My Easy Automated Backup Strategy

Click, click, click… Ever experienced the moment your hard drive starts making that horrific sound from hell? I have – several times. First the panic strikes as your computers starts freezing up. Then you accept the situation and anxiety starts to creep in. You start thinking about the prospect of losing some work (because of course it’s been too long since you backed up). And what a hassle it’s going to be fixing and reinstalling everything. Not the one.

Yeah, I’ve always been crap with making backups. But a while ago I decided to deal with the issue once and for all. After all, my work and art is not only hugely important to me, but also stored on fragile electronic devices that are destined to fail sooner or later.

So I decided to put together a proper backup strategy. It’s been working out beautifully, so let’s spill the beans. Maybe this will give you some food for thought to figure out your own backup strategies.

 

From Panic to Productivity: The Premise

The first thing I told to myself was this: I must stop trying to rely on myself to make backups. It’s simply not something that should be trusted on us humans. Instead, I have to find solutions that are automatic and as easy as possible, will take the stress off my back and bring security to the next level. Here are some of the other requirements:

  • I need a solution that can handle large amounts of data. We music producers work with large files. For me a normal size for a single project folder when finished is anywhere from 1 GB to 3 GB. I always have loads of projects going and I want everything backed up and stored securely while I’m working and when I’m done.
  • I don’t want to rely on a single location for the backups. If my flat burns down, my shit gets stolen or a power surge kills all my drives at once, I need to have a backup of everything somewhere else.
  • I want all that without breaking the bank as well! I am willing to invest some money – it needs to be done – but some of the solutions out there are just too expensive for me.

I ended up with a backup strategy that consists of four main components:

  1. A bootable clone of my hard drive (I work on a laptop), updated daily.
  2. A cloud backup of all my work and personal folders, mirrored on the fly whenever connected to internet.
  3. A local backup drive with history in order to go back in revisions.
  4. Archiving of finished projects into two separate locations.

This backup plan covers me in all situations. Let’s go through each part of this plan in more detail.

 

1. A bootable clone backup

I’ve had several hard drives fail on me in the past. It’s crucial to understand that all mechanical drives will fail at some point: it’s only a question of when. Even brand new drives as well as SSD ones can fail.

I can tell you the feeling when your computer freezes up and you start hearing the clicking from your hard drive is pretty priceless.

This is why I decided to do a bootable clone of my drive which is constantly up to date. Even if I had separate backups of all my data (and I do), I simply don’t want the hassle of reinstalling the operating system plus all my other software and data. I always have projects to work on and deadlines to meet so I don’t want to risk any downtime.

With a bootable clone drive my system is back up within 20 minutes if the worst happens. Just pop open the computer and switch drives – done.

How does the cloning thing work in practice? You’ll need:

  1. A drive that fits your computer (and is of the same size or larger than the one you are currently using).
  2. An USB-powered enclosure for the drive (to turn it into an external USB-drive).
  3. Software that is capable of creating a bootable clone, and automating the cloning process so that the clone is kept up to date.

I work on a Macbook Pro laptop with a 750GB internal 7200 rpm 2,5″ SATA-III drive. So I bought an identical 2,5″ drive and put it into an external USB-powered enclosure like this one. I have this drive hooked up to the laptop via the powered USB-hub at my work desk. Whenever I am connected to the USB hub at my work desk, backups automatically get done hourly.

I am using Carbon Copy Cloner (Mac only) to clone my laptop drive onto the identical external drive. This clone HD is bootable and completely identical to the one inside my computer. If the drive inside my computer fails, I can simply switch in the clone – or if I am in a hurry to get some less intensive stuff done, I can even boot the system up via USB.

The initial creation of the clone HD took about 8 hours for me (via USB 2.0 connection – 3.0 should be a lot faster). Once that is done, the daily backing up doesn’t take much time as CCC does incremental backups (it only updates what has changed).

Carbon Copy Cloner has many options – you could set it up to retain copies of deleted/modified files in a separate folder (if the drive size permits) for example. It’s also very easy to select what is getting backed up and where, and you can have several automated backup procedures running.

There are many other options for cloning software – I find Carbon Copy Cloner is easy to use and great for what I need to do. It costs 40$, but worth the money in my opinion. They have a free 30 day trial if you want to give it a shot.

By the way, this clone drive of mine is pocket size – not much larger than my phone. I quite like that it’s easy to take it with me when I’m traveling with the laptop.

 

2. Cloud backup

The online backup provides an extra layer of security. I like the peace of mind of knowing that even if my flat burns down, gets flooded or someone steals all my equipment, I will still have all my data off-site.

Online backup service also makes sure my data gets backed up when I am on the move and don’t have my two backup drives with me (as long as I have a decent speed internet connection).

I researched lots of different options and ended up choosing Backblaze. Their service is one of the cheapest (I paid $95 for two years of service or you can choose to pay $5 / month or $50 / year – they also have a free 30 days trial). They offer unlimited storage space, which is important to me as the files getting backed up are large.

The way Backblaze works is you simply install a piece of software on your computer. This software is always running in the background and quietly uploading the chosen contents of your drive to the cloud whenever the computer is online.

backblaze-interface

You can choose exactly what gets backed up and how much bandwith you want Backblaze to use. You can set it up to upload continuously, once per day or only when you decide. I have it set up on the continuous upload. This gives me the best peace of mind and I don’t really have to think about it at all. Any deleted or changed files will be retained in the cloud for 30 days.

I think the initial upload of my hard drive took about a week for me (I am on a 100 Mbit connection). After installing I haven’t really noticed the whole thing, it just works on the background.

Recovering data is very easy (I have tested it works – this is something you should always do before the shit hits the fan). You simply log in to your account at the Backblaze website and select which files you want to recover. You have the option of downloading the files (which is free), or they can be sent to you on a USB stick or drive (you have to pay a reasonable price for the hardware).

All in all, Backblaze is now a no-brainer for me and I’ve been really happy with the service, smooth sailing!

 

3. A local backup with history

So with a clone drive and Backblaze surely I should be all set, right? Not quite. Both of those serve an essential role in my backup strategy, but the problem is that these guys are simply mirroring the contents of my hard drive.

If I accidentally removed something from my hard drive, it would get removed from the clone as well as the cloud (to be accurate, Backblaze does hold deleted/changed files for 30 days, but does not provide a long term solution for recovering accidentally deleted or changed files).

As I work on a Mac, my easiest solution is to run Apple’s own Time Machine software (comes with OSX). I have an external 1 TB USB drive for that. Like my clone drive, this drive is also connected to the USB hub at my work desk. So whenever I work I know I’ll be sorted with the backups.

Time machine does incremental backups (changes only). It keeps hourly backups for the past 24 hours, daily backups for the past month and weekly backups for all previous months as far back as space on the drive permits. When the drive is full it deletes the oldest backup to make space for a new one.

I really like the interface on Time Machine. It is exactly like going back in time – you choose a time and you can then browse your file system as it looked back then and retrieve anything you like. Pretty cool and works great.

The 1 TB drive is enough for me to go back and recover a few months worth of revisions and deleted files. Eventually I would like to upgrade to a larger drive though – a 2 TB or even 4 TB drive wouldn’t hurt and they are starting to show pretty attractive prices by now.

Apple are also selling their own Time Capsule (currently offering 2 TB and 3 TB versions), which is wireless and admittedly elegant, but a lot more expensive than just getting a normal USB drive.

 

4. Double archiving: Blu-Ray + HDD

This is the only part of my backup strategy that actually requires work on my part (despite my continuous efforts, my girlfriend hasn’t yet fully embraced her role as the executive archive producer).

Whenever I finish a project, it gets moved from my work folder to “waiting for archiving” folder. When there is enough material in this waiting folder, the contents are burned on a 25GB Blu-Ray disc, as well as copied to another USB drive I have around for archiving.

I bought a Buffalo external Blu-Ray writer – they come pretty cheap these days. You might even consider buying one together with some friends to share the costs. The cheaper (slower) models are fine for occasional archiving. It takes about an hour for my 2X drive to burn a single 25GB disc.

The finished Blu-Ray archive discs I store away from home. This way I have off-site archives too in case a disaster should ever strike.

 

Your backup strategy?

So that’s it folks, my automated backup solution. I think it’s a pretty cost effective way of covering my ass from all angles. In the end you have to evaluate and ask yourself the question: how much your data is worth to you?

So how are you dealing with backups?  Any tips, ideas or further thoughts? Let us know in the comments.

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  • Hey there! 🙂

    I have my system on a 120GB SSD. I have 2 x 1TB hybrids, with 5 striped partitions for more carefree, yet organized, usage (stream recording video files for example), and 2 mirrored partitions, which contain copies of my important data, as well as a system image clone of an optimised state Installing software to a non-system disk when possible to maintain system drive ‘freshness’. 🙂

    And the above (data and image) on a small external drive. And file history backups to a laptop over the network. I have a few bootable USB sticks too, with plenty of command line file recovery utils.

    I use the tools built into Windows 8.1, but I used to use a program called Cobian Backup (Windows), which I think is freeware and has plenty of features.

    As for cloud storage…. certain, small files I upload simply as a reminder yeah, but I have no need to go beyond the general ‘free allowance’ offered by most services out there, at least….. not just yet.

    • Hey, thanks for letting us know. Sounds like a solid setup! I definitely want to go for running the system on SSD with my next computer upgrade (planning to move from laptop to desktop).

      The biggest selling point of cloud backups (and Backblaze in particular) for me is that it is a very easy way to achieve location independency with any of the data I want. I hope I never need it but if the worst ever happens, like if a lightning damages all my hard drives at once or there is a fire or a burglary, at least my data and work still exists.

  • I follow a similar strategy. I can’t stress enough the importance of backups. You must have off-site backups. You never know when there could be a fire, earthquake etc that would take your business down. I use an iMac for my production computer but also have a MacBook set up for traveling which has a mirror image of the studio computer. Local backups are performed:
    1. Time Machine connected to the iMac and wireless from the MacBook. I find there are more excuses to NOT plug a Time Machine drive into the laptop so it does it through the air.
    2. Use of Carbon Copy Cloner to keep the images up to date.
    3. Chronosync is used to keep the projects on the MacBook and the iMac in sync (as well as documents, music, photos etc). This is great because when I have to take off I know I have all my projects and other important documents pretty much ready to go.
    4. All sounds and instrument expansions and presets are on an external drive.

    This brings the next thing that people often forget about. If you have an external drive housing data (photos, music etc) that isn’t on any computer you MUST back up that external drive to another drive. My main computer’s sounds are housed on a 4TB firewire drive and that syncs to another external 4TB firefire drive. I have a portable drive for the sounds so that when I travel with the MacBook it is sync and ready to go.

    Off-site Backup:
    I use CrashPlan because I can back up an unlimited amount of data on 10 different devices for a single annual price. This lets me keep mirrored copies in the cloud . The service uses revisioning which is great so that I can pull a file several generations back if I am on the road and not in front of the Time Machine Drives.

    • Thanks, that’s very interesting. I will be moving from laptop to desktop as my primary machine at some point, and been wondering how I should work that out in terms of backups. Great info, thanks.

  • MaestroDon

    Backblaze FTW. I use them as well. It’s a very low resource drain. Almost nothing. Inexpensive yet quick. Works in the background. I rarely think about it. I agree, it’s a no brainer.

    • Yeah it’s great! The low resource drain is a good point. You’re right – hadn’t thought of that.

      • Courtez Presberry

        do you use samples and vst?

  • Tadro Abbott

    I’ve been using a cloud backup for a while but found that if I was recording and it was trying to backup the changes as I went, it was just too much reeding and writing for my harddrive and I had to disable to the backup until I was finished working (and then remember to turn it back on…. ha!)

    You potentially have a data backing up in 3 directions (cloud, clone and time machine) while you work, do you have any problems with your internal drive keeping up or anything like that?

    • Good point. The way I work, I rarely record audio live so I have not found that to be a big problem. My projects are also usually fairly modest when it comes to number of audio tracks.

      I have always made it a priority to get 7200 RPM drives. With a 5400 it could be a lot worse. So most of the time its fine for me but I do pause the backups sometimes if I start running out of juice. More often for me its a case of running out of CPU power.

      However – yeah like you said when doing live recording it can be a problem, especially if recording multiple tracks.

      Eventually I want to go for a SSD drive as system+work drive. That should make things smoother.

  • Bicho Raro

    hi Ilpo, great suggestions as usual

    I only have a doubt on the use of the clouds .
    what are the regulations on copyright ?
    the ownership of the files contained in the cloud
    remain solely and exclusively mine?
    thanks in advance

    • Hi, I maybe naive but i don’t worry about it myself.

      You should check the terms and conditions of any cloud service you are interested in for information on their specific conditions, because there are probably differences between companies. Also it might help to search for any discussion on relevant topics.

  • Courtez Presberry

    I notice you only have talked about the c drive (operating system hard drive) and the back up. I take it that you don’t use vst and samples libraries, because if so you didn’t say that.
    I would like to do this backup, however I use multiple hard drives, so how would this work for me?

    • I have multiple hard drives – no problems at all. It’s your choise what to back up.