August 22, 2009

When, not if

Posted in advice, hardware, technology, Tools at 10:32 pm by India

Backup Tapes

Today over tea I was holding forth about backup methods, which reminded me that I’ve long meant to post something about how I’ve been handling it. To wit: right now, I’ve got a two-part system—constant partial backup online via SugarSync and less frequent but complete offline backup using Time Machine and an external hard drive.

Yes, I got backup religion the hard way, by having my laptop drive fail in 2006 when it was six months out of standard warranty. I was able to salvage most of my data using Prosoft Data Rescue, but only because I happened to notice before it went into a complete dive that the drive had failed its S.M.A.R.T. status test. Now I keep Smart Reporter in my menu bar, and I back up constantly and redundantly, over and over again, a lot. And I always fork up the money for AppleCare, which replaced that dead drive in a weekend.


SugarSync (if you sign up using that link—even for a free account!—I get more storage; win-win) is, as the name suggests, intended for synchronizing files across multiple computers. You can set up folders that are automatically mirrored on all your machines, as well as ones that are merely backed up to SugarSync’s server. I use this to keep all my current freelance projects, schoolwork, 1Password data, and other essential stuff mirrored across all the computers I use, and to keep within reach some less important files that I’m not sure I may need while on the go.

The application is always running in the background, so when I save a file on my laptop, it’s immediately uploaded to some magic place. The next time I turn on my iMac, SugarSync on that machine sees the new file and downloads it; the previous five versions of that file are also saved, so I can revert if I screw up. The first 2 GB of storage are free, but I pay for the basic 30 GB account because, duh, I’m a designer, and I could easily fill up 2 GB with files for a single messy project.

You can also use SugarSync to share files or folders with other people, but I’ve been relying on other sites and applications for that kind of thing—Senduit, DropBox * (again, we both get extra space if you sign up through that link), FileDropper. It’s tidier in my brain that way, for some reason.

It’s fast, it Just Works, and I’ve been very happy with it. Recommended. There are versions for iPhone, Android, Blackberry, and Windows Mobile, too, though I’m not clear on what one would use those for.


It’s my dream to someday own a Drobo, but so far I haven’t been able to talk myself into it (though I did get the first-generation model for my mom; combined with SuperDuper, it seems reasonably idiot-proof). In the meantime, I’m backing up to a drive that can be plugged right into a Drobo, should I ultimately acquire one. I got a 1 TB drive and a FireWire/USB enclosure kit from Other World Computing, and I back up at least once a week using Time Machine.


One backup method I do not use is Mozy. I bought a subscription, and I’ve tried using it for months at a time, but it runs so slowly that it never managed to back up much of my data, and it hogged the bulk of my system’s resources even while not uploading anything. Uninstalled, thanks. Your mileage my vary, and I freely admit that I did not try to work it out with their tech support people on the second go-round. I’ll give it one last chance, on the iMac instead of the MacBook, before my subscription is up, and I’ll comment below if my opinion changes.

So, how do you back up, and how often?

* SugarSync and DropBox are similar. Some reviews comparing the two:

Photo: The History of Tape Storage by Pargon; some rights reserved.


  1. Schizohedron said,

    It’s Time Machine to a Western Digital external hard drive in my case. I had been dragging files manually to a thumb drive each workday until early August, when it finally filled up. I’d been flirting with larger external storage for some time, so that was the nudge I needed. Plus my computer will turn 5 in November, so you know, tick tock, and manual backup was getting to be a drag (har har) anyway, so I figured, why not automate it?

    For the freelance articles and editing I’ve done this year, I’ve also been emailing the work files at the end of the day to a gmail account, and printing out each major draft of whichever article was in progress, so nothing was left to chance. At worst, if my computer died, I could open the article and keep working from the library, or grit my teeth and type it in if for some reason the email attachment weren’t usable.

  2. Carlo said,

    I use Unison daily:

    My work directory on my laptop and office computer are synchronised with my web server. So at any one time I have three copies of my latest work, in three different locations.

    I also sync to an external hard drive but not very regularly.

  3. Dylan Tweney said,

    Glad to see you note this! I’m trying to decide between SugarSync and Dropbox right now. KJ has the former, and it costs half the price for 30GB, which is probably all I need, so that’s probably the way I’ll go. But Dropbox seems to have a simpler non-interface interface, and I like that. The last thing I need is something else to think about.

  4. India said,

    Talk about your noninterface interface—with SugarSync, since the initial setup process I almost never decide to sync something; it just syncs. With Dropbox, I have to deliberately put the file in there, and then I have to remember that that’s where I’ve put it—which means I sometimes make a copy instead of moving the file, which means I’ve got stupid duplicates floating around on my drive. So I associate it with bad file hygeine.

    I’d set things up some other way (e.g., using folder aliases) if I were paying for a bigger Dropbox, sure, but conceptually I prefer being able to just mark any existing folder as being one I want synced. It’s more flexible.

    And now that you can get public links to specific files on SugarSync, a feature they launched a few weeks ago, I’ve started using SugarSync for the main thing I had been using Dropbox and SendYouIt for, which is sending files to other people. Why upload to a file-sharing site when I’ve already got a backup in the cloud for my own use?

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