You will lose all your photos, and your books, and your music

by Volker Weber


Today was a sad day. A friend has asked me two weeks ago, whether it's possible that he filled up the 80 GB disk in his Macbook. I said, absolutely. That is quite easy once you buy a good camera. I told him to buy a new 500 GB disk and have the old one replaced. Two week have passed and today he called again and said his computer won't start. Well, that is quite possible as well, if you fill up the disk completely.

So I asked him to buy the new disk today and come to my house to replace it now. After all, it should be easy to install Snow Leopard and then use Migration Assistant to read the data from the old disk, even when it is full. To cut a long story short, the Macbook would not start at all. No reaction to the power button. And the disk has a fatal error. I could not start it from an external dock. It emits noises it really should not.

I think the Macbook can be fixed, and even the disk could be saved by a specialized service. These guys are expensive though. Very expensive. Very, very, very expensive. Money you would pay to save your business, but not your vacation photos.

So why the green icon, why the link-bait headline?

Most people, even if they are being told, will not make backups. They won't buy an external disk, they won't schedule automatic backups. Apple makes it extremely easy. You just need to go to a store and buy an external hard disk and then plug it in. The Mac will ask you for permission to use the disk for backup. It will reformat it, it will backup each and every hour without asking you again. But you have to go out and buy the disk. And once you have the disk, you need to connect often. If you can't do that, you need to buy a NAS that supports Time Machine.

Even if this is easy to understand, it does not work. People procrastinate. Had my friend bought the external disk in time, he would still have a backup. Had my friend replaced the disk two weeks ago when it was filling up, he would still have his data in the first place.

This is where the cloud comes in. There will be people who tell you that your data is not safe in the cloud. I believe your data is not safe when it is not in the cloud. The only people who will not lose their data are those who backup to the Internet. And pay for it.


You're so right. I think most of the people will only start using backups, after they have lost all of their former data.

Alper Iseri, 2011-09-12

I agree completely. Only people who lost data will me motivated to do backups in the future. The Time Machine backup in Mac OS X is so user-friendly that people who have seen it wish the same functionality under Windows.

But some data may not be in the cloud due to company or legal reasons or simply because it is too much data. Thats where a good local backup solution is needed.

Andy Brunner, 2011-09-12

Great advice Volker, and a timely warning...

'If your data doesn't exist in at least three places, it doesn't really exist...'

For me that's locally, on an external disk and on the cloud. All automatically and within 24 hours.

Stuart McIntyre, 2011-09-12

What Stuart said.

Philipp Sury, 2011-09-12

We also use TimeMachine, highly recommended.

In addition, we use CrashPlan. It does a distributed backup of your personal computers. For example:

- we have a backup stored on our NAS in the basement
- several computers are backed up here, even remote ones like my parents and some friends
- there is another copy of this backup at my office (different location)

It is relatively easy to set up, runs on "all" platforms, initial backups can be transported via hard disk and so far, it just works. For personal use, the free version is sufficient.

Ole Saalmann, 2011-09-12

...option only, if professional data rescue is excluded: Turn the disc upside down, switch on and try to read "one more/last time"...

Worked a few times for me or better: My friends...

Norbert Wigbels, 2011-09-12

Yes, I tried that. Unfortunately I get to see the patient not after he was poisoned. For good measure they usually are hanged, drawn and quartered. (Only read if you don't believe people are generally good.)

Volker Weber, 2011-09-12

For me the question is more how can I get 400+GB of data backed up in the cloud within a practical timeframe with the current ADSL upload speeds?

Armin Grewe, 2011-09-12

How do you eat an elephant? In small bites.

Volker Weber, 2011-09-12

@Armin: Example: initial seeding. And I am sure there are others who can do that as well.

Ole Saalmann, 2011-09-12

The urgent need for a data backup seems to have learned only through pain. I notice this in memory of my own learning process. Now it's a good feeling to have a fully redundant NAS in the background.

Alexander Weihs, 2011-09-12

Good judgement comes from experience, experience comes from bad judgement.

Only once people (thought they) have lost valuable data, they will be motivated to initiate a backup strategy. However, I don't quite understand why the cloud based strategy is so superior to a NAS based one - at least for home users.

I setup a NAS based one for a friend who thought she had lost all her data due to a (assumed) MacBook hard disk failure. At the store, they figured out it wasn't really the hard disk, but just the fan, but still I convinced her that buying a Time Capsule would be a good choice for her. So she did. So I was tasked to set it up. It's been running for about 9 months now and is periodically making updates as long as the MacBook is connected to the home network. As that's the primary location of use for it (and probably most home users), I believe that's just as good as a cloud based solution.

Obviously, things start to change a bit if you are heavily creating data while on the go. That's not the majority of people I "consult" on such matters though.

Ragnar Schierholz, 2011-09-12

... or small Bytes in this case ;-)
I had my ~200 GB pictures and music with Sugarsync for a year. Now I'm waiting for iTunes Match to cover the Music (I hope it'll work in Germany soon after US GA as well) and am looking again for a good solution for the pictures. For now its on my HDD, an external disk and a NAS.

Martin Hiegl, 2011-09-12

Since backing up can't be emphasized enough, I'm chiming in. The cloud service I use is Works great for me and the price is very reasonable. Initial seeding takes several days but runs in the background and you hardly notice it. They even have iPhone and Android apps that allow easy access to your backed up files.

Robb Knapp, 2011-09-12

I'm using TimeMaschine and CrashPlan for all Files, the most important part "working files" I also sync with Dropbox all over my Devices.

It's worth all the money ou spend on buying some Discs. Losing data is so much more painful than any money spent on a good backup strategy...

Daniel Seiler, 2011-09-12

Maybe your friend wants to give back2data a shot. They promise to make an estimate of the costs for free.

Robert Dahlem, 2011-09-12

did anybody try backblaze?

I wrote on our blog (german/deeplink) about it, we use it a lot (~250GB took a while to upload though)

Samuel Orsenne, 2011-09-12

@Ragnar: "I don't quite understand why the cloud based strategy is so superior to a NAS based one - at least for home users."
Here is why:

Personally I use Crashplan to back up to an external USB drive, as well as to their cloud service. Yes, initial upload of 250GB took about 14-15 days (1 Mbit/s effective upload speed on my Uverse connection), but as Ole say, you can do an initial seed by sending them a drive.

If something would happen to my computer, the USB drive can be used to get the files back. Only if I suffer a total loss of computer and backup USB (e.g. theft, fire, etc), would I have to get the files from the cloud.

Karl-Henry Martinsson, 2011-09-12

BTW I'm not a fan of Time Capsules - in my experience and from what I read, the failure rates are way above what you'd expect for a 'server-grade hard drive'. One of the few Apple components I would really recommend against.

Definitely use Time Machine but against a local disk, more reliable NAS or even an Apple Airport router with attached USB disk.

Stuart McIntyre, 2011-09-12

So true. I personally have all my documents and "important" files in Dropbox, and thus on 2-3 devices "backupped" as. Those files are not using up that much space, so even the free version works here.

But same as Martin, for Music and Photos, that's a different story...
I started to buy some years ago Google Storage for my photos. So i upload them in original size to PicasaWeb. And if somebody wants to have a look, i can just send them a link, very practical. And 15 bucks a year, are well worth it. Even if you have over 100GB of personal Fotos, its still a option.
For music i did a radical different approach. I just don't have music locally anymore, apart from the stuff i still sync to my mobile. For the vast majority i use spotify while in spain or simfy while in germany. I still use the free/open accounts. But in the near future i'll probably pay for a premium account and listen/synch the music wherever i want.
I just recently started to use Google music to BackUp the music i used to have locally. Now i don't need Dropbox anymore to have it wherever i want it as well.
So its going to be a Mix of Google Music and Simfy in the future.

Mark Altmann, 2011-09-12

Cloud. That's it.
Sometimes even if you act foolish:

Summer 2010 I deleted the year 2009 in iCal. After the perfekt push it was gone on all machines. This year I realized that I need this data for anwering some tax questions.

I asked for support and a friendly senior expert from apple digged in their backups. 10 mails later he sent me what I deleted.

Cloud. But you are not able to delete really....


Matthias Seifert, 2011-09-12

This made me parents got a handful of photos in a brown envelope from their parents. I will, hopefully some day way off, probably get a handful of albums from my parents. The way things are going, my children will probably get a handful of bills for cloud storage from me.

Gary Grant, 2011-09-12

Gary, and I assume you are the only child? Your children will have the pleasure of not fighting over the pictures :-)

Martin Hiegl, 2011-09-13

Actually, I have two siblings and three children of my own. Whilst my siblings and I will need to decide who gets to keep which photos, my children on the other hand will need to decide who gets to pay the bills.

Gary Grant, 2011-09-13


I agree - IT professionals are especially bad at making AND testing backups. I guess it's like builders who live in unfinished houses or plumbers who have leaky taps.

I got slightly bitten by this last year when I did a fresh install of Snow Leopard, assuming ( can you see where this is going? ) that Time Machine would allow me to recover my data.

Well, it did .... but only up to the point at which I'd switched on the native disk encryption ( FileVault? ) for my home directory.

The problem ? I was using Time Machine interactively e.g. plugging my Mac into my TM disk whilst I was logged on and using OSX. With an encrypted disk, TM did not ( does not still ? ) back up any data on the encrypted volume whilst it's in use.

If I'd logged off whilst still connected to the external disk, all would have been well.

Happily, I am professional enough to believe in belt n' braces, and was backing up my most important files to ANOTHER USB disk using tar and gip. This, plus a tool to recover DRM music from my iPod Touch, saved my bacon.

Morale of the story, backup first, but TEST second

Dave Hay, 2011-09-13

Is there a Mac equivalent for this?
I have a USB disk velcroed to the back of a Windows laptop screen. It uses Rebit software to do incremental backups from the hard drive.

Periodically I do the same to another USB disk that is then stashed offsite.

Joseph O'Laughlin, 2011-09-13

no offical mac product, but it could be tape, elastic band, or, for the die-hards, glue. With the iPad in mind, perhaps a few magnets?

Frans Swarte, 2011-09-13

I had more in mind the Seagate or Verbatim USB mini drives that can thus be carried around the house with the laptop. Any better?

Joseph O'Laughlin, 2011-09-14

@Ole Saalmann: Thanks for pointing out the initial seeding process, I wasn't aware that this is being offered. Now I'm getting interested in a cloud based backup.

Armin Grewe, 2011-09-14

Old archive pages

I explain difficult concepts in simple ways. For free, and for money. Clue procurement and bullshit detection.


Paypal vowe