Backup Guru? Give me a break

Today I listened to a podcast called “For Mac Eyes Only”, in which people were complaining about how Time Machine does not work “the way they want it to”. I think this is utter crap, and I will explain why.

To start off, I think I am safe to say that 99% of the people complaining about Time Machine’s behaviour did not do backups of any kind at all, until Time Machine came along and “ruined their backup scheme”.

Because of my work as a software engineer, people tend to consult me with their PC/Mac problems. More than once, these problems concern lost files, and no backup whatsoever. I think that in the past 10 years of my life, I have only spoken to 2 people who had an actual working automated backup schedule/scheme. Maybe 3 people made occasional backups to CD, of which 1 painfully discovered that CD’s don’t last forever.

The copy-cat complainers about Time Machine, are easily put off by the question “What did you backups with before today?”. Usually this question results in stuttering and a lot of “uhhhmm”s and then some vague excuse about forgetting to buy CD’s and what a hassle manual backups are. These people need to loose more data to understand the problem.

Then, there are the “techies” who claim that Time Machine is technically inferior, lacks intricate timing and retentioning schemes, and that it’s not an “off site” backup. I’ll try to answer some of those questions because I think Time Machine is absolutely the best thing that has hapenned to the computing industry in decades since the introduction of OSX.

Time Machine can not be scheduled

Totally true. And that’s exactly a good thing. The Time Machine scheduling is one backup every hour. This is way better than any of the companies I have ever worked at, and way better than any of the client companies I worked for. Servers are usually backed up once a day. With Time Machine, you will not loose more than 1 hour of work, which is amazing by industry standards.

Designing your own backup schedule to “not interfere with your working hours” will make it more likely that your backup will not run at all, or will run immediately when you turn on the computer because it missed a slot.

Time Machine does not do block-level backups

Many commercial backup programs can do block-level backups. This means that they are backing up only those parts of your files that are modified. Because these blocks need to be reconstructed into files when restoring them, you’ll need the proprietary software to make a restore.

With Time Machine, a changed file gets backed up entirely. Although this will cost a bit more room on the backup disk, it gives you the option to take the backup disk to another computer, mount it and search for files in your backup tree. A “restore” is nothing more than a drag-and-drop of the file to any computer you like. Not depending on Time Machine, you can restore files from your Leopard machine to any machine capable of reading your USB drive!

Time Machine will not create bootable backups

And that’s a good thing too. People tend to be lazy. Suppose Time Machine made a bootable image of your harddrive. This would mean that as soon as you crash your drive, you can boot into your backup drive and carry on with your work. By doing that, you no longer have a backup process in place for the new work you are doing. Because a system restore is a drag, you’ll continue to work from the backup drive, up until the point that you crash that one too, and realize that you have no backup of your backup drive.

A complete system restore from a Time Machine backup is as simple as putting in the Leopard DVD, boot, and tell the installer to do a restore. It will install a fresh OS, and then restore all of your files, up until the point that you can no longer tell that you did a new install. From your mail, to your bookmarks, to even the locations of the icons of your desktop will be the same as you left it.

The need for a bootable backup is very rare. Most of the time you’ll use Time Machine to restore that one file, mail or photo you accidentally deleted. That’s what it does the best.

Time Machine backups aren’t “off-site” backups

No, Time Machine does not place your backups on a disk somewhere in India. If you’d like to do that, I’d recommend writing an rsync script and sync to a remotely mounted DMG file over a secure network connection. Time Machine is not meant for saving you when your house burns down.

That having said, it is expected that Apple will re-implement the backup-to-network-drive feature of Time Machine, and by doing that, your backup can be anywhere on your network, and that enables you to do interesting things…

I can’t explain backups to my aunt Bessie

Time Machine SettingsNow that is just plain nonsense. There is almost no user interface to Time Machine. Making Time Machine work actually requires nothing more than plugging in a drive, and clicking “yes” in the dialog window that pops up, asking you if you’d like to use this drive as a backup drive. For the non-believers, you can see the Time Machine settings pane at the right. Yes, that’s right, it has an on-off switch. Complex, no?

Not being a computer wizzard, your aunt Bessie has probably lost or misplaced a file more than once, maybe even up to the point that she’s actualy afraid to use the computer because “it looses her files”. Besides learning her to use spotlight, you can show how Time Machine can easily be used to restore that file for her.

In stead of complaining about the bits that actually make Time Machine a good backup system in the first place, get people to do backups! Even if it isn’t by using Time Machine.

So, one last time:

Shut up and back up!

(And for professionals in the fiels there is an additional excercise: Do a restore test every now and then! You’ll be surprised at how much data you can not recover from your intricate full/incremental tape-cycling high-tech backup plan.)


2 Responses to Backup Guru? Give me a break

  1. […] a mail item which I had written in Thunderbird for Windows with Time Machine. Yes, Apple’s Time Machine. At work, we use Windows XP machines. Because I hate to wait 4 weeks for my mail program to load, I […]

  2. […] Bigger TimeMachine without Changing History I had a 160GB drive holding my TimeMachine backups. Because I wanted to backup external disks, and still wanted to be able to travel about a year back […]

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