These days, "backup" means duplicating your entire internal drive to a secondary external volume, using any of a variety of backup utility apps including Time Machine, Retrospect, SuperDuper or Carbon Copy Cloner (covered below). By having all data stored on two drives, your data will not be lost when a drive fails - and they all do - as long as your backup has been properly setup, kept current and stored safely.

Cloud backup is not good enough, and here's why:
Sending all your data into space puts modem, router, ISP, passwords and servers in the way of recovery, and security may also be an issue. But the big problem is that most (if not all) cloud backup services only store unique files in order to save space. This means you'll be left having to install an OS, restore network settings and reinstall application programs before you can even begin to recover your unique files from cloud storage. Think about it: If your drive has crashed, how are you going to access anything at all? Having a full and complete backup - in your possession - will literally save you days of grief. We recommend keeping an external backup drive current and complete at all times, whether onsite or offsite.

Q#1: Do you care?
If you tossed your computer from a high-rise window, would you miss it? Family photos? Your music library? Bank records, vacation videos, love letters, bookmarks, legal junk, emails....? If you answered 'no,' good for you! There _is_ more to life after all. But, if you count on your computer, you should know that all your data is stored on a device that is certain to fail eventually. (Yes, SSDs can fail, too.) Having a backup is only prudent.

Another reason to create and maintain a proper backup has to do with OS upgrades, program installations and software updates. If you make a full/complete/proper backup _BEFORE_ applying upgrades or making major modifications, you'll have an "undo" option if something goes wrong or you find you can't tolerate the change.

Q#2: How much storage capacity do you need?
Gigabytes, terabytes or exebytes? Got a humongous music library? Loads of video? Maybe it's time to look into a RAID setup (Redundant Array of Independent Disks); multiple drives which may be arranged to backup files on the fly. Professional photographers, videographers, musicians, designers and the like may have storage requirements far beyond the needs of "normal" computer users, in which case a RAID array is the way to go. For the rest of us, a 1-2 terabyte drive (1024 GB - 2048 GB) is more than adequate. Take a look at your current drive's storage capacity and available space to get an idea of what your requirements are and how much room you'll need for future expansion.

1024 bytes          = 1 kilobyte (1KB)
1024 kilobytes     = 1 megabyte (1MB)
1024 megabytes = 1 gigabyte (1GB)
1024 gigabytes    = 1 terabyte (1TB)
1024 terabytes   = 1 exebyte (1EB)

Q#3: Is Security a concern?
If you haven't thought about it, you really should - and not just because someone might get into your personal information. Your files and Operating System could accidentally be damaged by allowing others to have access to your computer, an upgrade could go haywire, or the machine might sustain damage. You should at least protect your admin account with a proper password (especially on portable devices). When letting others borrow your computer, logout as admin and use the guest account provided by your OS. Make sure your backup drive is safe and secure, too.
  • Top Priority, at any cost. You have two choices (basically): Encrypted, continuous and complete backup offsite over a secure network - or - hand-carried physical volumes rotated periodically thru a secure offsite location. Recovery from a total disaster should take no longer than a restart from your backup volume or server.
  • Security is appreciated: Automated, scheduled onsite backup with password protection and limited physical access is adequate for most of us. Backup schedule is determined by acceptable loss and/or convenience. Security isn't an overriding concern here, so a proper password and backup should be sufficient.
  • Security is not important (workstation, casual user): Data loss is always an issue, regardless of security concerns. Occasional backup based on completed jobs, work schedule or major changes/upgrades might be okay, depending on potential setback from data loss. The easier your backup plan is, the more likely you will use it, but any workable plan is better than none.

It has to be dependable and convenient.
If you use a MacPro tower (any except the newest tubular models), you have extra hard drive bays wired and ready for internal backup. This will protect against data loss from a drive failure, but it won't protect you from a fire, flood or other disaster that might destroy the entire machine - only offsite backup can do that. On the up side, this backup plan is the easiest and cheapest of all. (The newest MacPro machines use internal PCIe flash storage so any backup would have to be external.)

iMacs, Minis and notebooks, of course, have no provision for additional internal drives, so an external backup is your only option but an easy one. If you travel with a notebook, a 2.5" SATA backup drive is your best bet. Small, portable and self-contained, these drives are easy to connect, pack and use. If portable backup isn't necessary, a full-size 3.5" desktop unit or RAID array will happily stay behind as backup volume for your machine. These have higher capacity and are generally a bit less expensive per GB than their 2.5" notebook-sized cousins.

HARDWARE HALF of making a backup:

An external FireWire, Thunderbolt or USB connected drive of equal capacity to your Mac's primary (internal) drive is ideal. USB is the most common type of connection, but if your machine is equipped with FireWire or Thunderbolt you may want to take advantage of the additional speed of these ports.

FireWire 800 is backwards-compatible with 400, and 800 to 400 adapters are readily available (also known as FireWire 9-pin to 6-pin). Many external drives will also have eSATA ports, some have Thunderbolt, but practically all are USB equipped, giving you plenty of connectivity options. Complete external drives are available at office supply stores, or find a suitable (empty) enclosure and install any hard drive you choose.

The drive enclosure pictured at left is for a desktop 3.5" (full-size) hard drive. This example has two FireWire 400 ports and one USB. Like most of these, it requires a power brick (not shown) and cools by convection thru its case. Some enclosures have fans, some are stackable, some are made from plastic and others, like this example, are made of aluminum. Solid state drives (SSDs) are becoming more common as prices begin to stabilize, but these typically have lower storage capacity at much higher cost than conventional drives and thus are not a practical choice for backup purposes.

Compact, pocket-sized 2.5" external backups like the one pictured here are commonly available from all drive manufacturers. Powered directly thru its USB connection, these may be found at Staples, Fry's, Best Buy, and most other office supply stores. Enclosures are also available for 2.5" bare drives with FireWire, Thunderbolt and other connectivity options if you'd prefer to assemble your own backup.

All backup
drives will likely need to be formatted, and be advised: Many ready made backup units come with an annoying utilities partition that you neither need nor want - erase the partition and its utilities when formatting a new drive (if you can) and never use that stuff - it's mostly for PC users and will do nothing but cause grief on a Mac.

RAID arrays are becoming necessary, as storage and backup space requirements explode. Pictured here is the business end of a 4-bay RAID array containing 3 full-size hard drives. These may be configured as backup and/or storage with up to 12 bays in a single enclosure - but be prepared for sticker shock. A good choice is the Drobo pictured here with Thunderbolt and gigabit ethernet connections. Other models may employ USB, Firewire, or even a high-end SCSI interface option for high-speed video and enterprise server applications. Please note that RAID arrays require special formatting and setup that is beyond the scope of the simple backup schemes outlined here.

SOFTWARE HALF of making a backup:
iCloud: As mentioned at top of this page, online backup has its problems, but it's certainly better than nothing. If this is your choice, keep the nonsense to a minimum by using Apple's iCloud service. An iCloud account provides cost effective online backup and also allows you to synchronize your files across multiple computers, iPads, iPhones and such; the sync function of iCloud can be pretty attractive for managing workgroups and multiple devices. If your equipment is up to date and you prefer online backup, give iCloud a go.

Time Machine:
Starting with OSX Leopard 10.5, Apple has addressed the need for backup by including their Time Machine backup utility program with the MacOS, providing easy automation, once setup has been completed. Time Machine is slick, fast, free, and requires no attention, operating unobtrusively in the background while keeping your backup current. Once configured correctly, Time Machine operates flawlessly and couldn't be easier to use. Restoring your data from a Time Machine backup requires a few unique steps, so get acquainted with the restore process while you're at it. We use a variety of methods here at the shop, but highly recommend Time Machine as best choice for most Mac users.

Retrospect: One of the very best backup applications ever, this venerable long-time Macintosh standard has recently been re-released after a long absence from the Mac platform. It's expensive, with periodic updates and various license agreements available, depending on your equipment and circumstances. We've yet to see or test any new version of Retrospect, but it claims to support encryption, work flow options and backup to a wide variety of media (incl. tape). May be best suited for high-end corporate use supporting multiple servers where speed, security and dependability are mission critical.

Carbon Copy Cloner: Drag-and drop installation, ease of use and a full compliment of automated features, CCC has everything you need to create and maintain a bootable backup with a minimum of hassle and maximum convenience. Download is fully functional for a limited evaluation period, and comes with a comprehensive user manual. This app has been around for a very long time thru many OS versions over the years and is still going strong. Quick and reliable, its easy interface hides a sophisticated core that has matured over the years and managed to keep pace with all the latest changes in the MacOS.

SuperDuper!: From our friends at Shirt Pocket, SuperDuper! has a clear and simple interface, it's quick, easy and seemingly bulletproof, with an outstanding feature set at a very reasonable price. (SuperDuper is still available for older Systems including PPC machines, too.) Free to download, it can be used immediately to make a full backup, but purchase and registration is required to unlock its full capability, including incremental and scheduled (automatic) backup. Comes with a full PDF manual and installation is a simple drag-and-drop to your computer's Applications folder.

Test your backup _before_ it's needed:
To test a Time Machine backup you must have an available (empty) drive to use since it will overwrite any volume it restores to - and you don't want to risk data on your primary hard drive for the sake of a test. The restore process cannot be interrupted and results won't be known until completed.

The other utilities recommended above all create bootable backups that requires nothing more than an open port to plug into. Once the backup mounts, you can compare both volumes side-by-side; these should be nearly identical if backup was made recently and correctly. Comparing volumes shows backup is complete; starting up from the backup volume only takes a minute and will prove it can be used as a boot volume as well.

The rest is up to you.
If you are capable of sorting thru all the details and setting up a proper backup, the info above should at least get you started and help you on your way. By all means, _do_ create and use a backup plan if you don't have one already; if you do have a backup, take the time to keep it current and test it now and then. If you find all this too complicated to deal with, know that you're not alone and we're here to help.