How to Back Up Your Mac or PC

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Last Updated: Jan 04, 2021

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Periodically backing up your most valued data sounds like a mundane and unnecessary task —  until you lose years’ worth of photos with no way of getting them back. 

Unfortunately, this happened to me and my wife. Several years ago, one of our hard drives failed and countless childhood photos were gone in the blink of an eye. It was devastating.

So let me ask you this: do you currently have a backup routine in place to prevent such a catastrophe? 

Most people don’t. And many don’t even know where to start.

That’s one of the reasons why I decided to write this blog post, along with the fact that I recently revamped my own data protection strategy. 

But before we dive into the details of my multi-layered backup plan, let’s talk about the many different ways you can lose data. Understanding these risks is important, because each one requires a different backup approach.

I should mention that most of the strategies I cover in the article are applicable for both Mac and PC. But considering that I’m a Mac user, I’ll use that platform as an example throughout the article.

The Purpose of a Backup Strategy

Synology - NAS1 - Volume
After a recent power outage that lasted longer than my battery backup, my RAID had to heal itself.

The purpose of a backup strategy is to protect your data from loss or a ransomware attack. 

More specifically, a good backup plan should guard against the following issues:

  • Hardware failure
  • Accidental deletion
  • Ransomware

While these three use cases can all lead to the same issue (data loss), they are quite different in nature and thus demand different countermeasures. 

Protect Against Hardware Failure

Hot-swapable drives prevent downtime - 2
Hot-swappable HDDs reduce downtime.

If the hard drive in your computer fails and you don’t have a backup of it, you might lose some or all of your data. In particular, you’ll lose any data that’s not also stored in the cloud.

That’s why it makes sense to periodically copy your most important data to another hard drive to reduce the risk of data loss. 

While keeping a copy of your data in the cloud can mitigate that risk, there are potential data security and privacy issues to consider. Additionally, restoring several gigabytes (or terabytes, in my case) of data from the cloud can take a long time, depending on the speed of your internet connection.

A more advanced solution to protect from a drive failure is to use a “redundant array of disks” (called a RAID), which is a collection of physical hard drives that act as a single logical storage volume. 

With this setup, if one or more of the drives in the array fails (depending on the type of RAID), you won’t lose any information. Instead, you can simply replace the failed drives and the RAID will rebuild and heal itself.

Prevent Loss of Data Through Accidental Deletion

accidentally deleted files
Without a good backup, recovering a file you accidentally deleted weeks or months ago is often impossible.

You might think that storing all of your data on a RAID, or maintaining a copy of your data on a separate storage volume, is all you need to do to prevent data loss. 

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. 

What if you accidentally delete a file and only realize what you’ve done after a few days, weeks or months have gone by? In such a case, a RAID won’t help you.

And even if you maintain an exact copy of your data on another hard drive (or in the cloud), the accidentally-deleted file was likely deleted the last time you made a copy.

To protect against accidental deletions, you need a layered approach that includes separate backup sets and a backup history.

For example, Time Machine (the backup app built into macOS), makes hourly, daily and weekly backups that you can revert to. 

In other words, you can use Time Machine to restore from different versions of files. The program creates hourly, daily and weekly backups, going back in time depending on how much data you allocate.

So if you accidentally deleted a file three days ago, you would be able to restore that file from the daily backup Time Machine created four days ago.

Protect Against Ransomware

Ransomware attack
Ransomware can encrypt your data, thus making it inaccessible (unless you pay for the decryption key). Photo credit: Paranet Solutions

Another issue that you’ll have to consider these days is ransomware, a term that describes malicious software that attackers install on your computer (e.g., because you clicked on a link or opened a file you shouldn’t have). 

Ransomware encrypts all of your data, making it inaccessible. Usually, hackers then demand money before handing over the encryption key. 

Because of the nature of encryption (it’s almost impossible to crack), the only way to avoid paying the ransom is to restore a backup of your data from before it was encrypted.

RAID vs. Backup

As you can see, a RAID doesn’t replace traditional backup strategies. So you might ask why it’s even worth bothering with one.

The reason why I rely on RAIDs to keep my data secure is that they usually eliminate or reduce downtime in the case of hardware failure.

If a disk in my Synology RAID fails, I can continue accessing my data without interruption.  Then, I just pop in a new hard disk (I always have a spare drive for such events) and let the RAID heal itself. 

If all I had was a Time Machine backup, I’d have to go through a lengthy restore process that could take hours or days, depending on the amount of data and whether or not I had a new drive on hand that’s ready to go.

In a nutshell, the advantage of RAIDs is that a hardware failure doesn’t impact your productivity and access to your data.

Importance of a Backup History

Time Machine - Backup History
Time Machine allows me to restore files I might have accidentally deleted a long time ago.

However, as I mentioned above, relying on a RAID alone, without having the ability to go back in time to restore a specific version of a file, isn’t a great idea either. 

As a result, I recommend using traditional backups combined with a RAID for maximal data protection and convenience.

My Personal Backup Strategy

How to Back Up Your Mac [And Avoid Data Loss]
My backup strategy involves several components that work together to keep my data safe.

Now that we’ve covered the basics, including the different types of backups, let me give you an overview of how I protect my own data.

In a nutshell, I’ve implemented a layered approach that reduces the risk of losing data due to hardware failure, accidental deletion or ransomware. 

It includes the following technologies:

  • Internal/external hard drives
  • Two RAIDs powered by Synology NAS appliances
  • Time Machine
  • iCloud (cloud storage and sharing)
  • Backblaze (cloud backup)

Let me explain how they all work together to keep my data safe.

Internal/External Hard Drives

Samsung Portable SSD - 2
This external SSD is home to my 1.5 TB iCloud photo library.

As you might have expected, I store the data that I use for my daily work directly on the built-in SSD of my Mac. That includes documents, emails, photos and everything else that I’d consider “regular” data.

One exception to this is my iCloud Photo Library. It’s grown to over 1.5 TB over the years and no longer fits on my iMac Pro’s internal solid state drive (SSD). That’s why I purchased an external SSD* that’s permanently plugged into my iMac to store all my photos and videos.

Time Machine

Time Machine - Settings
Every hour, Time Machine backs up my iMac’s data to my Synology NAS.

To recover data in case of accidental deletion, I use Time Machine to make a backup of all the data stored on my iMac’s SSD every hour. 

Time Machine is an app that’s built into macOS and it stores its backups on one of my Synology NAS’ because that protects those backups against hardware failure and I’ve got sufficient space to maintain a backup history of several months. 

The easiest way to get started with Time Machine is to purchase an external hard drive and plug it into your Mac. MacOS will automatically detect the new drive and ask you if you want to use it with Time Machine.

Synology Network-Attached Storage (NAS)

Seagate Ironwolf Drive for RS1219 RAID
The enterprise-grade hard disk from Seagate inside my Synology NAS provides sufficient space for all of my data.

An NAS is an appliance (much like a server) with several hard drives that’s connected to your local network (LAN). The advantage of an NAS is that you can access your data from any other authorized device on your network. 

I own two Synology NAS appliances that act as my data storage hubs and that I can access from all of my Macs, iOS devices and even over the internet via an encrypted channel.

My primary NAS is a Synology Rackstation RS1219+* with four 10TB HDDs, configured as a Synology Hybrid RAID (SHR 2) that protects my data if two of the drives fail. Going forward, I’ll simply call the RS1219+ appliance NAS1.

SHR 2 is similar to a RAID 6, but it supports drives of different sizes. That makes expanding it a bit easier.

NAS1 stores all of my bulky data, including a copy of my YouTube videos and all of the raw footage I used to create them. I also use NAS1 to store all of the childhood videos I transferred from tapes, and archives of old documents and emails from previous jobs and businesses.

Additionally, I’ve set up NAS1 to act as a Dropbox client, so it can keep a current copy of all the data I’ve stored in the Dropbox account I use for my day job.

Synology Drive

Synology Drive - Web Access
While Synology Drive doesn’t store any data in the cloud, I can access it via a convenient web interface from any computer.

For my personal data, I no longer use Dropbox*. Instead, I recently switched to Synology Drive, which offers all of the features I need without exposing my data to the cloud. 

As a result, NAS1 continuously synchronizes all my personal data with my iMac. 

In other words, I always have two copies of my personal data: one stored on my iMac’s internal SSD and the other one stored on the NAS1 (in my Synology Drive folder).

Before using Synology Drive, I had my data spread out across Dropbox and iCloud Drive.

Synology DiskStation 1520+ (NAS2)

Synology DS1520+ in my office rack - 2
The DS1520+ in my office maintains an exact copy of all my data that’s stored on the primary NAS downstairs.

As I mentioned above, I own two Synology appliances. The second one is a Synology DiskStation 1520+ (see my full review here) for redundancy reasons. 

In other words, I’ve configured the two appliances to continually synchronize the folders that store the bulk of my data. So if NAS1 fails, I’ll have an exact copy of all of my data on NAS2. 

Of course, if I accidentally delete something from NAS1, that deletion will get automatically synchronized to NAS2 and I’ll lose the deleted file. That’s why I have another backup layer (Backblaze) on top of these two NAS appliances (see below).

NAS2 is also my primary storage provider for Time Machine.

Backblaze

Backblaze
Backblaze continuously backs up the data on my iMac to the cloud.

To recover from a data loss caused by accidental deletion or ransomware, I also leverage Backblaze, a cloud-based backup solution.

Part 1 of my Backblaze strategy includes the consumer version of Backblaze* that continually backs up all of the data (including my photo library located on the external storage device) in the cloud, while maintaining a one-year version history. That means I can quickly restore files that I accidentally deleted or that were encrypted (by ransomware) up to a year in the past.

The other way I use Backblaze is by leveraging its business cloud storage offering. What that means is that I have a Backblaze service running on my Synology NAS (NAS1) that constantly uploads all of my data to Backblaze, while also maintaining a sufficiently-long version history.

iCloud and iCloud Drive

The last layer of my backup strategy includes the cloud services that are offered by Apple and built into iOS and macOS.

For example, my personal email, contacts, app data and other data is stored in iCloud, as well as on my local storage devices. 

As I mentioned above, I used to rely on iCloud Drive to store most of my personal data, but I moved most of that to Synology Drive.

How You Can Protect Your Data

Now that you’ve learned about the different types of backup solutions and how I’ve implemented them, let’s talk about how you can protect your own data.

The backup strategy you ultimately choose depends on several factors and your specific requirements. 

But here’s how I’d start:

  1. Classify your data.
  2. Leverage cloud storage to keep copies of your data.
  3. Use a cloud-based backup solution that offers a version history of 30-days or more.

Classify Your Data

One of the most important steps you should take before deciding on a backup solution is to classify your data and understand what your most important (valued) assets are. 

For example, it might be catastrophic to lose the photos you took of your children over the years, but you might be OK losing a letter you wrote to your homeowners association about that fence you wanted to build five years ago. 

So I recommend putting data into buckets and assigning a priority to each of those buckets. That allows you to leverage different backup technologies for each group, which might save you money.

For me, the following types of data have the highest priority:

  • Photos and videos (iCloud Photos)
  • Tax-related documents from the past seven years (e.g., scanned and encrypted tax returns)
  • Contacts (stored in iCloud)
  • Work-related emails
  • My password vaults (1Password*, Keychain)

The above list should give you an idea of what high-value data you might have. Of course, your list might look entirely different. So spend some time thinking about what types of data you have and how bad it would be to lose each one.

Leverage Cloud Storage

Based on your data classification, I recommend storing the most critical assets in a cloud solution like iCloud Drive, Dropbox* or Box. 

That’s because you’ll always have a copy of your data in case the hard drive in your Mac or PC fails. Some of the solutions (e.g., Dropbox) also offer an optional version history that allows you to recover accidentally deleted files.

If you’re already in the Apple ecosystem, I highly recommend leveraging iCloud Photos because it prevents your photos and videos from using up all the available storage space on your iPhone, iPad or Mac. 

However, I recommend keeping original copies of your photos on a Mac that you can back up separately. You can learn more about iCloud Photos and how I use it in this blog post or this YouTube video.

If you’re on a PC or Android device, you could consider Google Photos or Dropbox to keep copies of all of your images and videos, even though I’m wary of Google’s data privacy policy.

The problem with cloud solutions is that there’s a risk of data exposure if the cloud provider gets hacked. That’s why I always lean towards Apple’s solutions (iCloud, iCloud Drive, iCloud Photos), because they have a pretty solid track record regarding security and privacy. 

To learn more about how Apple protects your data in transit and on its iCloud servers, check out this knowledge base article.

If you have super sensitive data, such as tax returns that contain your social security number, I recommend encrypting them before uploading them to the cloud. If you’re on a Mac, you can use this solution to make the process easier.

The alternative to using a cloud-based service that automatically keeps your data in sync is to create manual backups of your data on an external hard drive. 

The issue is that hard drives fail, and I have even had two hard drives fail at the same time. If those happened to be your primary internal and external drives, you’d still be screwed. 

So if you go the manual approach, consider a RAID as your backup location to reduce the risk of drive failure.

Use a (Cloud-Based) Backup Solution

In addition to maintaining a backup copy of all of your data — either by cloud sync or manual backups — I also recommend signing up for a low-cost cloud backup service, such as Backblaze* or Livedrive*. Doing so ensures that your data will be safe in case of a catastrophic event, such as a fire in your home. 

Additionally, most of those cloud backup services offer a version history that can go back as far as one year (in the case of Backblaze). So if you need to retrieve a file you accidentally deleted six months ago (or that hackers encrypted via ransomware a week ago), you have that ability.  

If you can’t or don’t want to use a cloud-based solution, leverage apps such as Time Machine or Acronis True Image to maintain a backup history on a local backup disk (ideally, a RAID).

Frequently Asked Questions

Why don’t you use Dropbox?

I actually still use Dropbox for my day job because it’s super convenient to share files and folders with team members, most of whom don’t have Macs. But I decided to move all of my personal and blog-related data out of Dropbox and into my Synology Drive because it reduces my exposure in case Dropbox gets hacked.

Do you use iCloud Drive?

From a security and privacy perspective, I feel comfortable storing my data with Apple. However, the sharing capabilities of iCloud Drive are still somewhat limited and nowhere near that of other solutions. Plus, I wanted to have all of my data in one place — and that’s Synology Drive for me.

As a result, I no longer store the bulk of my data in iCloud Drive (with the exception of data that iCloud-enabled apps store there).

If I own a Mac, should I just use Time Machine?

Using a backup solution, such as Time Machine, that’s well-integrated into the operating system and provides incremental backups is a great start. However, I do recommend storing copies of your most valuable data offsite, in case a disaster strikes and you lose both your Mac and your Time Machine volume.

Where can I find Time Machine?

You can access Time Machine via System Preferences > Time Machine. MacOS usually prompts you to automatically use Time Machine when you connect an external drive that you have never used with your Mac before. If you agree, the connected drive automatically becomes your new backup drive.

Once Time Machine is configured, you can also access it via its menu bar icon.

Can you recommend a good data storage solution that I can use for backups?

I’ve recently started using appliances made by Synology and absolutely love them because of the value and expandability they offer. So if your goal is to add a single storage solution to your home network, I’d get a Synology NAS that fits your requirements. 

For example, the DS1520+ I recently reviewed is a great entry-level solution that provides plenty of storage at a reasonable price.

If I own two Macs, should I back up both?

That depends on whether or not you have your data replicated on both devices. For example, I have an iMac Pro and a MacBook Pro, but I don’t store any data on my MacBook Pro that’s not also on my iMac. As a result, I don’t bother with backing up my MacBook Pro separately.

Should I use disk replication tools, such as SuperDuper or Carbon Copy Cloner?

You certainly can! In the past, I used to clone the internal hard disk of my iMac every night so I would be able to boot off the cloned drive in case the internal drive failed. However, I stopped doing that a while ago because I own two Macs and if one fails, I can just work on the other instead of having to wait for the failed Mac to be repaired.

Have you tried Carbonite or CrashPlan?

I have used both services in the past, but have since migrated to Backblaze for reasons I explained in this blog post.

Do you recommend Google Drive?

As much as I appreciate Google for bringing visitors to my blog, I don’t trust them with my data because I suspect they monetize it or share it with ad partners. 

As a result, I don’t recommend Google Drive (or Google Photos, for that matter).

RAID Types

As I mentioned above, there are different RAID types, providing different rates of data protection and performance. 

In other words, some RAIDs can only handle the failure of a single drive, while others can recover from a multi-drive failure. 

TypeTolerable Drive FailuresDescriptionVolume Capacity
JBOD0Combines a collection of drives into a single storage space, with a capacity equal to the sum of all drives’ capacity. Does not provide data redundancy.Sum of all HDD sizes
RAID 00 Sum of all HDD sizes
RAID 1Total disks – 1Writes identical data to all drives simultaneously. Provides data redundancy. Smallest HDD size
RAID 51Distributes data parity information across all member drives, thus providing data redundancy more efficiently than RAID 1.(N – 1) x (smallest HDD size)
RAID 62Implements two layers of data parity to store redundant data equal to the size of two drives, providing a greater degree of data redundancy than RAID 5.(N – 2) x (smallest HDD size)
RAID 10Half of the total HDDProvides the performance of RAID 0 and data protection level of RAID 1, combining drives into groups of two in which data is mirrored.(N / 2) x (smallest HDD size)
RAID of RAID configurations and their pros and cons.

I’ve included the most popular RAID types in the table above. But depending on the RAID platform you use, there might be other types (e.g., Synology Hybrid RAID or SHR).

Ultimately, the type of RAID that’s best for you depends on your use cases. As a rule of thumb, I recommend considering a RAID 6 or RAID 10, as they provide a good balance of storage, data protection and performance.

RAID and Failure During Rebuild

One thing that’s important to understand is that the rebuild process of a RAID after a drive failure is a sensitive undertaking because it usually includes a sector-by-sector comparison of all data. 

In other words, during the RAID repair process, all the hard disk drives in the RAID are under extreme stress, which sometimes causes another drive to fail — one that was on the brink of failing. 

If that happens, you might lose all your data (depending on how many drive failures your RAID can handle).

That’s one reason I’m not a fan of RAID 5, which can only handle the failure of a single drive. 

Imagine that a single drive in a RAID 5 fails and you replace it. During the rebuild process, another drive fails. Now all of your data is lost unless you have a backup. If you had a RAID 6, the RAID could have recovered from a second drive failure.

The bottom line is that you have to pick the type of RAID you want to use carefully, depending on the type of data you intend to store on it and whether or not you have an extra backup of all your data.

Conclusion: Back Up Your Mac and PC!

I can’t stress enough how important it is to create regular backups of your most valuable data. 

Losing data is not a question of “if,” but rather a question of “when.” My wife and I have lost data several times in the past (including childhood photos), and realizing there was no way to get them back was soul-crushing. 

So think about your most valuable digital assets and put a plan in place to back them up. Implementing a backup strategy doesn’t have to be time-consuming or expensive. A subscription to cloud storage, an external drive or cheap RAID, and a cloud-backup service only cost a few dollars. And, in my opinion, they’re absolutely worth it.

You don’t have to go crazy and spend thousands of dollars on hardware like I did — unless, of course, you have terabytes worth of valuable data that you need to protect. If that’s the case, you likely rely on such data to make money and the investment is still worth it.

Now I’d like to hear from you! Do you know what your most valuable data is and how do you protect it? Let me know by leaving a comment below!

4 thoughts on “How to Back Up Your Mac or PC”

  1. Very comprehensive treatment of the topic. Thanks! One powerful free tool I’ll mention is the “Unison” file sync utility. It works on Mac, Windows, and Linux and can even sync files across different OS file systems. I use it to maintain a copy of all my application data (docs, spreadsheets, scripts, etc.) on external drives. I try to do a sync no less than once a week. Since it is a manual process, Unison reviews each update which you can approve, skip, ignore, or reverse. By doing this on a regular basis, you see all of the changes you recently made; additions, modifications, and deletions. It even flags changes to file permissions and ownership. Normally you just hit the space bar to accept each proposed update to the external drive copy. But if there is a change you don’t remember or question, you can investigate it to make sure it was intended. This has saved me more than once for a file or directory that I discovered I did not mean to edit or delete.

    Reply
  2. Thanks for this amazing article! I will try to implement a Sinology strategy for backing up my data.
    Is there any ratio in regards of how many backup Terabytes of space you need for every Terabyte of data you want to backup?
    I know is a function of how often you conduct backups and how you decide to store each backup version, however, any ratio that worked for you?

    Reply
    • Thanks for the feedback brother! I usually aim for 4x as much backup space as I have data. In the case of my Synology NAS, I have about 8x the backup space, so I can grow into it without having to expand my RAID in a year or two.

      Reply

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