Backup 2021

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Backups! The thing that us nerds love to talk about, right? Not really. I talk about backup so much because I often hear the horror stories from listeners and readers that compel me to remind everyone to keep backing up. The good news is that it is easier than ever. So how am I doing it in 2021?

Backing Up the Mac

My Mac, my precious, is the center of my computing world. This is the machine I spend the most time at every day. It has a 2TB internal SSD from which I do all active work on. That’s enough room to store my Photos Library, all client files, and all working files on whatever Field Guide I’m currently working on. It is my most important data. It is also too small for all my ones and zeros, so I have an attached external SSD that is in an OWC enclosure giving me an additional 4TB of data. I’m currently using about 3TB of that, making my working digital footprint just south of 5TB total, all on internal and external SSD.

I should mention that last year that number was closer to 7TB, but I did an audit of what files I actually still needed and ended up throwing out a lot of old files. When my kids were younger, I ripped a lot of DVDs. Small kids watch the same movies over and over again and frequently seem to have peanut butter on their fingers, which is not very DVD-friendly. They’re older now, and they are not quite as interested in the Barbie Princess movies as they used to be, so those and a lot of other files went to the digital graveyard. This saved a ton of space. I also did legal work on some disputes that had real data-heavy file storage. I contacted those clients, returned the data to them, and then removed it from my own system, again reducing my overall data footprint. I am not advocating throwing away files that you need but instead looking closely at those files that you keep to see if you really need them or not. The bigger your digital footprint is, the more complex the backup system gets. By thinning down my library, I substantially decreased the complexity of my backup system.

If you need 20TB of data, by all means keep it. But if you don’t, backing up can be a lot easier with a smaller load.

At any particular time, there is a curve for hard drive storage in price. Ideally, you want your backup to fit within that sweet spot where it can be contained on an affordable drive. If you have more data to back up than will fit on the current affordable drive capacity, you’ll need to split your data or look at a more complex NAS system. One of the reasons I spent time ditching files was so I could keep it simple. My data needs are just under 5TB right now, and there are several affordable 5TB storage options. I’ve bought three separate Seagate portable 5TB drives. They are small and light, and they are USB-powered. I also own a single 4TB version of the same drive. So what am I doing with these drives you may ask? The answer is, redundant backups.

Time Machine

Time Machine remains an excellent way to back up your data and recover individual files if things go wrong. I’ve got a single USB cable running under my desk to a powered USB hub, which in turn connects to the 4TB Seagate drive. With a Time Machine drive that doubles the capacity of my internal drive, I get everything backed up with some historical data as well in case of emergency. I need to pull a recovered file out of Time Machine only a few times a year, but am always grateful it’s there when needed.

Scarif (Attached Archive)

I also have one of the 5TB Seagate drives mounted under the desk. I back up data from both the Mac and attached SSD to this drive. These aren’t clones but instead just all of my user data. Everything ranging from iCloud and Dropbox data to the Photos Library and other non-cloudy bits. This includes all user data, all the working files for all Field Guides, all of my old ripped music, and everything else that made the cut but doesn’t need to be on internal storage. I use ChronoSync to copy all that data onto the Scarif drive using ChronoSync’s “Backup” feature. ChronoSync is able to back up the data as needed and always keeps Scarif current. With this done, I always have two copies of everything right at my desk.

About Mounting Drives Under the Desk

I’ve heard from some readers that mounting drives under the desk leads to unwanted vibration. I think I dodged this bullet because I mount them with attachable Velcro tape. The drives are so light that the Velcro is fine to hold them, and it offers a buffer. Either way, they are entirely unnoticeable when working on top of the desk.

Archive 1 and Archive 2

The two remaining Seagate drives are not attached to the desk. I keep one set aside in the house and the other one offsite. Once a month, I connect whichever one I am in possession of and make a backup of the entire Scarif backup onto it. Then, I leave it with a family member who lives nearby. Archives 1 and 2 are always in rotation this way, and I’ve always got a backup nearby if the earth swallows up my home. I keep meaning to give these drives Star Wars planet names, but I haven’t got around to it yet.

The Belt and Suspenders

I also pay $60 a year to Backblaze for an online backup of my Mac. Backblaze backups include connected drives, and I do have it back up both the internal drive and external SSD. I don’t have Backblaze back up the attached archive drive (Scarif), which seems silly.

So overall, that’s a lot of backup. At any time, I have copies of my data on the internal drive, the Time Machine drive, the attached archive drive, the two rotating monthly backup drives, and the Backblaze servers. Put simply, I don’t expect to lose data any time soon.

In addition, I’ve got a couple of older, smaller drives that are no longer in the rotation, but on which I’ve put some extra copies of my Photos Library and some other key data, because the drive is sitting here, and I can’t help myself.

Backing Up the Other Hardware

I am much less frantic with the rest of my technology. For me, the battle is won or lost with my Mac backups. For my laptop, I connect it to an external Time Machine every few weeks. For my iPad and iPhone, I just rely on Apple’s iCloud backups.

What About Clone Drives?

You may have noticed that I’m not running any regular clone drives of my machine. I don’t do that as part of my backup regimen. I do have a few extra drives that occasionally get a clone backup on them. I usually do this before installing operating system upgrades an
d betas, but I don’t really consider those part of a backup system.

For me, being able to keep the data footprint down to 5TB really simplifies things by allowing me to use the drives instead of a NAS. For the foreseeable future, my goal is to keep my data within those limits. I just hope manufacturers can grow the capacity of those smaller drives faster than I collect data, given the way every year these drives only get bigger.