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, and it quietly gets on with backing up every hour, as long as it has been set up. But there are other solutions that can be implemented – because Time Machine can go wrong, and backup disks can be stolen or destroyed just as easily as Macs can.
Apple Time Machine
Apple’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:
- an Apple Time Capsule, a USB disk connected to an Apple Airport Extreme,
- a Mac running Mac Server software,
- or a third party NAS (a server) that explicitly supports Time Machine Mac backup,
- 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)
Carbon 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.
CrashPlan can backup to a folder on a usb or network disk. It does not provide the same Finder browse-able backups as CCC. So a CrashPlan backup cannot provide a hot-swappable clone of the source disk. But it has a simple GUI that makes the location and restoration of backups very simple, and unlike TimeMachine it does not require anything special from the networked disk. And for this purpose it is free! In fact you only pay for backup if you use CrashPlan’s cloud service called CrashPlan Central.
Also for free, CrashPlan gives you the remarkable capability to backup to another computer on your network, or even another computer elsewhere, off-site, via the internet. Each computer running CrashPlan gets its own unique code allowing it to become a backup host. Simply use this code on any other computer that you want to backup. It doesn’t matter what kind of computer the host is; it does not have to be a Mac, just as long as there is a big enough disk attached to it for the backup. It is easy to set up; no messing with firewalls, routers or VPNs.
This backup facility to an off-site computer also means that the backup files are not stored “in the Cloud” which for some, with concerns about privacy and confidentiality, is a bonus.
One of the features of CrashPlan that I particularly like is version control. Perhaps you do not want your backup to retain every version of every file and so version control allows the frequency of version captures can be altered. This fine tuning is not available in CCC or Apple’s Time Machine, and so can prevent the target disks from getting needlessly full while still providing earlier file versions to fall back on.
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 set to be further integrated with the Mac with MacOS Sierra, and so could include the normal Documents and Desktop folders too. It will be interesting to see what happens to iCloud pricing when Sierra goes live. The present free allowance is only 5GB and is a negligible amount for most people’s photos and files.
Dropbox is similar to iCloud. Its primary role is to make files available to any device being used. Files in the Dropbox folder are cloned to different devices, and 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.
There 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, but with iCloud it is all or nothing.
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.
This 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 was designed from the ground-up by a team of engineers, 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.
Download Backblaze for Mac and be backing-up in minutes!
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.
All 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.
I mentioned in passing that CrashPlan allows you to backup to their Cloud service called CrashPlan Central, so it is worth mentioning again, here.