Making the Case for Redundant Backups – A Really Good Idea

It’s that time again. Time to talk about your backup. You would think the topic is like discussing a trip to the dentist for a checkup. We all know it’s a good idea, but somehow, for some of us, we never quite get around to it. The backup situation for most of us in the Mac community has improved greatly over the last five years. Time machine, the program on every new Mac that facilitates the automatization of your backup routine, requires only that you attach an external drive to your minty-fresh, new Mac when you first set it up.

But there is a catch. You have to actually attach an external drive, preferably as new and at least as large (in capacity) as the drive within your Mac. And, unfortunately, there is another catch. Just because you have Time Machine all nicely set up with an external drive, sitting right next to your Mac, does not mean your data is safe. It requires that you periodically check the status of that backup. Was it disconnected by accident when you last moved that stack of folders on your desk? Did someone unplug it? Did you turn it off? Did you remember to turn it back on? Or is it just full, and hasn’t backed up since last October? You don’t want to find out in December, after your computer dies, that the backup stopped working a year and a half ago.

Some of you may be relying on online backup systems, like iCloud, Mozy, Carbonite, and many more. Not to slight those services, but they too are not impervious to trouble. There is a reason they have you click through lengthy pages of legalese (a service contract) before you can start uploading your precious data. They do not accept responsibility for you data. Period. Indeed, they cannot. The liability would be insane. And, as we have seen, online backups, such as that promised by iCloud, are not fool-proof. (See the previous article, “Cloudburst”).

The security of external drives is as good as the security of their location – whether it’s your home office or your office in some commercial building somewhere. Some punk may crawl in through your kitchen window and steal not only your computer, but also your backup drive. Yes, it’s true. Real vermin will take your backup drive. It’s the equivalent of asking you for your money at gunpoint, taking your wallet, and then shooting you anyway. It has always puzzled me why backup drives are stolen. It’s not as if they’re worth much on the street, unless you’re store some seriously important data, and the data was the real target. Perhaps the thief plans to backup his own data. Bastard. The thief knows how important backups are, but you don’t?

Usually it’s those pictures of our kids growing up that we care about most. Adults break down in tears at a theft, not because their computers were stolen, but because of the data (pictures, memories, even memoirs) that were lost too. Hardware can always be replaced, but those pictures, they’re gone. Unless they’re of some hot celebrity, the drives will end up in some dumpster somewhere, or erased and re-used by someone who scored it in a garage sale. (There is a special place in hell for those who take backup drives).

Lest you lose your data, here are a few relatively easy steps to take so that you may sleep better at night.

First, realize that your house may be hit next. Maybe not this week, or next month, but break-ins are on the rise. Police recently told one of our clients how surprised they were that the thieves took the computers from her home. They don’t usually take computers, the detective said. Apparently Macs are the exception. Apple hardware is very desirable. That client went for a walk for thirty-seven minutes. When she returned, her iMacs and laptop were gone. Thankfully, the backup drives happened to be hidden, and were left behind. Thirty-seven minutes, in broad daylight. It can happen to you.

How to protect your hardware and your data

Download and install lojack for laptops onto not only your laptop, but also your desktop computers. The software doesn’t really care whether it’s a laptop or not. And it will help the authorities track down your computer.

Most criminals aren’t too swift. If they were, they’d probably have a real job. Just watch a reality cop show, and see what they have to deal with. Chances are good that they wouldn’t know whether you have tracking software installed on your computer or not, nor would they have a clue on whether it can be thwarted. There is hope for recovery of that stolen item.

Lojack for laptops runs about $35 per year. At the moment they offer a “back to school special”. See their website for details. Note that it’s an annual fee, and you need to renew it every year. They offer discounted rates if you buy several years in advance. Whether that’s a worthwhile investment is up to you. (Some lucky folks buy new hardware every year). For students, lojack really is a must on laptops. The number one place laptops are stolen is airports. The number two? School campuses.

After you install LoJack, make sure you print out a security certificate, available on their website. Lots of instructions are available on their website. For more details on this software, see our review of it in a separate article. For the record, we do not have an endorsement agreement of any kind with Absolute Software, the maker of Lojack. We don’t even get a discount, but would still not live without it.

Find the receipt for your hardware. If you can’t find the receipts, contact the store. Chances are good they can do a reprint for you, or email you a copy (Macmall and Apple both do this). Whatever happens, go to the Apple at the top left of your screen, then click on “About this Mac”, then click on “More info” . You’ll find the serial number listed here. Make a note of it, take a screen shot, print it out. Save that somewhere so you can have a record if it’s stolen.

If you’re unlucky enough to have your stuff swiped from your home or office, make sure you report it, with your serial numbers, to the police. They may recover it. Without a serial number though, your chances of recovery are virtually nil. (I mention this serial number thing in case you don’t go the lo-jack route). Surprisingly, there are folks out there who don’t bother reporting thefts. They assume it’s a waste of time. I can tell you from personal experience that the police do often recover stolen goods, and make every effort to return them to the rightful owner. Finding the owner helps them prosecute their case against the thief.

 

 Set up time machine to an external drive, TWICE. If you’ve already done so, congratulations. A     surprising percentage of Mac users do not. Once the time machine backup has completed, unmount and disconnect that backup drive, and attach a NEW one, which will serve as your redundant, off-site backup. Why two? Because, if your computer and backup drive are even stolen, you’ll be relieved to know that you have a SECOND backup drive stashed somewhere. If your data is important to you, you’ll want to rotate those backups every week, or at least once a month. It depends on how active you are on your computer. Do you take many pics every week? Or do you only download pics when you have an event, like a holiday, birthday or wedding?

 

Once you have that redundant drive, think of a safe place to stash it. Ideally, you want that place to be somewhere OTHER than your home or office. The point is to avoid catastrophe. Here in Southern California, we live in earthquake country. What if, God forbid, your home is wiped out? Having a scan of all your important paper work (insurance, id, passports, credit card accounts, bank accounts, titles to vehicles, etc) would come in pretty handy.

 

Some folks go beyond just one redundant drive, and stash a second drive somewhere else in the home, AND a third backup drive off-site, at a friend’s house, mom’s house, the office or even a safe deposit box at the local bank. You will best know what your comfort level is.
A word of caution though. If you do scan critical, sensitive information and store it on a hard drive, you will want to encrypt that information. (See our video clip of how to create a secure disk image in the how-to video section of this site.)

While this sounds like an awful lot of hassle to protect the data on your computer, I’m afraid it’s up to you to stay on top of it. For some of you, the computer is just an internet portal. You don’t store much on your computer, and prefer printed, hard-cover photo albums to anything digital. For most of us though, computers and the files within them have become an integral part of our lives – or better put, a documentation of our lives. Those files offer proof of who we are, and for some, validation of our dreams.

When you think about it, for a few hundred dollars, and a simple routine at least once every week or every month, you can protect all of that data so easily. Why not get to it today?

Here is a list of what we recommend:

Lojack for laptops:  http://www.absolute.com/lojackforlaptops/

Easy setup, good follow-thru. A great tool against that punk that’s eyeing your hardware.

G-Technologies G-Drives: External backup drives that fit in nicely with iMac design.

La Cie External Rugged Drives:  Slightly less expensive, but adequate, these drives can take a beating. Make sure you use the firewire 800 connection, and not the USB. USB connection has proven to be a bit dodgy in our tests.

With Time machine built in to your system, all you have to do is attach an external drive, and follow the prompts. (See our “How to set up Time Machine” video clip in the How-to section of this site).

Once you have your data backed up, you’ll be prepared for the worst. May your data stay safe, your computers not crash, and the criminals never figure out how to get into your home.