The (almost) perfect Mac backup solution

Sorry Windows folks, Mac only.

I really like, no, love Leopard’s Time Machine backup feature. It’s transparency is perfect for me. I plugged in my drive, turned on Time Machine, and forgot about it.

A few weeks ago I launched Aperture and found a completely empty library. That’s 14gb of photos gone folks.

After the initial panic and slurring of expletives I regained composure, comforted by that little green icon in the right side of my dock. Luckily Time Machine had grabbed a snapshot of my Aperture library at midnight the night before. I restored it, launched Aperture and found everything in order. No drama. Keeping around versions and snapshots of files is really where Time Machine shines.

While it is possible to restore from Time Machine, it’s not perfect. Backup software such as SuperDuper and Carbon Copy Cloner (CCC) take the “traditional” backup approach by creating a bit-for-bit clone of your drive that is bootable.

SuperDuper and CCC are both great pieces of software, the problem (for me) is that I simply don’t backup enough. It’s time consuming and resource intensive. It’s not feasible or convenient to fire off a backup while I’m working. Had I needed to restore my Aperture library from a Super Duper backup, it probably would have been a few days (or even weeks) old, leaving me with hundreds of photos gone.

So which is better? Having snapshots of individual files to rollback to, or a bootable drive in the event of a disaster.

Yep, it’s both. Use Time Machine for file snapshots and Super Duper (or CCC) to keep a bootable copy of your drive. Here is how:

Step 1:

Get a really big hard drive. I have a 500GB Western Digital My Book USB drive attached to my Mac Pro.

Step 2:

Using Disk Utility, make a partition the same size as your system drive. This partition will be used to store your bootable system backup. There really is no need to make it any bigger than your system drive since it will be a direct clone of it.

Step 3:

Make a second partition that fills up the rest of the free space on the drive. This partition will be used for Time Machine since it will happily fill up as much free space as you’ll give it.

Once you have partition the drive, it’s simply a matter of configuring the backup software. For Time Machine, that means turning it on and telling it to use the larger of the two partitions you just created. Click on the Time Machine icon in your dock or from System Preferences. Time Machine will chew up your system for a while during it’s initial backup, but once that is finished you’ll barely notice it.

Next, fire up Super Duper or CCC and use the “set it and forget it” scheduling options to set up a time to backup when your machine won’t be busy. I personally backup late at night and let Super Duper shutdown my Mac when it’s done.

So why not perfect? For one, if my house burns down, both drives are toast (literally). A really thorough backup routine should include regularly round-robin swapping out your backups off-site somewhere. I’ve been checking out Amazon S3 lately and am definitely intrigued about it. It’s dirt cheap and can be accessed several different ways, including as simple as FTP. The down side is it’s speed is limited by the internet pipe coming to your house. I’m lucky enough to have Verizon FiOS, but even at those speeds, backing up my system could take a day or two.

Second, storing both backups on the same drive would also leave me high and drive in the event that the drive goes down. This could (and will) be easily fixed by adding a second inexpensive hard drive.


  1. ericabiz said:

    Have you checked out JungleDisk? It supposedly works on Macs and Windows.

    S3 runs about $8/mo to back up my web server. Richard is using “s3sync” on that platform (Linux).


  2. Travis said:

    Thanks for the suggestion Erica. I’ve toyed with JungleDisk a few times. It’s really nice because it mounts locally just like a regular disk. However, it’s really slow.

    In my case, I may use JungleDisk or S3 to just backup my most critical assets, such as my music and Aperture library. I would hate to do a full restore from the web. The pipes just aren’t big enough yet!

  3. Stephen said:

    That sounds like a great system. I always have good intentions of creating a good backup system myself, but never seem to get around to it. I’ve found Mozy to be a great solution for me, plus as you mentioned, it has the added benefit of staying around even if my house burns down.

    It’s only $5/month for unlimited backup, and once it does the initial backup, it only backs up files that have changed. It runs in the background and waits until I’m not using my computer to upload files. Mozy also just released a beta version for Mac.

    Until I have the time to build the PC equivalent of the slick setup you have, it’s been a great solution for a forgetful person like myself.

    I’d hate to restore all my files over the net too, but it sure beats what I had before.

  4. Steve Basile said:

    There’s a single solution out there for YEARS that accomplishes the same thing as SuperDuper/CCC AND TimeMachine. It’s called Synchronize Pro ($99,

    Synch Pro does full bootable backups like CCC and Super Duper. It also does incremental backups and saves multiple generations of files like Time Machine. It also does timed backups. It ain’t as pretty as Time Machine but it does the same thing.

    Finally, if you have the coin to score a Mac Pro then get a FireWire backup drive.

  5. Travis said:

    Thanks for the recommendation Steve, I’ll give Synchronize Pro a look.

    And you right, it definitely is *not* as pretty as Time Machine :)

  6. Jochen Wolters said:


    According to the Revision History, SuperDuper! supports storing its bootable backup on the same volume that is used by Time Machine. So, even though there may be advantages to partitioning the drive into two volumes, it is not a required step (anymore).

    Also, SuperDuper! can clone a Time Machine volume, so if you are getting a second drive, just clone your main backup drive onto it and take it off-site. Great peace of mind at bearable hassle. ;)



  7. Travis said:

    Jochen, thanks for the tip!

    Not only would this save a step, but also reclaim any wasted space used up by the partition for my system backup. For example, if I partition of 250Gb for cloning, but my actual backup size is only 120Gb, that’s 130Gb that I can’t use for Time Machine.

  8. Sandy said:

    In step two, you refer to your system drive. Is your MacBookPro’s drive partitioned? If so what’s not on the system drive partition?

  9. Travis said:

    Hi Sandy, I’m referring to making a partition on your backup drive that’s the same size as your system drive, not actually on the system drive.

  10. Morasy said:

    thanks much, bro

  11. polypus said:

    check out OWC’s external NewerTech Guardian MAXimus. these units contain two drives (that you can choose yourself if you want) and have hardware raid 1 built in.

    for non propellerheads, basically what that means is that all your time machine backups are read and written to 2 drives at once so that if one fails you still have the other.

    i’m not sure if it can be partitioned, you’ll have to call their customer service, so for the above scheme it may not work. but for one large backup volume it should be really good.

  12. polypus said:

    i’ve been considering a similar setup, using the Guardian MAXimus i mentioned in the above post with time machine to back up only my home directories.

    and using the stock 320GB drive that will come with my new mac pro, in an external enclosure, as a system backup drive with superduper. this will not back up my home directories.

    i’m thinking that i’ll have two internal hardrives (actually raid0 sets, but to keep it simple i’ll just call them drives). one as a boot drive and the other containing my home directories. anybody done anything similar?

  13. minnie swirl said:

    How big should your external hard drive be? I know that you need the same size as your internal hard drive for SD, so then should I buy an external hard drive that is the size of my internal drive plus how much more for Time Machine? I’m new to all of this so please forgive my ignorance.

  14. Travis Isaacs said:

    @Minnie – buying a hard drive that’s at least as big as your current drive is a good place to start. Time Machine will keep as many copies of your files as it has room for, so the more the merrier. Storage is so cheap right now, I would start with 500gb if it fits your budget.

  15. minnie swirl said:

    @Travis – Thank you!