Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Backup strategy

Time for a geek post! It’s been a while.

So, recently I’ve kinda been forced to implement a better backup strategy, not because I lost data, but because some things happened that made me worry about what would happen if it did.

This scary dialogue box appeared on a machine that until that moment had no backups whatsoever!!!

My current setup

I have two Macbook Pros, a 2006 model that I bought in Japan which is setup downstairs for our son to use for homework (cough, Minecraft), and a recent model which I use for work. With the introduction of iCloud, and iTunes Match, my music is now synced nicely across all my Apple devices, but the one thing that wasn’t synced was my photos. If I lost my music, I could always acquire it again, but we’d be heartbroken if we lost our family photos.

The old Macbook Pro had photos on it up until around late 2011, which is roughly when I got my new one and also upgraded our camera to a Nikon D90. The new one has photos since then, and everything taken with my iPhone 4S via Photo Stream.

Time Machine

Both machines are backing up via Time Machine to one Western Digital 1TB drive each; the older one has it plugged in directly via USB, while the newer one has it attached as a network drive via an Airport Extreme wifi router. (Yes, you can actually do that)

This is fine for system files & settings, apps etc. In case of a catastrophe, I can re-install my apps from the App Store, or the vendor’s website. I keep my serial numbers in Yojimbo, which I have saving it’s data to Dropbox. Time Machine is really only handy if you need to revert a file that you might have deleted from your desktop last week thinking you wouldn’t need it again for example. I’ve never used it to revert changes or restore lost/damaged files.


All my writing, notes, etc. are stored in a Dropbox folder, which automatically syncs to the cloud. In case of a catastrophe, I could restore them easily.

Source Code Management

I keep all my software development work under version control, which means it’s stored on the SCM server, as well as on the production servers my apps are deployed to. In case of catastrophe, a quick svn up will restore my work.

The problem

Both laptops have small, 128GB hard drives. The newer one is an SSD, while the older one is literally completely full. The iPhoto libraries are around 40GB and 20GB for the old & new respectively, so I needed a way to move the libraries off onto an external drive. If I do that however, they will no longer be protected by Time Machine. I’ve read that you can actually configure Time Machine to backup external drives, but there’s another issue worth considering - physically loosing or damaging the backup drive itself.

If there’s a house fire, or someone breaks in and steals the backup drive, our backups are lost. Hard drives can, and inevitably will fail. So for our most precious memories, I need an off-site backup solution.

The solution - off-site backups

Dropbox is great for small files, like plaintext documents, PDFs, etc, but the free plan only provides 2GB of storage, and the paid plans are reasonably priced, but considering I need to backup at least 40-50GB of data, I’d need to go to the Pro 100 plan for $20/month or $200/year. My precious memories are worth that, but there is a cheaper alternative - going directly to Amazon S3.

Dropbox actually uses Amazon’s cloud services for their storage back-end. You can actually sign up for an Amazon S3 account yourself, and get wholesale prices as it were, around $10/month for 80GB of storage. All you get is access to their storage, you don’t get any means of using it as part of a backup strategy out of the box. That’s where a handy little app called Arq comes into the picture.

Arq - automated backups to Amazon S3

Arq is an app which costs around $30, and provides a beautiful interface to Amazon’s S3 cloud storage. It walks you through signing up for S3 and setting it up for automated remote backups. It runs in the background, and can quite happily backup external drives.

I now have a backup strategy that I’m happy with:

  • Music
    • synced across devices via iCloud
  • Photos
    • stored on an external drive which is backed up to Amazon S3 with Arq
    • might set up local backups onto the Time Machine drive for a redundant copy
  • Videos
    • they’re just stored remotely on one of my Time Machine drives (the NAS), don’t really care if I loose those; I rarely if ever re-watch them
  • Writing, documentation, PDFs etc
    • synced across devices via Dropbox
  • Source code & assets
    • backed up remotely via version control systems
  • System files & apps

It will be some time before Arq finishes it’s initial 50GB upload, but once it’s done I’ll have peace of mind that our most precious memories will survive flood, fire, and hopefully foolishness :) Well worth the $30 up-front investment in Arq, and the $0.33/day in Amazon S3 storage fees.

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