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My Backup Workflow

You’ve probably read John Gruber’s post about backups last week, the one where he talked about his experience with a damaged internal hard drive and, luckily for him, the way he managed to save data with Dropbox, Super Duper, Disk Warrior and a couple of external hard disks.

I think John made some strong points in suggesting to purchase not one, but a couple of external hard drives - as you really don’t know when a hard drive is gonna fail. Just as an internal drive can die, so a Firewire one with all your backups can.

Anyway, there are some other practices I’ve gotten used to follow over time I’d like to talk about.

First, about Dropbox.

Dropbox is a great service, which comes free in its 2Gb version and that (I’m surprised by the number of people who don’t know this) can be extended to 5GB with a referral codes system. I have a 5GB Dropbox, for free, thanks to people who signed up with my referral link. If you’re already using Dropbox, go create a referral link and tell your friends and parents to sign up: not only you’ll get additional free space, you’ll also spread the good word about backups. That said, I use Dropbox for every kind of data I want / have to keep both local and mirrored on the internet: application databases (Omnifocus, LittleSnapper, DEVONthink - just to name a few), MacStories Backups, my wallpaper collection, applications’ backups (Omnifocus, 1Password). While it’s pretty obvious to store files and folders into the Dropbox folder (like my wallpapers), I know that many people still don’t know how to link an app database to Dropbox. As John pointed out in his post about Yojimbo’s Library sitting in DB, you can create a symlink (an alias won’t work) that points the database folder (usually in Application Support) to a Dropbox selected one. I did this for Omnifocus, Clipmenu and Things, and it works fine. TUAW’s got a useful post about this subject.

Another tip regarding Dropbox and apps databases involves the much popular password manager 1Password: did you know that by storing the .agilekeychain file into Dropbox’s Public folder you’ll be able to access your 1Password installation from the web? Yeah, that’s a neat feature AgileWeb Solutions introduced with the 3.0 version, and I personally used it a couple of times when I was away from my computer and needed to retrieve a login. Of course, you don’t have to worry about security. Last, I’d like to mention EmailBackup Pro, an application I’ve started using on a daily basis which basically compresses all the mailboxes from and creates a .epb file I store in Dropbox. It works fine to me (though I honestly hope I won’t need it anytime soon).

But Dropbox isn’t the only app I use to backup stuff online. Arq from Haystack Software is an app that lets you pick up any file you like, backup it to Amazon S3 and restore it into its original position. I think the app’s also got some basic versioning system, and I’m pretty sure it trims backups much like Time Machine does. The greatest advantage in using S3 is the cost: $0.15 per GB, I backup a good part of my Mac OS X installation everyday and I don’t even reach the $2 quota per month. You can go through the online documentation of Arq and read how it actually stores data and the buckets it creates, but I’m telling you - it just works, it’s secure and it’s transparent to the user. You can even close the app from the dock and leave the agent run in the background. You may now ask me why I decided to use both Dropbox and Arq - it’s simple: you never know what could happen to Dropbox’s data center, or Amazon’s ones. Sounds catastrophic? Maybe, but then again - you never know what on earth could happen to your online-backed up files. Also, Dropbox and Arq are ultimately two different apps: Dropbox stores and backups files, Arq backups and restore files.

If you don’t feel comfortable with linking folders to Dropbox and you prefer the good & old copy-paste to a different location, then Automator Loop Utility might do the job for you. Ok, don’t freak out: I know most of you don’t know anything about Automator workflows and how they work, but this one is seriously good. ALU can convert a workflow file to a workflow applet that repeat its actions at indicated intervals. So, say you have this workflow that copies your Omnifocus database to your external hard drive, you can automatically repeat it every 2 hours with this method. You just have to drag the original .workflow file onto the ALU icon and enter a time value (in seconds). Another way to schedule workflows involves creating an event in, you can use it to activate the workflow everyday, for example.

As for the app I use to create a perfect clone of my Mac HD and make it bootable, that’s SuperDuper. I find it fast and reliable. Many users emailed me saying CarbonCopyCloner does the job too, but I’ve never used it though. I don’t use Time Machine, as I prefer the way SD allows me to create a bootable copy and forget about it.

As John writes:

I find terrific value in SuperDuper’s model. SuperDuper creates a bootable clone of your startup drive. With Time Machine, if your startup drive goes kaput, you’ve got to go through a lengthy restore process (and, in the case of hardware failure on the kaput drive, you need an extra bootable volume to restore to). With SuperDuper, you just plug in the clone, reboot, and you’re back up.

I run SuperDuper every night, and I’ve partitioned my 1TB Western Digital Firewire drive to store the bootable copy. I’m also planning to purchase another 2TB external drive.

To sum up: you have to take backups seriously, and I’ll never stop saying this. It’s amazingly surprising how many people out there don’t care about backups, data and their computing life at all. They think having a good file system organization is a “good enough” way of working.

Seriously, go buy some external drives. Go buy SuperDuper. Sign up for Dropbox, create an Amazon S3 account. Ok, now hope your internal drive won’t die anytime soon because anyway you put it, it’s a pain in the ass. But at least you’ll be ready.

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