Mac backup to NAS, USB or Cloud

mac backup
Mac backup using Time Machine and Cloud backup services

The purpose of this article is to give an overview of the kinds of Mac backup solution available. It covers some solutions that backup to a disk, some that can backup across your own network, one that can backup to another computer you own on a different site via the internet, and those that sync files between devices using the internet Cloud, thereby backing them up, and 2 solutions that are dedicated to backing up all your files to the Cloud. Phew!

Almost nobody actually remembers to backup regularly, even techies. But there are some great solutions that will automatically backup to a variety of locations. Mac users are especially fortunate because Apple’s Time Machine software comes with every new Mac

Apple Time Machine

TM-logoApple’s Time Machine software will do hourly backups through the day. It backs up everything that is created or modified in the last 24 hours. It keeps these backups for 24 hours. Then it stores a single backup for each day in the most recent month, with all previous months represented by weekly backups. Time Machine will start to delete the oldest backups if the backup disk runs out of space.

Time Machine can backup to a disk connected to your Mac via USB or to a disk that is on your network. Network backups will be far slower. A network Mac backup disk needs to be either:

  1. an Apple Time Capsule, a USB disk connected to an Apple Airport Extreme,
  2. a Mac running Mac Server software,
  3. or a third party NAS (a server) that explicitly supports Time Machine Mac backup,
  4. or for the brave there is the cheap solution using a Raspberry Pi (or a PC running Linux). Though the configuration for this is not “easy-as-Pi”.

Carbon Copy Cloner (CCC)

ccc-logoCarbon Copy Cloner has been around for years and has proved to be a remarkable tool. Sadly, this software is no longer free, but it is worth every penny (£31.70). Be sure to get it directly from the developers’ Carbon Copy Cloner website, not from a dodgy download site. It is not available through the Mac App Store.

Unlike Time Machine, when CCC backs up to a disk, the disk becomes bootable. This means it can be a startup disk for a Mac. So, if the Mac’s internal disk fails, or has a problem, connect the backup disk via USB, restart, hold down the ALT key immediately, and choose to run the Mac off the backup disk instead! This is also a useful thing if you regret upgrading a Mac to the latest system, or if an upgrade goes wrong. Start from the cloned disk, run the older system, and clone it back again to the Mac.

Cloud sync 

icloud-driveiCloud

Once documents are on the iCloud drive, visible in the Finder sidebar, they are effectively backed up. At least, if something horrible happens to the Mac, the files can be restored, either via another Mac using the same iCloud account, or by downloading directly from iCloud.com. Also, the Photos app that replaced iPhoto, backs up photos to iCloud, if the iCloud Library option is ticked.

Deleted files can be restored via iCloud.com if requested within 30 days of deletion. Previous versions of some files can be restored, but only if they are iWork files (Pages, Numbers, Keynote files) or from applications that support Apple’s versioning technology.

This iCloud storage is further integrated with the Mac with MacOS Sierra and High Sierra, and so could include the normal Documents and Desktop folders too. But the present free allowance is only 5GB and is a negligible amount for most people’s photos and files. Then again, 79p/month is nothing for 50 GB of storage.

Dropbox

Dropbox logoDropbox is similar to iCloud. It makes files available to any device being used. Files in the Dropbox folder are cloned to PC and Mac devices, and also reside in the Cloud, and this provides a Mac backup of sorts. Like iCloud, there is an initial amount of free storage, and additional storage needs to be paid for.

Finder contextual menu giving Dropbox file-sharing optionsThere are 3 important differences at the moment between iCloud Drive and Dropbox, all in Dropbox’s favour:

Firstly, the Dropbox folder can be set-up anywhere on a Mac, within reason. The files and folders in the Dropbox actually reside on the Mac exactly where they appear to be. If anything happens to the Dropbox account, they will still be there. Whereas, with iCloud, the actual files and folders are cached in hidden places in the Mac system, and if something silly happens to your Apple ID, they can just disappear from your Mac.

Secondly, with Dropbox, it is possible to be selective about which folders within the Dropbox folder to keep in sync on any device. With iCloud it used to be all or nothing, but it now is capable of dynamically removing files from your hard disk and only downloading them when you need them. This approach is mainly to free-up space on small solid-state hard drives.

Finally, it is easy to share files and folders from Dropbox with other people, whether they themselves use Dropbox or not. Just right-click (two-finger-tap or control-click) on the item in the Finder. A drop-down menu appears giving lots of options for sending a file to other people, no matter how big the file. And one of the options, right there in the Finder, is to view “Previous Versions” of the file. It doesn’t matter what kind of file it is.

As with iCloud, Dropbox stores deleted files for 30 days, but you can increase this allowance to a year for a small fee.

Cloud backup

Backblaze

logo-backblazeThis is a cloud service that specialises in just backing up data. It also has a reassuring Apple-like simplicity. Backblaze will automatically backup all your files after being installed on your Mac. There is a free trial available, after which there is a single flat fee ($5/month or $50/year) regardless of how much data is backed up. Backblaze is a fool-proof, reliable tool because out-of-the-box it backs up all your data.

Unlike Dropbox, and (at the moment) iCloud, files do not have to be in a special folder to be backed-up. You can continue to use them right where they are. Individual files can be restored with Dropbox, iCloud, and Backblaze. But if disaster strikes you may have an awful lot of data to restore. So Backblaze will post you a disk with your data on! They will also reimburse the cost of the disk itself if returned within 30 days.

There is a version of Backblaze that works on Windows PCs, but the Mac version is not some tweaked PC spin-off. It is designed by a team of engineers from the ground-up, including ex-Apple employees. It is fast and light-weight so that it does not slow the Mac down. It is a simple Mac backup to use, so that you don’t have to remember to do a thing.

Like Time Machine, for added security, you can further encrypt your backups. Again, be wary. You must remember the “private encryption key”. The data is actually already encrypted on Backblaze’s servers. It is only unlocked using the email address and password used to set up your account. If you happen to forget your account password, it can be reset via your email address. But if you also forget your private encryption key, Backblaze cannot help you because they do not know it.

That important gotcha aside, Backblaze is very Mac friendly and as simple as possible.

Livedrive

LivedriveAll the Cloud Mac backup solutions so far are US-based. For some UK and EU users this is not acceptable. Anxiety seems to centre around what the US Government is capable of forcing a US company to do. But in the case of data encrypted with a private key, known only to the user, this may be an irrelevancy.

Livedrive are UK based, and they have a Mac backup solution that will backup your data simply. All files are encrypted, but there does not seem to be a facility for setting a private encryption key. Otherwise, its features are mostly on a par with Backblaze.

There is a free trial available. Be sure to buy backup from the Livedrive site, as Livedrive is available more cheaply through resellers, but if the reseller ceases to trade, the purchased backup account is then deleted.