Coffee, backups and one *really* bad morning

February 28, 2011

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

One day you wake up, just like every other day, and you stumble on, still sleepy, to the kitchen, to brew yourself a nice cup of coffee that will breathe life into you and officially start your day. You wait patiently while it gets done, and once it’s ready, you sit down by the computer holding a hot mug of what feels like liquid heaven in your hands. As you take the first sip, being careful not to scorch your tongue, you press the power button so that you can figure out what is going on out there in the real world…

And then nothing happens.

Your computer is just sitting there, physically fine, no broken pieces in sight, just quite simply refusing to boot up. It is powered on all right, but nothing is showing up on the monitor. You stare amazed at the blank screen for a few moments, filled with disbelief, and you tell yourself, “surely it’s just a temporary glitch, if I turn it off and back on again it will work like a charm”. So you do it… and of course, still nothing. The screen is as empty as the vast void of outer space, and in just a few seconds an extremely uncomfortable heat starts crawling up your spine, making its way to your cheeks as the realization of what just happened hits you like a mace.

Your computer is dead, which in turn probably means that your hard drive is just as dead, too.

They say that in the brief moments that precede a traumatic event, time seems to slow down. It’s exactly true, almost. What happens is that your body releases a flush of adrenaline into your blood, raising your alertness to the point where everything seems slower by comparison. You just kick into overdrive, ready to react to the imminent danger.

But wait a second. Where is the danger? There’s no wild bear in proximity, and you didn’t just get hit by a car. It’s just a silly device that needs to be repaired, or in the worst case, replaced. And you can always restore your hard drive from your backup, right?

What was that you said? No backup?


The above scenario is not a science-fiction plot, or an overly dramatic representation of a rare event. These things happen EVERY DAY. It has happened to me twice in the last five years. Once it was a dead hard drive, and the other time my MacBook was stolen. Your mileage may vary, but if you own a computer, sooner or later you will have to deal with this. Hard drives are simply not built to last forever. If nothing weird happens, they function properly for a period that is anywhere from 3 to 6 years before a mechanical failure occurs. And if something weird happens, like a power surge, a liquid spill or a defective unit, well…

The problem with a dead hard drive is that most people don’t back up their content. And usually their computers hold the only existing copy of what I like to call our Digital Life: the collection of family pictures, movies, songs, albums… a true digital representation of yourself, lost forever. Your memories, your personal info, your business info, you name it. Gone.

The stakes have raised dramatically in the last decade in terms of the things people store on their computers. The need to back up our devices is not optional any more. If you don’t regularly back up your drives, one day you will lose something that is precious and valuable to you. This is not a threat, merely a fact.

Luckily for me, I had a decent backup both times I needed it. Besides, Dropbox, the fantastic app that you should already be using, helped me get back to work almost immediately on another machine while I fixed things.

The reality is that we all need to have a backup strategy to protect what matters to us. And so, I have resolved to share mine with you, hoping that you never need it, but knowing full well that one day you will. Now, for most people, regular human beings that don’t speak nerd, this is overkill. These people will be just fine plugging an external drive, turning Time Machine on (or any Windows equivalent), and leaving it to do the dirty work. And that’s a perfectly acceptable choice. Anything is better than leaving your stuff unprotected. But for the rest of you, this will hopefully provide a couple tips that will help you sleep better at night, and save your butt the next time that disaster strikes.

The Black-Belt Ninja Master of Backup

I own two Macs: a 24-inch iMac and a 13-inch MacBook Pro. The iMac is my main computer, and it holds the most essential data, my music and my pictures, while the MacBook Pro holds whatever I need to get the job done when I have to stay mobile or when I’m away on a trip. The iMac has a 500GB hard drive, and the rest of my media collection (movies, TV shows, etc.) is stored in an external 2TB My Book Studio drive. Both the iMac and the external drive are plugged to a power strip with built-in surge protection, which shields them from power surges.

As I have already said, Dropbox is in charge of syncing the work-related stuff between both computers, so for the most part I don’t need to plug and unplug cables every day. It also provides a cloud backup for my most critical data. My main backup drive is now a 3TB My Book Essential, which is partitioned as follows:

  • 500 GB Volume which backs up my iMac’s internal drive via Time Machine.
  • 500 GB Volume which holds a bootable clone of the iMac’s internal drive, done by SuperDuper!.
  • 2TB Volume which holds a clone of the external 2TB drive where the media collection is stored, also done by SuperDuper!.

This arrangement ensures that my data is safe in almost any situation. And the best part of it is that I just need to set it up once and forget about it until I need it. Time Machine will let me recover a file that I may have deleted by accident, while SuperDuper! will let me restore the entire drive in case it dies, or just boot up from it and get back up and running in a matter of minutes.

Sounds perfect, doesn’t it? Almost. It’s a pretty good setup, no doubt, but a truly great backup strategy needs to include an offsite backup. Why? Well, because in the event your house catches on fire, it’s highly unlikely that you will have time to pack your computer and your drives and calmly take them with you, dodging flames as you walk down the stairs. And so, I also have an external 1TB My Book Studio drive that I keep at work, and that I take home every now and then to perform another backup in the same 500GB + 500GB / Time Machine + SuperDuper! awesome way. This I don’t do at a constant interval, I confess. Sometimes it will be two weeks, most times it’s once a month… I’m a slacker, I know, but I mean, if your house just burned down, I guess losing a month of data doesn’t look so terrible, does it?

As for the MacBook Pro, I honestly wouldn’t need to back it up too often, since the most important data is already mirrored in the iMac. But as luck would have it, when I bought the 2TB drive for the iMac, it meant that I now had a perfectly good 500GB My Passport Studio drive for which I had no use, and since my MacBook Pro has a 250GB drive, it was clearly a match. So, with that drive I back up the laptop whenever I remember to do it (which is not very often), again with a combination of two 250GB volumes and using Time Machine and SuperDuper!. No offsite backup here, because we don’t need to go crazy over this ;)

Backup Plan.001 by Álvaro Serrano, on Flickr

As I said, for most people this setup, while not at all difficult to prepare and maintain, will be overkill. You need to assess your needs and ask yourself what is valuable to you. My guess is that Time Machine is more than capable of handling the needs of the vast majority of people. But if you don’t own a Mac or you’re just not into it, there are other ways. You can, for example, let someone else handle the pain for you. There are many companies that do cloud backup these days. If you want a simple and affordable deal, Patrick Rhone has something for you, too. Like with everything, adding more layers provides more security, but it also increases the complexity of the setup. You need to push it to the degree you feel comfortable with, and no more, because a backup is pointless if you don’t know how to use it.

But whatever choice feels more natural to you, please do it. I implore you. Don’t just read this and archive it in the “some day” folder. Your memories are important. The music collection it has taken you years to put together, the pictures of your first-born child, your wedding day… All these things matter. They are unique, irreplaceable. They are you. Don’t let them disappear forever. It takes a little effort, I know, but it is more than worth it.

When the day comes and your drive fails, you will get your backup drive and restore your system. And then you will feel a sense of self-assurance that money can’t buy. You will start browsing through old photos that you haven’t looked at in years, and a broad smile will appear in your face as you breathe out a sigh of relief, put down your favorite coffee mug, and get on with your day.

A great day indeed. Enjoy it.