• International Backup Day

    Today being International Backup Day, I thought I’d share the backup strategy I developed for my family. My goal was to make it as seamless as possible, so it’s easy for everyone to follow. We are an all Mac/iPhone/iPad household, which keeps it simple, if only because it’s fewer platforms to keep track of.

    First, a bit of history. Maybe eight years ago, the hard drive in my wife’s MacBook died. Died bad. It wouldn’t boot, wouldn’t even mount. Luckily, I was able to recover all of her data (most importantly all the pictures and videos of our new, first child) by cloning the drive with dd and Disk Warrior. It was a stressful few weeks, and it cemented in us just how important backups are.

    I share this story so you can learn from our expensive near-miss. You may think that backups are a hassle, but you can build a durable backup strategy that is easy to implement.

    I have tried to write this out in a way that “less technical” people can follow. If you have trouble with it, please let me know.


    This is probably the easiest plan to put in place. If you have already completed a step, than just skip to the next one. I’m going to say iPhone in this guide, but the same applies to iPads:

    1. Ensure your phone has a passcode set. “But passcodes are such a pain!” you say. I agree, but if you don’t enable the feature, you’re backups won’t include all of your saved passwords. I’ll write up something about password management in the future, but this is about having good backups. So please, enable the passcode:
      1. Go to Settings -> Touch ID & Passcode.
      2. Tap Turn Passcode On.
      3. Set at least a six-digit passcode.
    2. Create an iCloud account: You’ll sign in with the same email address / password as you use in the App Store. Do this on your iPhone from Settings -> iCloud.
    3. Upgrade your storage to 50GB: on the iPhone, go to Settings -> iCloud -> Storage. Click “Change Storage Plan” and select “50GB”. Yes, that is going to be 99¢ a month. But that is a (literally) small price to pay for a really good backup strategy.
    4. Make sure backups are enabled: Go to Settings -> iCloud -> Backup and make sure iCloud Backup” is turned on.
    5. Every night, make sure you plug in your iPhone to charge, and make sure it is connected to a wifi network. The device will automatically backup every 24 hours.
    6. Want to make sure it’s working? Go to Settings -> iCloud -> Backup and look at the “Last Backup” line at the bottom of the screen. It should be a date and time in the past 24 hours. Don’t you feel better?

    If your iPhone/iPad isn’t able to backup for a few days, it’ll tell you! Remember, it has to be charging and connected to a wifi network to backup. If you get one of these alerts, plugin in the device, go to Settings -> iCloud -> Backup and tap “Back Up Now”.


    This is more involved to setup, and maintain, but it works for us. We have two macs in the house: my wife’s MacBook Air and the family iMac. We have two 2TB USB Drives that both the iMac and MacBook use for Time Machine. However, bit drives are not connected at the same time! One stays connected to the iMac, and one sits in my desk drawer at work. About every two weeks, I rotate the drives, so we always have a nearly-up-to-date off-site backup. So here are the steps:

    The initial backups can take a long time. Its best to run them overnight, and take steps to ensure the computers won’t go to sleep while the backups are running. These steps are included below.

    Initial Setup

    1. Buy two identical external drives. I went with the 2TB Seagate Backup Plus at the time, but I’d recommend just buying waterever The Wirecutter recommends. The bigger the drives, the more Time Machine will be able to backup.
    2. When you get the drives, use Disk Utility to reformat the drives.
      1. The first time you connect a USB drive to a Mac, it will ask you if you want to use it for Time Machine. Select “No.” For now. We have some work to do.
      2. On each drive, you’ll want to make as many partiions as you have computers. Make the partitions at least twice the size fo the hard drive in the computer that will be using it. So, if you have a 1TB drive in your iMac, make it’s partion at least 2TB.
      3. Make sure the partitions are encrypted. Every partion should have a good passphrase. Make sure you save these pass phrases in your password manager, or at least write them down and put that paper somewhere safe. Why do you wan to encrypt the volumes? If the drive should happen to be stolen, no one will be able to access the data without the passwords. You are going to be storing one of these drives off-site, so the chances of inappropriate access are increased.
      4. Give the partitions names that will remind you what computer they belong to. “imac-1” and “macbook-1” are perfectly fine. Personally, I used character names from The Lego Movie

    Initial Backups for the Desktop

    1. Connect both drives to the desktop computer.
    2. Open System Preferences (from the Apple Menu)
    3. Select Time Machine
    4. Click “Select Disk”
    5. Choose the first volume you want to use for backing up this computer. Remember those clever names we came up with earlier? Now they are going to come in handy.
    6. Click “Add or Remove Backup Disk”
    7. Select the second volume from the second drive.
    8. If you want to save some space, you can exclude some folders from the backup strategy. I’ll writeup some instructions for that in the future. For now, lets backup all the things.
    9. From the Menu Bar, find the Time Machine menu and select “Back Up Now”
    10. Lets disable sleep for a while, so that the computer will backup as quickly as possible.
      1. From System Preferences, Select “Energy Saver”
      2. Select “Prevent this computer from sleeping automatically when the display is off”
    11. Wait for the backup to the first drive to complete. This may take a full day.
    12. When the initial backup is done, the next backup should start on the second drive. If you’re anxious, just select that “Back Up Now” action in the Time Machine Menu again.
    13. When both backups are complete, the Time Machine System Preference Screen will show the date of the last backup to each volume.

    Initial Backups on the Laptop

    These steps will be a little abbreviated, because they are mostly the same as for the desktop.

    1. Wait for the desktop to do its initial backups. This isn’t strictly necessary, but Time Machine doesn’t get high priority, so I suspect running them at the same time may actually take longer than doing them one at a time.
    2. On the desktop, enable file sharing
      1. Go to System Preferences -> Sharing
      2. Turn “File Sharing” on.
      3. Give your desktop computer a better name than “Mason’s Computer”. “iMac” is perfectly fine. (Our’s is named Emmet)
    3. Mount the backup drives onto the laptop
      1. From the laptop, click Finder (down in the dock) and then File -> New Finder Window from the menu bar.
      2. On the left side of that window, under Shared, you should see your desktop’s new name. Select it.
      3. At the top of the window should be a “Connect As” button. Click It.
      4. You’ll be prompted for a username and password. Use the same name and password you use to log into the desktop. be sure to click the “Save this password” checkbox.
      5. You should see a bunch of volumes listed: the main volume for the desktop computer, as well as all of the backup volumes. Select the backup volumes you created for this laptop.
    4. Open System Preferences -> Time Machine
    5. Click “Select Disk”
    6. Choose the first volume for backups
    7. Click “Select Disk” again and select the second volume.
    8. From the Menu Bar, find the Time Machine menu and select “Back Up Now”
    9. Disable sleep on the laptop and plug it into the power source.
      1. From System Preferences, Select “Energy Saver”
      2. Select “Prevent this computer from sleeping automatically when the display is off”
    10. Confirm the backups completed to both drives.
    11. Let the laptop sleep again.
      1. Go back to the Energy Saver System Preference Screen
      2. Uncheck the box next to “Prevent this computer from sleeping automatically when the display is off”

    Make Sure Laptop Backups Always Run

    1. On the laptop, open the Time Machine System Preference screen.
    2. Click the “Options” button in the bottom right corner.
    3. Click “Back Up while on battery power”

    Make sure the Backup Drives Automatically Connect to the Desktop

    1. Reboot the Desktop
    2. When the computer comes up, it may prompt you for the passwords for al of the drives. Type them in and click that “remember this password” checkbox.”
    3. Reboot the desktop again and all of the drives should mount without your help.

    Make Sure It Works!

    Time Machine backs up every hour, so you should be able to go the Time Machine System Preference Screen on either computer and see that backups are being written to all the drives, and that none of the backups are more than two hours old.

    Make sure the laptop backups work as expected.

    I have had trouble in the past getting these to work quite right. Sometimes I need to redo the laptop steps. But this is how to confirm:

    1. Make sure the desktop computer is turned on.
    2. Restart the laptop
    3. From the Time Machine menu on the laptop, select “Back Up Now”.
    4. The backup should start without you having to do anything.
    5. When that first backup completes, start another backup. The second drive should automatically mount.

    Take it Off-Site

    1. Back on the Desktop, open a new finder window.
    2. On the left-hand side, under Devices, you should see all of the backup volumes. Click the little eject button next to one of them to eject it.
    3. You should get a message that asks if you want to eject all of the volumes on this drive. Click Yes.”
    4. If you don’t get that message, than eject the other volumes on that disk by using the little eject buttons.
    5. When all of the volumes are ejected, unplug the drive from the computer and the power outlet.
    6. Take the drive, USB cable and power cable and put them all together, in a case or bag.
    7. Store them in a safe location away from your house. I keep mine in a locked drawer at work. You may want to store yours with a friend … and they can store their drive at yours!


    Every ten days or so, the desktop and or laptop will display a reminder like: “I haven’t backed up to Batman in over ten days”. That’s your queue to:

    1. Unplug the current drive. be sure to use those little eject buttons.
    2. You don’t have to unplug the power or USB cables from the computer or wall. Just leave them there for the other drive.
    3. Take your drive to your backup location and swap the drives.
    4. Bring the other drive home and plug it into the computer and power.
    5. Kick off new backups from the Desktop and Laptop. These first backups will take a while (there is at least 10 days of data to catch up). This is also a good way to make sure the backups are working as expected.

    There you have it. A complete backup solution for your iPhones, iPads and Macs. It’s cheap, durable, pretty easy to setup, and easier to maintain.


    If you don’t have a desktop, but only a MacBook, and you want a simple backup solution, I’d recommend getting an Aiprort Extreme, the two external drives, and take a look at this article. You could use a USB hub to hookup both drives at once, or backup to one, disconnect it, and then backup to the other.

    Yes, the Airport Extreme is an expensive wifi base station, but in this case, you are buying it for more than wifi, you are buying it as part of your backup solution. It’s going to be cheaper than buying a Mac mini.

    What About Crashplan/Backblaze/Whatever?

    There are plenty of cloud backup solutions out there, and I have no doubt they are great. But they are also expensive, and it isn’t just the monthly fee. Backing up gigabytes a month is going to eat up a lot of the bandwidth limit from your Internet provider. If you should ever need to recover a sizable ammount of your data, that’s going to be even more badnwidth consumed.

    For me, toting a hard drive to and from work twice a month isn’t a big deal.


    Backups aren’t exciting, but they are critical. Especially as computers and smart phones become more intergal to our lives. Do yourself a favor and make a plan. I hope this guide illustrates that a plan doesn’t have to be copmplex or expensive to be dependable.

    If you have any comments or questions, please let me know on Twitter.