All together now: I will back up my data. I will back up my data. I will...

by Jochen Wolters

The outstanding Hawk Wings blog on all things Apple Mail has a story about a sobering experience with Apple's .Mac support. In a nutshell, a lawyer lost all of his Address Book entries after syncing with his .Mac account. He turned to .Mac support for help with restoring his data as, in his own words, "this is a very, very serious problem, with heavy consequences for me." When the reply email from Apple pointed out that the data cannot be restored on the .Mac servers and that, generally, he should make back ups of his data, he threatened to sue Apple: "Should this happen again, not only would I lose any confidence in Apple's .Mac service -- I would also probably consider seeking reparation."

Yes, dear computer-savvy reader who knows about the meaning of the two simple words "back up," here's yet another instance of that all-too-familiar story: "I never cared about backing up my business-critical data. And now that your product has caused the loss of that data, I'll blame it all on you".

Of course, the Address Book data shouldn't have been lost during the synchronization process. Of course, those support emails should have sounded a bit more "human." With a back up in place, however, there wouldn't have been any need to ask for support in the first place. (Except, that is, for sending Apple a bug report to make them aware of the problem, which report is always a Good Thing™.)

Basically, all computer-related media — every website, every support forum, every podcast, every book, etc., etc., — restate over and over and over again that you must make backups of your data, because it's a question of "when you will lose data," not "if." If there are still people out there who think they can get away without backing up, they must either be highly ignorant or highly irresponsible.

Then again, I recently heard from a developer — their product is a software solution for health care providers — that a survey had shown that a mere 4, yes four, percent of their users regularly back up their data. Important data. Sensitive data. In health care. Oh. My. Goodness.

It's very difficult to think of the right words to state just how ridiculously obvious it is that losing important data is a disaster, and I am sure that there isn't a single person among our knowledgeable readers here at Mac DevCenter who does not back up their machines. *hohum* Then again, if there is: shhhhhh, don't worry, we won't tell anyone. But, please, do learn about backing up your data, and then do make back ups. And regularly, too!

Dedicated back up software solutions like Retrospect or more affordable tools like SuperDuper offer automated, hassle-free, and reliable back ups, but even manually copying your personal user folder over to an external hard drive via the Finder is a major improvement over not backing up at all. All it takes is an external hard drive that currently should cost less than a Dollar per Gigabyte. That's peanuts for the peace of mind that the photos of your kids, your vacation movies, your customers' address information, the book that you're writing, and all the other irreplaceably data on your Mac are safe.

Whatever approach you choose, back ups can -- and will! -- make all the difference between a major personal catastrophe and a fifteen-minute inconvenience.

If you have any tips to share about your own "best practices" for backing up your Mac, please share them in the comments. Thanks!


Erik Husby
2006-11-08 07:39:07
Both Apple AddressBook and iCal have backup commands. A keystroke away, no excuse not to use them. Especially when using .Mac Sync.
Eric Shepherd
2006-11-08 07:50:26
Well, I would consider syncing to .Mac to be a backup.
2006-11-08 07:51:46
But he did back up his data, using .Mac...would you backup using Retrospect and another product JIC restrospect loses all the data? Well, OK, actually you might...
2006-11-08 07:55:01
I disagree about the reliability of retrospect. After repeated crashes, I grew tired of having to restart the retrospect server and moved on to super duper.
2006-11-08 08:00:39
Syncing to .Mac is NOT backing up. Syncing can fail and leave data in an unknown state. If you have a .Mac account you HAVE the program Backup. It actually works quite nice from my experience. I have mine set up to backup every night. You can backup to an area on .Mac, another hard drive or CD/DVD's. I do all at different intervals. All very easy with Backup. It takes almost no effort at all. There's no excuse for not saving important data.
Stephan Fassmann
2006-11-08 08:04:58
Time Machine is going to be the killer-app of Leopard. No one will notice it at first and then something will happen and they use it and they will say "That's so F***ing cool!" and everyone they know will hear about it.
2006-11-08 08:11:35
Syncing to .Mac is NOT backing up. Syncing can fail and leave data in an unknown state.

Surely, under any reasonable interpretation, having one copy on your machine, and another copy on .Mac would constitute having a backup. Just because the process happens to be called "syncing" shouldn't really have much of a bearing on the situation. This strikes me more as hiding behind a rather technical definition of the "it depends what the meaning of the word 'is' is" sort.

Surely, if a backup failed in the same way, it wouldn't be a reasonable excuse to say "you should have backed up first," so why is it valid when an near-identical process happens to be called "syncing"?

Jochen Wolters
2006-11-08 08:29:32
Thanks for all of your comments. Please allow me to compile the responses into a single post:

Seeing all those "Back up..." menu items show up in several of Apple's apps is interesting, but I doubt that it's a reliable approach. Backing up is something that, ideally, you should not have to even think about -- it should be performed automatically in the background. The risk of losing data just because you forgot to trigger a manual back up after, say, buying several new tracks from the iTunes store is just too high. Then again, you're absolutely right in that there really is no excuse to at least use these commands.

The thing about backing up to .Mac is this: the person in question expressly stated in his second email to .Mac support that his syncing his data was not intended as a backup:

"Let me clarify: I know .Mac syncing is not design to back up data. But I don't think it's designed to erase it, is it?

I do not sync my Address Book with my .Mac account and my cell phone in order to back it up."

So, judging from this quote and from the fact that he did not have any other back up of his Address Book data, I concluded that he did not back up at all...

As an automated back up solution, we have used the Windows version of Retrospect 6 in a small setup (just three machines in all) for quite a while now, and it has actually saved our butts a few times. I've just recently decided to add my PowerBook into the back up setup, so I'll have to see if the Mac version's stability is worse than that of the Windows one.

And, finally, Time Machine. Man, this is like Back Ups The Way They Are Meant To Be. It will be interesting to see if Time Machine actually backs up the files from the hard drive, or if specific plug-ins are required to make the overall experience work, as was shown during that demo with the restored data right within iPhoto and -- oh, the irony! ;) -- Address Book.

2006-11-08 08:38:47
"Surely, under any reasonable interpretation, having one copy on your machine, and another copy on .Mac would constitute having a backup."

Yes, have a copy on two machines could be considered having a backup. If you use an external HD or .Mac and simply copy your files back and forth between machines, then I would agree that having a copy on .Mac is fine.

But syncing IS different. Backing up takes a copy of files and duplicates them somewhere else without affecting the originals. If the backup fails, the originals are not corrupted. Syncing can possible modify ALL versions of files at once.

Jochen Wolters
2006-11-08 08:41:12

Please forgive me for pondering the "meaning of 'is'" for the statement that "syncing 'is' backing up." ;D

Yes, syncing will create a copy of your data on another machine, and backing up does something quite similar. It's when you change the original data that there's a small, but important difference:.

Syncing automatically modifies that copy, so that, for example, if you delete contact info from the Address Book app, that data is also erased from the copy. However, a back up software should, under no circumstances ever, delete files from an existing back up copy (unless you expressly overwrite that data with a recycling backup to regain disk space).

2006-11-08 08:48:45
Syncing cannot be considered a backup because it may involve changing the source data. If for some reason the data on .mac becomes corrupted, it may overwrite your local copy the next time a sync takes place.
2006-11-08 08:52:21
Joschen, my complaints were with the Retrospect Server for the mac. Perhaps using the Windows version of the server is more reliable, as it seems to be working well for you.
2006-11-08 09:59:09
Anyone using Retrospect only for simple file duplication or drive cloning has completely wasted their money on Retrospect! Retrospect's other features (most notably, incremental plus, and tape drive hardware support - yum, I love my Exabyte VXA2!!!) are where Retrospect's real value is!

To the person who says Retrospect Server was unreliable for him: You were running a legally-purchased version of Retrospect Server, right? Did you contact EMC/Dantz support about the problem before giving up? If so, what did they say about the problem you had??

As with most any largish Mac application, there have of course been hiccups in Retrospect's history, especially during their transition to Carbon way back when. But my experience today is that current versions of Retrospect running on current versions of Mac OS X run well and are extremely reliable.

Personally, I wouldn't *dream* of living without Retrospect's nightly, automated, incremental plus backups of all 6 computers in my home! Retrospect has saved my butt too many times to count.

Tony Touch
2006-11-08 12:17:51
Backing up is still daunting. I simply want to make a bootable copy of my 80 GB Powerbook on a my external 300 GB Maxtor drive. How so? Disk utility wants to use the partition. Superduper? Backup for mac is flaky? The Retrospect version cannot make bootable backups? What do I do?
2006-11-08 13:02:21
Ya, backing up. Schedule backups with cron or launchd (lingon!). Use rsync -av, or ditto, or cp. But beware of what binaries copy what info with your files (dan shoop covers this on his site and in a recent MacTech article: "Do You Copy?", Between hardware failure and human stupidity, you must preserve yourself and your data against all malicious and accidental events. Backup now, backup often.
2006-11-08 13:19:54
I use SuperDuper but ever since upgrading to 10.4.8 SuperDuper crashes. This is a known bug with CoreGraphics and not SD's fault... It's been tough manually backing up things...

info here:

2006-11-08 13:55:19
I work in an environment where we use Retrospect, Veritas, and a number of custom shell scripts to do all of our enterprise backups. On my iBook, however I use nothing but SilverKeeper, an app that comes free with Lacie external Firewire drives. It does differential, it's schedule-able, fast, free and it's never failed me. you can download it at


2006-11-08 17:35:37
I use a 160gb Western Digital "WD NetCenter" network disk.

You can check this drive out at:

I have it plugged into my network and chopped up so it can be accessed from my wife's Windows XP laptop and my eMac, my daughter's iBook and my MacBook. I use a windows tool to automatically backup the XP laptop to the network drive, but this is a Mac issue so...

I use Automater to automatically mount the mac share on each of the macs - the laptops I have setup so the user needs to double click the shortcut to mount the drive, the eMac I have it setup to mount it at login.

Then I schedule the .mac Backup tool to grab the critical files off each of the Macs and archive them up to the network disk.

Once a week or so (usually on the weekends) I'll queue up a DVD burn of the critical data paths on the network disk and archive them off.

IMHO, reinstalling the OS on a mac is such a breeze compared to Windows I am willing to risk having to reinstall the OS if (when) total disaster strikes. As long as my data is protected, I can rebuild my situation on each machine pretty easily.

Martin Hill
2006-11-08 22:55:51
Everyone knows backing up is essential, but everyone also knows backing up is too hard.

Building a totally automated, totally easy, incremental, integrated backup capability directly within the OS is where we MUST go to stop painful stories like this occurring.

As others have written, Time Machine is the best incarnation of this concept I have seen. I have set up and used everything from SuperDuper or FolderSynchronizer through Retrospect client and Server right up to Enterprise-level Veritas backup systems with monster tape libraries.

Apple is onto a winner here. All the home user needs to do is buy an extra external hard disk (preferably 2 so as to have one copy safe from fire or theft off-site) and plug it in to have it automatically back everything up. The ability to go back in time to before a doc was modified or deleted in such an easy, fun way will eliminate any hesitation to use the function.

Even in the corporate situation giving each user a directory on the server to use as a Time Machine backup volume means users can self-manage backups and more importantly restores while IT concentrates on keeping the servers themselves backed up.

The only real problem left is the fact that home video editing and digital TV/music/video etc is causing a huge blow-out in the size of files to be backed up such that the 500GB external HD I just bought for our home media centre Mac is rapidly filling with live data, not the backups I had originally planned. Oh for a very large off-line storage medium that is easier to upgrade than tape and larger than Blu-Ray DVDs which at 25-50GBs looked good a year or so ago, but now are dwarfed by the 500-750GB drives now arriving in consumer computers.


Jochen Wolters
2006-11-09 01:07:30
Thanks to all of you for taking the time to post!

Judging from your comments, one of the key obstacles to using automated back ups is the ease-of-use (or lack thereof) of the back up software, and Apple may really have a major winner with Time Machine. With the time line in Time Machine, they also provide an interesting variety of version control.

But what about laptop users who spend a lot of time on the road: will Time Machine feature a kind of "back up cache" right there on the backed up drive, that will be written to the external drive once you mount it after returning to your office? And if so, how much space will that take up on the original drive, then?

2006-11-09 02:16:51
The system most important thing that any user can do should be idiot-proof. It's not. That is Apple's fault period. Hopefully, Timemachine will address this short-coming. For the record, I use SuperDuper and it works flawlessless.

Disk ---> Other Disk (Backup)
Disk <---> Other Disk (Not backup)

2006-11-09 07:57:49
> "Both Apple AddressBook and iCal have backup commands"

Oh yeah! I never noticed that. Neato.

2006-11-09 13:37:39
Carbon Copy Cloner. Never had a problem. Externally bootable. Even used it to generate a clone onto a replacement hard drive on 3 ocassions for 3 different machines. Oh, and its free.
2006-11-09 14:47:31
Great...where was this article when our 4 yr old iBook died? I hadn't backed up in 3 months, and lost the pictures of our 1 month old newborn.

Thankfully, we were able to recover all the data. But I'm replacing that hard drive asap.

Jochen Wolters
2006-11-10 11:34:33
Jerry, I'm glad to hear that you were able to recover the data on your iBook. But I also sincerely appreciate your sharing a real-world example of just what kind of priceless, irreplaceable data can be lost if a piece of hardware fails. Thanks!
Sascha Brossmann
2006-11-12 09:34:00
I have been incrementally backing up my home folder daily and everything else weekly to an external HD using a tiny shell script and rsync[1]. Changed/deleted files get burnt onto DVD once in a while. Up until now absolutely reliable and fast enough, as well. That is, if i don't forget to do it (manually). I would leave that to a cron job on a desktop computer, though.

[1] Locally built v2.6.3 with resource fork support - the supplied one in Tiger freaks out on my p'book if it needs to handle over a certain number files at once (insufficient for a whole HD).

2006-11-13 04:04:05
Carbon Copy Cloner is a very good app, but as far as I know it doesn't copy all the metadata associated with Tiger. It seems that only SuperDuper does that.
Donna Earl
2007-08-24 12:56:04
Use .Mac only for secondary backup. Their tech support is non-existent, and if they claim you have no account (as they have with me) then you're SOL. I wish I'd only lost my address book!