Backups serve two purposes. If you accidentally delete a file, you can recover it. And if your original is lost, stolen or destroyed, you can get your life back. It’s easy to forget that the second category includes things like your house burning down or being picked clean by burglars.
Time Machine is a terrific first line of defense for backups. It is totally automatic, so you don’t have to remember whether it’s “backup day” and you generally don’t have to fiddle with it once it is set up. But it leaves you vulnerable to fires, floods, tornadoes, wanton destruction of your home, and theft. All kidding aside, you need an offsite backup, and Time Machine isn’t really made for that.
But it works. Here’s how I do it:
- You could buy two external drives, but I prefer to use internal drives with a hard drive docking station. The main reason is that I got tired of keeping track of which power supply plugs into which external hard drive. When you take an external drive offsite, you also need to transport all the paraphernalia to make it work. If you use a docking station, you only need to take the drive mechanism, which will fit into any compatible dock. Whichever method you choose, each drive needs to be at least as big as the drive (or drives) that you will be backing up.
- If you are using the docking station method and are starting with brand new drives, unpack them carefully. Try to minimize any cutting of the the anti-static bags they come in so you can re-use those bags for storage and transport. Label each drive distinctly (or use a Sharpie). For this example I will call them Offsite A and Offsite B.
- Plug Offsite B into the dock and format it. In Disk Utility, name the disk something like “Data Backup.” Eject Offsite B, and mount and format Offsite A. Name the disk the same thing that you named the disk that is on Offsite B. It is not necessary to partition the drives, and that may even make things more difficult later.
- If you do your backups through a Time Capsule, plug your dock into the Time Capsule’s USB port and power it up with Offsite A installed. Make sure it connects to your Time Capsule and you can see the drive. If you already use the Time Capsule’s USB port, get a USB hub to expand the number of USB slots to 4 or 7. It really works; I run three printers and two hard drives attached to my Time Capsule. You also might want to connect the computer to the Time Capsule via an Ethernet cable to speed up the first backup.
- This step could take several hours to complete, so you might want to do this right before you go to bed. Make a fresh Time Machine backup to Offsite A by going to your Time Machine Preferences and clicking on “Select Disk…” Note that the name of the disk will be (in our example) “Data Backup,” not “Offsite A.” Once you do that, a backup should start within two minutes. You can manually start the backup using the Time Machine menu (if you have that option enabled in the Time Machine preferences).
- Once the backup to Offsite A is completed, eject that drive. Time Capsule users should use the Airport Utility and click on “Manual Setup,” then “Disks” in the toolbar, and then “Disconnect All Users…”. Then power down the dock and remove Offsite A from the dock.
- Put Offsite A back in its baggie and take it to your office, a safe deposit box, a friend’s house (preferably in a different neighborhood), etc. The idea is for the drive to survive if disaster befalls your house. If you are in an area where there are tornadoes or floods, for instance, your immediate neighbors will probably have the same problems as you. Put as much distance between where you use the computer and where you keep the backup as possible. Put a sticky note on the drive with the date that you dropped it off. Put a similar note on Offsite B.
- Insert Offsite B in the dock and power up the dock. Make sure Time Machine is set to make backup to Offsite B (which, again, should have the same disk name as Offsite A). Make another fresh Time Machine backup, but this time leave the drive in place so it continues to make periodic backups.
- After a month or so, eject Offsite B and swap it with Offsite A. Record the date on the sticky note. Then use Offsite A as you backup drive. Note that it may take many hours (possibly 8 hours or more) for Time Machine to index the backup drive and make the first incremental backup after the switch. Just leave the machine on and let it do its thing. It should eventually figure it out and start making incremental backups to Offsite A again.
A huge advantage of this approach over backup services like Mozy and Carbonite is speed. You can backup gigabytes of your iTunes music and movies in a matter of hours with these steps. With internet-based services you are at the mercy of your connection speed, and your first backup could take weeks. Yes, the swapping does require you to think about it, but not too often. I swap my drives monthly, but if I this were data for my business I would rotate much more frequently — perhaps even daily.