Archive That Artwork! Backup Tips & Software Advice for Mac OS X

Backup. It’s something most computer users – let alone artistic types – never think about, at least not until after it’s too late. Trust me, once it happens to you, it will never be forgotten. Perhaps I can convince you to never have to go through that by recommending you start your backup system now.

All that precious time spent creating, tweaking, and perfecting your masterpiece is well worth a few measly bucks and a bit of effort (which will be automated once it’s all set up) to ensure you don’t lose those hours of hard work.

Hard drives are amazing little devices, but really they are just really tiny, complicated record players with magnetic dust all over the platters (blatantly reversed engineered from UFO technology – did they think we wouldn’t notice?). And they do break. Hard drives are so dang inexpensive anymore you have no excuse not to back things up at least to one backup drive. Redundant backups are even better, with off-site and multiple media-type backups (such as CDs & DVDs) even more so.

Let’s get into the type of backup system I have in place first, and then jump into the software.

Backup Your Mac.

Backup is not only for your art files. You are going to also want to make sure you have a backup of your System files as well, and the preferable method is to have what is called a “clone” or a bootable backup. This ensures you can get back up and running if anything goes wrong with the hard drive running your Macintosh.

• Get An External Hard Drive

This is pretty simple: you’ll need and external (FireWire or USB 2.0) hard drive, or alternatively if you have expansion bays for additional hard drives in your PowerMac desktop, you can buy just a “bare” drive. If you aren’t comfortable installing a hard drive, just go the external route. It’s much easier, and also portable to other and/or future computers. On a side note, an external drive for your iTunes music library is a great idea. But that’s another topic entirely.

• Format The External Hard Drive

Once you have your external drive, you’ll need to format it for your Mac. OS X will read a PC formatted drive, but you want this thing all Mac through and through, since this will not only be your backup, but also your emergency boot – or startup – hard drive. So, plug in the power and the FireWire/USB cable. the drive should appear on your Desktop with a cool-looking orange “external drive” icon.

Fire up the application “Disk Utilities”, which is in your Applications folder in the “Utilities” folder. Highlight the new drive in the left hand column, then over on the right-hand side click on the “Erase” tab (which IMO should be the “Format” tab, but I’m just a guy who draws funny pictures, right?). Format should be the Mac OS Extended (Journaled) – which is the default. Click “Erase”, and it will do it’s thing.

• Get Hard Drive Cloning Backup Software

OK, so we have a new external drive setup, what’s next? Well, two options: free and not-free software. As I mentioned we’ll need to clone this drive, and not all backup software does this. The two champs from everything I have read are Carbon Copy Cloner (free) and SuperDuper! (shareware). As usual, the free version does it’s thing, but don’t expect much support. I personally went with SuperDuper as it seemed a bit more intuitive and user-friendly, and having the support access is well worth the $30 bucks I paid.

• Automate Your Clone

Next, you set up a backup with whichever software you choose – and I am not going into the details about how to do this, the user manuals should do the trick. I set up a recurring event with an alarm in iCal, and run this incremental clone backup weekly on Sundays (I have a kooky external hard drive setup now which requires me to manually run the clone). SuperDuper! will even let you schedule this if you keep the drive attached and powered up 24/7. I’d say this is the best option, and I will be doing this myself soon.

That’s pretty much it for the System backup. And if you only have one hard drive on your machine (as most users do) then this will give you a perfect copy of your hard drive which you can boot (start up) from in case anything goes wrong. If you only run one backup, this is the one to do. And if this is your only backup system, then I might suggest running it more than weekly. Set up the scheduler to run nightly after you are usually done using the computer. If you’re like me, that’s from 5AM to 8AM (or 10AM if I don’t have to be at any on-site contract job!).

Archive That Artwork!

So now you have an automated backup system in place, and for most users this will suffice. As I mentioned, if this is your only drive, and you run it nightly, you should be all set. However, some people may have multiple drives (internal or external, or both), or may want another backup in place for added security. That’s me on both counts. And if you want to sync certain folder or files with your laptop, the clone will not be the option you want to go with either.

Cloning a drive takes time, even though the cloning software usually only backs up what’s changed. It’s still gotta go through all the files to analyze everything, and that takes time. I prefer to run a cloned backup weekly (and I actually alternate between an “A” and “B” clone just to have two layers of “undo” just in case). In the meantime I also run daily backups with other backup software designed to run these kinds of regular backups of specific folders. I can backup just my Documents folder, my Work folder, etc. at their own schedule, and since these are only acting on specific folders, they can happen much quicker than if you were to clone the entire drive.

The other cool thing is that you can mirror folders between your target folder and it’s associated backup folder (or any other folder) – including deleted files, which can be moved to an archive folder for safety. This is great for syncing folder contents with a laptop. You can mirror in one direction (which is just a regular backup I suppose) or mirror in both directions, which is a true synchronization.

• The Software

I actually own three backup software applications now, as I kept trying new ones to find the one that worked best for me. The first was Deja Vu, then Lifeboat and finally I think I have settled on ChronoSync.

Deja Vu worked great, but the major drawback was not being able to run manual synchronizations. So many times when I was working on a large project I wanted to backup immediately, not at 5AM, and Deja Vu had no way of letting me do this easily. After being in contact with the developer, I realized it would never be a feature and started looking elsewhere.

This is where Lifeboat came along, a new app but I was willing to try it out. At first it was great and had all the features I was looking for. The developer was even responsive to adding new features that he agreed were helpful. However, over time I realized how slow the backups were, and I would get frequent crashes. It also didn’t seem to like my external USB 2.0 drive (attached via a 3rd party USB 2.0 expansion card). I also started getting annoyed that I couldn’t mirror deletions, and as I started working up these crazy convoluted backup schemes to work around this, I decided instead to start the hunt for backup software again.

I had demoed ChronoSync before (and had read and saw great reviews & testimonials all over the Mac web), but didn’t like one aspect of the software: all of you syncs are separate documents which you must open to run. I wanted an iTunes-style interface where I could just highlight each sync from a master list and run it, get info on it, tweak it, etc. (Lifeboat had this setup, which I really liked). After a few emails with the developers he flatly stated that he would not be implementing that. A small issue in light of the other positive aspects of ChronoSync though.

ChronoSync allows for all the features I wanted: individual backup syncs, tons of control over sync settings, exclude lists (filters), scheduling, mirroring with deletions mirrored (and archived if desired). The mirroring allows you to keep two folder synced to each other so that changes in either one are reflected in the other. The “sync deletions” allows you to have any files you deleted in one folder become deleted in the other, which is great. Otherwise you can get things very confused with all sorts of old files in one folder that you aren’t sure why they aren’t in the other folder.

This also allows you to keep a laptop & desktop in sync with each other so you can work on files remotely. Note that this will not allow you to keep your Address Book or iCal in sync, in fact you definitely don’t want to do this, as mirroring will only overwrite the older one with the newer one, it will not sync the actual data in the database file.

I run straight backups (with synced deletions) from the Desktop to the External backup drive for all my work folders, my Documents folder for my user account on my Mac, my Photos folder, etc. I then also have a sync set up to sync my work folder with my MacBook, and the cool thing is that you can set up the sync to happen whenever you mount the MacBook on the Desktop computer. And I do this via a wireless router – works great!

Another cool feature is the “Resolve Aliases” option, which can be used to keep your existing folder structure intact while only syncing (or backing up) specific folders. I set up a “Work sync” folder, and then drag aliases of my current projects into this folder, and what ChronoSync does is copy the contents of where the aliases point to. This is great because then you just have to add or delete folder aliases in this sync folder to keep things updated regularly without having to set up and modify your syncs & filters all the time.

Aliases, for those unaware, are Finder shortcuts on the Mac that allow you to access a folder anywhere the alias is without moving the original folder. For example, I keep a folder in my Finder window Sidebar into which I place aliases of all the current work I have. I also keep an alias in a client’s folder that points to their archived projects folder. You can make aliases by highlighting the folder or item, then either go to the Finder’s “File” menu and choose “Make Alias”, or hit Command(Apple key)-L, or even better just drag the folder/item, and then hold down the Command and Option keys before letting go – you’ll see the cursor turn into a little curly arrow to indicate you’re about to make an alias. The resulting file/folder will also have this little curly arrow on it to indicate it’s an alias to the original.

I know it’s kind of a bummer that one software application doesn’t handle all of this, but really that’s they way shareware works – a niche is filled. The positive thing about this is that usually the developer geeks out on this niche, so you really get an in-depth application that does exactly what you want it to do.

The cloning option might be something most people don’t want to bother with, but for me I need to know I can be up and running, on my exact setup, in a moment’s notice. I am not even that diligent about keeping my G4 & MacBook exactly the same – I even have different shortcuts assigned for some of the Adobe apps for each machine (I was trying out different setups and never went back and synced them). My G4 is the main machine right now, so I make sure that baby is backed up redundantly and that I can boot from the clone. I also have a bunch of internal drives for all my files, and need to back those up independently anyways since the clone software only syncs one drive at a time. I could clone them, but that would be overkill since really only a few files change here and there, and I want to be able to back up quickly, daily and also manually if need be. ChronoSync lets me do this, and also lets me sync work files to the MacBook as well.

So now you have all the basic info you need to start backing up you artwork. Stop making excuses, stop putting it off – do it right now. You can be set up with all the software & hardware for around $200 and it will be worth every last cent if that dreaded day ever comes where your precious Mac has a hard drive meltdown. Get an external hard drive, pick up a license for ChronoSync and SuperDuper!, then go off and make some awesome artwork worth all this trouble!