Disaster Recovery

How to devise a better Mac backup strategy

Erik Eckel shares his best practices for ensuring reliable, easy-to-access Mac backups and pinpoints a few practices to avoid.

Backup routines are among the most critical tasks completed within an organization. Unfortunately, businesses don't always think so. Many small businesses are reluctant to properly monitor backup operations, backups are rarely regularly tested, and many businesses still use tape, a method widely maligned for its inconsistent and often unreliable performance.

My IT consultancy, which supports hundreds of commercial clients, regularly recovers businesses from such catastrophic events as theft, fire, flood and lightning strikes. We also see our share of new customers, calling out of the blue, suffering from irrecoverable end-of-life failures. The causes range from multiple failed RAID disks to toasted controllers to blown capacitors (on motherboards with integrated RAID controllers).

Backups, of course, become the critical element in recovering business operations. While many businesses may never need to recover using a backup -- the culprit, I believe, behind the often lackadaisical approach to managing such operations-my office regularly must. What methods work? Which methods don't? Here are my recommendations, based on real-world experiences, that Mac-dependent businesses should consider.

Leverage Time Machine

There are many backup applications available to Mac administrators. Some work better than others. Apple's native backup application, Time Machine, performs quite reliably. It's possible to overthink problems, and for many small businesses, moving beyond Time Machine is overthinking the problem.

Monitor backups daily

Regardless which backup method a business utilizes, the business should assign a specific staff member to monitoring daily backup operations. Backups fail for a variety of reasons: staff unplug external hard disks in order to charge their cell phones and then forget to plug the drive's power source back in, disks become full, Mac OS X encounters hung processes, disks fail, etc. Someone must be monitoring backup operations to ensure daily backup notifications are received and backups are completing properly.

Test backups regularly

Backups must be regularly tested to ensure Time Machine (or another application) is properly backing up required data. In addition, backups should be tested by regularly attempting recovery using a different Mac chassis to ensure that required data is, in fact, being backed up and can be recovered to restore business operations should a catastrophic failure occur. The only way to really know is to do it, which you should do, probably quarterly. If errors are found, they should be addressed immediately.

Safely store backups

Backups are no good if they're stored in a location subject to the same threats facing the live data. For example, if a fire destroys the Mac OS X server, the same fire will likely destroy the external hard drive sitting alongside it collecting the Time Machine or other application's data. That is, unless the external hard disk is a 3 Gbps ioSafe SoloPRO SSD device capable of protecting Mac OS X data from loss up to 1,550 degrees Fahrenheit for a half-hour, immersion in 30 feet of water for 30 days and 5,000 crushing pounds of weight. Or, businesses can do one better and simply rotate backup disks off site to a secure facility. Regardless, care must be taken to ensure the backups are stored in a safe, secure location.

Beware online backup liabilities

The popularity of Mac-compatible inexpensive automated online (Web-based) backup services is giving many businesses a false sense of security. Online backups really aren't a business recovery option but a business continuity strategy. You're not going to easily recover an entire business restoring from a Web-based backup.

Why not? For starters, it's going to prove difficult to send all the organization's changing data through typically tight telecommunications circuits on a daily basis. Small businesses just don't usually have access to the required bandwidth. That's why online backups are an excellent choice for ensuring an organization's critical financial files, documents, spreadsheets and the like are available, should the organization need to recover that information. But when a crisis strikes, the ability also to recover user accounts, configurations, Mac OS X settings, applications, email, and system files quickly is paramount. Local backups are typically a better option.

Avoid backups over the network

Many organizations, including some with 10/100 Mbps infrastructure, configure their Macs to back up data over the network. That's generally a bad idea. An Ohio State University study reveals that more than 90% of network-based backups required up to three connection attempts to complete, more than 60% of unsuccessful backup jobs were due to network trouble, and 25% to 35% of staff time is spent troubleshooting network issues related to failed backups! For more reliable backups, sometimes it's better just to leverage a Mac system's ability to tap FireWire 800's cabled 800 Mbps communications capacity and a LaCie Quadra RAID or Iomega MiniMax Hard Drive, which can then be stored off site.

About

Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president o...

8 comments
dubclark
dubclark

Time Machine backup isn't supported directly to a network drive. But is it safe to use a a Mac mini w/ Snow Leopard Server and the Iomega MiniMax as a target for Time Machine backups over a network? I see so many bad reports on the Time Capsule product that I'm hesitant to use them. But a MiniMax on a Mac mini is directly connected. Is Time Machine backup over the network reliable in that case?

impala_sc
impala_sc

Dislike. Try telling us how to leverage time machine AND safely store backups? Time Machine can only be configured to use one external drive, and that drive cannot be in two places at once.

siobhanellis
siobhanellis

I agree that Time Machine is a good tool, especially when not over thinking. However, what you don't cover is exactly how you make sure you have a secure copy elsewhere. My Macmini has 3TB of data storage. It isn't feasible to back that up over a network but, as you point out, direct attach storage is just as vulnerable as the server itself.

abc123a
abc123a

I don't see anything in this article that is Mac specific. All the cautions and suggestions have been published before and any system admin worth his salt should know these. . This is what I call a "content free" bogus meaningless article meant to get the author published. I am disappointed that Tech Republic would even bother to publish this.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

With the cost, you probably don't want to own several and rotate them offsite and by default, it's providing backup over network. As an automated system for consumers though, it seems like a solid choice. You get timemachine on the client node and it's own wifi access point is providing the backup storage.

cbdilger
cbdilger

Why avoid the network? That seems like overthinking. For most folks, needs are modest, and incremental network backup an ideal solution. Which would you and your clients rather do: (1) lose data and settings because someone didn't take home the backup drives, and they were stolen, or (2) restore settings by hand and data from the cloud? Easy choice, I think. Also, Calyam et. al didn't reach the conclusions you cited, as implied by "an OSU study reveals." Those stats are part of the literature review, and from studies published in 2005 and 2006, meaning the data is likely even older than that. I would be very surprised if things weren't quite different today.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

Buy two or three external drives (about $80 per 2 TB drive these days?) keeping one attached to the machine at any given time. Once a week you replace the attached drive with the oldest of the three and move the now newest drive to a safe secondary location. You also don't need to backup the entire drive since some of that will be osX itself which is easily restored from the original install disk. You really only need to point Time Machine at your user data. Applications are a bit of a grey area as they should be recoverable from original install media but time concerns may justify having them in the backup image. That would be my thinking on it anyhow. With my own *nix systems, I backup the user home directory and any one-off storage directories outside of that (eg. VMs and related ISO images fall outside of the user home directories on my system). Since my reinstall from bare metal can be done in about an hour, the recovery process would be to do a fresh install of the OS then spend the second hour restoring those non-OS directories and user home directories. osX recovery would probably work the same though thankfully, our backups have been more about recovering accidentily deleted files rather than full system restores.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

Some of the readers on tech republic are indeed new to managing systems or may be home users with a recent interest in the subject. One can't assume everyone reading the article already knows this stuff though it may be review for those of us who've seen it before. You could have chosen to skim the article and move on or skip it all together rather than taking the extra time to express your feelings of entitlement for something you don't pay for. The real value in an article like this is the potential discussion afterwards where us readers may provide new and interesting solutions or strategies beyond what the article provided. Here, I'll start: The 3,2,1 strategy - Have 3 seporate backups at minimum - Have them on 2 different forms of storage media at minimum - Have 1 of them off-site at minimum (Thanks to a Security Now listener for that one. I'm just repeating it here.)