indeed. Why? Because for one thing floppies are a pain to keep track of and to label correctly, and their failure rate is too high to trust for large amounts of data.

Instead, connecting a second hard drive to your SCSI, USB, or FireWire port enables you to quickly and easily copy the files you need to that external drive. It's much faster than floppies and certainly more reliable.

You can also take these devices with you, so you can store the backed up data off site, which is another plus.

Software

There are a number of backup programs that work on older Macs. You should be able to find these at places that sell used and older software, such as eBay, or companies that sell refurbished or used Macs.

Some of the utility programs, such as Norton Utilities and MacTools, contained modules designed to back up data in addition to other utility programs, while specific, dedicated programs such as FastBack and Retrospect are applications that only do backups. These latter programs generally offer more options than those that came as part of a utility suite.

The simpler apps may be just what you need. One way to find out is to do a little research: Find a review online (for example, search for "Backup Program Reviews" or insert the specific name, such as "Retrospect Review") or at the library and read up on the options.

Strategy

Once you find a product you like, you'll need to develop a backup strategy: what and when to back up. While not difficult, it's something that you should spend some time considering. Do you want to back up just your created documents, do you want to include your applications (so you don't have to find the original disks and registration numbers if something happens to your Mac or internal drive), or do you want to back up the entire hard drive? Should you do incremental backups only or create complete archives each time? How long should you keep documents anyway?

To help you decide, I'll explain a few terms. Full backups are just that, a backup of every file on your hard drive. That includes all of the documents (spreadsheets, letters, memos, newsletters and brochures, pictures and other graphics, saved game files, etc.), as well as all of your applications and their associated files. In other words, it's lets your make an exact copy of your hard disk (in the case of SuperDuper, you end up with a bootable copy of your hard drive).

An incremental backup is a session that only contains copies of files that were changed after the last backup.

A good strategy should include both. In fact, many backup programs require that you perform a full backup before they will do an incremental backup.

Another thing to decide about the backup strategy is should it be archiving or mirroring? An archival backup is one that includes the entire hard drive, volume, folder, or all the new files on your drive. The key is that older copies of backed up data remain on the backup as well.

The advantage to such a backup is that if (when) you need to find a draft or revision of a document that is several versions old, it will be there.

A mirroring backup only copies the most recent versions of documents/files. Old versions are written over, so the backup media contains the "freshest" data as of the date of your last backup. This is good if you want to save storage space and know you won't have any need for the older versions of your files.

If, after reading this, you've decided that your strategy should include both, you win the prize! A typical scenario is that your first backup is a full backup that archives everything on your hard disk. On weekdays you make daily mirror backups, and on Friday evening (or Saturday morning), you make another archival backup.

You rotate disks for the mirroring and semi-rotate the archival backup disks. You make sure you keep a backup (archival and mirrored) off site.

Backup Programs

Here is a list of programs, new and old, that could be just what you need. If one is no longer in production (which happens often in the wonderful world of computing), check out used places such as eBay, garage sales, classified ads, and other places. They are listed in no particular order.

  • MacTools/Central Point Backup
  • Retrospect
  • DiskFit
  • FastBack
  • Norton Utilities
  • Redux Deluxe
  • SafeDeposit
  • SnapBack

You may wonder what I, your fearless author, use. Well, I used to go the easy, simple route (a stack of floppy disks and a Sharpie pen), but that was long ago. Now I use the Backup program that came with my .mac membership. It works well for me and allows both archival and incremental backups, and it can span files across disks if need be. For machines that run older Systems, such as 7.x or 8.x, I use an older copy of Retrospect.

Next week I'll discuss disk organization, and after that I'll look at Photoshop, including the history of this important program and ways to determine which version is just what you need. LEM

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