Back Up Here, Back Up There, Back Up Your Data Everywhere

Unlike most of the computing public—whose crucial data consists of email, Word documents, and maybe an iPhoto or iTunes library—musicians and other digital artists can quickly accumulate multiple terabytes of MOVs and RAWs and WAVs. And with all that data comes great responsibility. Namely: What are you gonna do when your hard drives die? (And yes, they will die.) Luckily, surprisingly affordable solutions exist today that can turn “I’m hosed” into “no big deal”: All you have to do is pop in a new drive, restore over a lunch break, and resume where you left off.

A wise man once said, “Data doesn’t exist unless it’s on three drives, in two different locations.” Meaning, a single hard drive or a lone iCloud backup isn’t going to cut it for anything that’s valuable (or should I say invaluable?). I’ve tried many solutions over the years, always valuing simple, comprehensive, and frictionless solutions that didn’t cost an arm and a leg. Here’s what’s worked for me.

One-off session backup: Carbon Copy Cloner

When I’m working with other artists, I almost always run the sessions off my own audio hard drives. However, I always insist that they bring in their own drive for two reasons: data safety (even if it’s just the few hours between tracking the perfect vocal take and the middle of the night when my local backups kick in); and also so they can have a bit-for-bit copy of everything we worked on together. For these one-off backups, I use Carbon Copy Cloner. It’s a great tool for cloning and syncing folders (as opposed to entire disks or disk images), and running a saved sync script at the end of the day takes one click and just a few minutes—as long as you remember to do it.

Local backup: Super Duper and Drobo

Every night at 2 a.m., Super Duper updates sparse bundle disk images of all my hard drives (SSD boot drive, user folder drive, sample drive, and a couple audio drives) stored on a second generation Drobo. In effect, I have an exact mirror of every drive I own on my Drobo, which all get updated every night with any changes that were made during the day. I’ve hit a couple Drobo bumps in the road—it has super picky drive standards (not a bad thing) and slightly wonky dashboard software—but when it’s working well, it’s like magic. It’s fully redundant, meaning if a drive within the Drobo fails, your data is still safe. Best of all, the swapping works exactly as advertised: If a drive fails, or if you want more storage, simply pop a drive out, push a new one in, and Drobo takes care of the rest.

Super Duper specializes in duplicating entire drives, which was important: I had found that picking and choosing which data was important enough to backup—then trying to figure out on to which backup drive it should be backed up—was a waste of valuable time, and left me with hole-riddled, half baked backups to boot (no pun intended). Not to mention restoring from a fully cloned drive is a no brainer, compared to restoring from a random assortment of dated folders possibly spread across multiple drives. Once I bit the bullet and invested in the Drobo, having a giant storage pool for full drive clones paid for itself very quickly in saved time. Once I had my Super Duper schedule in place (which took about 20 minutes), I rarely have to touch it.

Online backup: Backblaze vs. CrashPlan

Local backups are fast and convenient, and usually all you’ll need in case of a drive failure. But the key word is usually, which doesn’t cut it when we’re talking about data that’s one-of-a-kind, or would costs thousands and thousands of dollars to replace. Fires, water damage, burglary, accidents, spilled coffee, and technical failures all happen. Enter online backup services: For $5 a month, you can back up an unlimited amount of data to a secure, redundant, offsite server. It would take several years of $5 monthly fees to pay for just a hard drive to back up to, and even then, most people would forget to use it and eventually drop it in the toilet by accident. At this point, there’s no reason not to be using one of these services.

My first foray into online backup was with CrashPlan. I had little to complain about: The upload speed was fast, it was very easy to set up, and the control panel offers many technical options if you want to get tweaky with your backup settings. Unfortunately, it’s not the most polished piece of software, a fact of which I was soon made painfully aware.

In a nutshell: CrashPlan used Java to write their OS X client. Because I had an enormous number of files it had to keep track of, Java-related memory issues reared their head, which led to the constant and hidden-to-the-user CrashPlan engine crashes, which were reported to what became a 60 gigabyte log file, filled with nothing but text to the effect of  “CrashPlan engine ran out of memory.” Eventually, every last bit of my boot drive was eventually taken up by this single runaway log file, which led to a spectacular crash of the entire OS, and left me unable to boot into my computer.

On top of that, once I realized what was going on—moments before the OS crashed—there was literally no way to quickly turn off the CrashPlan engine and stop it from eating up my drive without knowing a special sudo Terminal command that CrashPlan support revealed to me later (and speaking of support, CrashPlan’s is actually very good). I don’t even remember how I got back into my computer to trash that bloated log file, but I do remember that I understandably stopped using CrashPlan that day.

(By the way, there is a fix for my problem, but it seems like a bit of an ugly hack to me—not the kind of thing that inspires confidence in a product that I’m trusting all my data to. Also, rumor has it that CrashPlan is currently working on a native Mac application, but there has yet to be official word from them about it.)

One very cool thing about CrashPlan is that you can use their software for free to back up to your own (or a friend or family member’s) offsite computer, which might be just the ticket for your particular situation. That said, solutions such as Transporter make that kind of thing possible with even less hardware—just a hard drive, not a whole computer.

After the CrashPlan adventure, I tried Backblaze: Same price, much sleeker software (though less tweakable, if that matters to you), and some of the innovative and coolest looking housemade hardware I’ve ever seen. I set it up a year ago, and haven’t had a reason to think about it since. For backup software, that’s the highest praise I can think of.

Back That Thang Up

So there you have it: For a modest RAID investment up front and $5 a month thereafter, I have same-day session backups for clients, as well as daily local and continuous offsite backups for me—both redundant. Not a bad price for never having to worry about…my bits.