This post is mainly for Mac users. If you're not a Mac user, many of the points here will still apply to you, but some of them won't. You might prefer this video of a dog eating Potato Olés.

If you haven't already, check out our new guide, The Resilient Organization: A Guide for Disaster Planning and Recovery. This book represents several months' worth of research and numerous people's expertise, and we think it'll be a helpful resource for nonprofits and public libraries.

Working on the book got me thinking about my own backup strategies for my home computer. About two years ago, my old iBook G4 started to get slow and it seemed that the hard drive was probably on its way out. I was still covered by AppleCare at the time, so I bought an external MyBook drive and downloaded SuperDuper, in hopes that I'd still be under warranty when the internal drive inevitably died. No such luck.

Like most backup programs, SuperDuper gives you the choice of whether to back up only your own personal data (your home folder) or your entire drive, including the operating system and applications. To back up the entire drive, select "Backup - all files." (This is often referred to as a mirror image.) The benefit of this sort of backup is that if you need to, you can boot the computer from it. That's a huge plus for a lot of reasons: if something happens to your internal drive, you can still boot from the external drive. If you need to send the computer to the shop, you can boot from your backup drive on a separate Mac and keep working as usual.

Like clockwork, the internal drive died just after AppleCare expired, so I went to a Mac-friendly repair shop. I'd been making regular backups with SuperDuper, but the repair person told me that since my backup drive was USB only (rather than FireWire), I wouldn't be able to restore from it. He proceeded to offer me a very expensive restoration service.

He was partially right. Apple's "restore from another Mac" function didn't work from the USB drive. So instead, after reinstalling Mac OS, the first thing I did was download another copy of SuperDuper. I selected "Backup - all files," but I marked my backup drive as the source and the new internal drive as the target. Three long hours later, everything was back to normal.

A big change has come with the new generation of Apple computers. Intel-based Macs are bootable from USB drives, and in fact, some lower-end Macs no longer include a FireWire port, much to the chagrin of longtime Apple fans.

"But Elliot," you say. "We're all running Time Machine now; why do we need another backup?" Well, you might not: it depends on your needs. This excellent post from Shawn Blanc outlines the difference an archiving utility like Time Machine and a backup utility like SuperDuper. "The biggest problem with Time Machine will arise if and when your startup drive becomes unusable for whatever reason. If all you have is your startup disc and your Time Machine backup, then you will need to get a new hard drive, and restore your backup onto it. Even if you can run out to the store and be back lickety-split, you'll still be spending several hours waiting on Time Machine to restore its backup to your new drive." (Alternatively, you could keep both a full backup and a Time Machine archive on a single bootable drive.)

In the book, we advocate a 2x2x2 policy to local backups: keep two backups held by two different people at two different locations. If you have two board members holding onto backups and Time Machine running on all the Macs in your office, you've got a valorous backup solution.

In our recent disaster-planning webinar, someone asked about remote backup solutions for Mac. Chris Shipley recommended Mozy and Carbonite as two Mac-friendly solutions. One great thing about these services is that they let you specify which folders to back up. If you have a volunteer designing your website from home, you can have her back up only the folder containing the pertinent files.

A theme that's come up again and again, both in the book and in the webinars, is the importance of making a plan in calmer times. Should a disaster impact your tech infrastructure, it's possible that you'll be able to recreate your most important data using old emails and hard copies. But especially in a time of disaster, that's time that would be better spent serving your community.


Photo: Jason Cale, CC license


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Elliot Harmon
Staff Writer, TechSoup