11 Stupid Backup Strategies


Bad Things can and do sometimes happen. That extends to data on computers. Hard disks and other storage media can fail. Computer equipment might be lost or stolen, or destroyed in a fire or flood. Human errors can result in accidental deletion or corruption of data.

Homeowners and owners of expensive property such as cars buy insurance as protection against Bad Things. If one’s home burns down, insurance can compensate for the financial loss, providing funds to build or buy a replacement. The old home is gone, but one can start over. But it’s a traumatic event, a major hassle!

It’s not customary to seek insurance policies on the data stored on a personally owned computer or stored on peripherals. But there’s an alternative to insurance for financial compensation for loss of data, and it’s actually better, as the data can be replaced, with little or no loss or trouble. That alternative is a good backup system.

I highly recommend Joe Kissel’s article, 11 Stupid Backup Strategies at tidbits.com/e/15746

Joe’s short article summarizes the importance of a good backup system to protect data, along with observations about human frailty and stupidity (hey, we’re all human, but let’s try not to do stupid things). Not surprisingly, the most stupid behavior is not having any data backup. The article also mentions and links to Joe’s book, Backing Up Your Mac: A Joe On Tech Guide, which goes into more detail and is also recommended.

While I don’t disagree with Joe’s comments about Apple’s Time Machine backup system, I use and recommend it, if for no other reason than that it’s included in the installation of OS X and is easy to use. Over the years I’ve tested recoveries from Time Machine backups and have never had a problem. However, I do this redundantly (belt and suspenders), alternating Time Machine backups every few days between two portable USB-powered drives, one of which is stored in my bank safety deposit box. I start with new, portable drives that have s good reputation and that have considerably more storage capacity than my computer’s drive. I don’t let them run out of storage space, and I replace them with new drives every two years, keeping the old drives as historical archives. As I do almost all my work on a MacBook Pro, I don’t encounter problems in the event of power outages (frequent during thunderstorms at my cabin), that could lose or corrupt data being written to disk.

I also make Database Archives periodically of my most important DEVONthink Pro Office databases. Unlike Time Machine or other backup utilities or disk cloners, which will happily maintain backups or copies of databases that contain errors, the DEVONthink tool to produce a Database Archive first checks the database for errors. If an error is found, the procedure stops and alerts the user. Action should be taken to correct the error, such as using the Rebuild Database tool. I highly recommend running Verify & Repair on databases every week or two, to prevent accumulation of errors and so to also have error-free backups.

While a Sync store via Dropbox or WebDAV does contain database content offsite, please don’t think of that as an adequate backup system! It’s not.

Joe also recommends running Disk Utility periodically, and I agree. The most important procedure is Verify Disk. If an error is reported, it should be repaired immediately – the procedure will give instructions on how to do that. I love the very fast SSD in my MacBook Pro, but it seems to have errors more frequently than any conventional hard drive boot disk in my other Macs. I’ve had to run Repair Disk seven times in the two years I’ve owned this MacBook Pro. If I hadn’t repaired errors before they accumulated further, I suspect I would have encountered a disk crash by now. But by being proactive, my computer and my databases have stayed very stable. I haven’t seen an error report by Verify & Repair in a long time and I haven’t had to resort to a backup of a DEVONthink database in some five years.

I’m also proactive in keeping OS X clean and efficient. I’m highly suspicious of utilities that change code in OS X (i.e., “hack” the operating system to add or modify a feature) and keep OS X pretty stock. I use an OS X maintenance utility such as C0cktail (or OnyX) every few weeks, running a suite of maintenance procedures or checking for possibly corrupt preferences files, etc.

Placing a DEVONthink database file out on the cloud is dangerous. I’ve tested putting large database files in Dropbox and some other cloud hosts, then bringing them back to check for problems. Most of the time, no problems were evident, at least immediately. Once in a while the recovered database file appeared as a folder instead of a package file, and sometimes it remained a folder, even when removing and replacing the filename extension .dtBase2. Unrepairable damage had occurred. My guess is that the convention of package files in OS X isn’t well supported by cloud hosts, which don’t use Mac HFS+ storage. Even more likely to result in damage, of course, would be opening and working on a database file stored in the cloud. DEVONthink databases are dynamic in their structure, and that isn’t something that Dropbox or other cloud hosts handle in the same way as your Mac.

I’ve never had a problem with storing a Database Archive file, which is a zipped file, on a cloud host. That seems a safe way to do cloud backups, if that’s desired. Of course, uploading and downloading s multi-gigabyte file to the cloud can be slow, especially with my ISP.

Cloud backup utilities (joe recommends some) that avoid the problems of recognition of large package files may also be appropriate. But as Joe comments, the time required to do a recovery should be considered, unless one has a very fast high bandwidth access without monthly cap on data use.

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