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.