Backup Basics - Safety First, Paranoia Second

By Scott Carpenter

Software Engineer (Java)

scottcarpenterFor me, backing up data isn't an unpleasant chore. It's a deeply satisfying contribution to peace of mind. However, I've long distrusted backup products. Why? Perhaps due to anecdotal tales of recovery woes, or maybe because I'm just an untrusting control freak. I want something simple, which has led to many years of devising fiendishly complicated backup regimens.

Before switching to Ubuntu, I wrote a VB program for my Windows backups. It relied on a rotating set of rewritable CDs and DVDs. I wasn't overly ecstatic about this system, but it gave me multiple copies and versions of my data, and there was some rejoicing.

In GNU/Linux, I cobbled together a truly Rube Goldbergian contraption involving bash scripts, rsync, and rdiff-backup, backing up to USB drives ranging from 4GB to 2TB, distributed among different floors of my house, a safety deposit box at my bank, and my pocket. It was (and is) quite baffling, but it results in magnificently excessive redundancy and a wonderfully secure feeling. For the five or six times I've actually had to restore a file, I've always been able to retrieve the desired collection of bits with minimal fuss, accompanied by a warm feeling of validation.

These techniques required a lot of oversight and effort, which gave me a lot of time to ponder how terrifically backed up my data was, but it grew tiresome. I determined that with my switch to a Mac, I'd simplify.

Backups on a Mac start with Time Machine. Wow. What a neat program. It's the opposite of my previous way of doing this. I've read some caveats here and there, but my requirements are simple: I just want the ability to retrieve files, and I'd like multiple generations of the file. If my machine crashes, I won't rely on the backup to restore the operating system and applications. I simply want my data safely preserved. Time Machine -- so far -- seems to work seamlessly, and offers up an easily navigable view of your backups. It feels like a fun and momentous event every time I "enter the Time Machine."

So that's my local backup situation. With all the 2TB drives laying around, I may rotate among two or three of them, and maybe still want to run one of them to the bank now and then... oh, no. Are things getting gnarly again?

How often do I want hoof it to the bank, really? Why not look at online backup services? My mistrustful nature has had me avoiding the cloud, but my job at The Nerdery has opened my eyes to the benefits. So I'm currently using free trials of CrashPlan and Backblaze. Both work well, and, oh man, what a deliriously good vibe you get with frequent shipments of your precious bytes to a location elsewhere. Since I don't know if I can trust any one vendor, obviously I will have to use at least two. (This is keeping it simple, of course. Not complicating things at all.)

Speaking of trust, what about my more sensitive information? All those Swiss bank accounts, launch codes that the Pentagon asked me to keep safe, and so on? I can't put these out there with any kind of encryption where I don't control the keys, no matter how much the cloud promises discretion, security and unbreachability.

For that I'm using my old standby, EncFS, a FUSE-based encrypted filesystem. I like it because it works at the file level, making it easier for backup programs to handle encrypted files, and saving me from dealing with containers. It exposes meta information, but this isn't a concern for me. The program is free/open source. I don't know how extensively it's been audited, but I prefer to believe it's secure. I've been using it heavily for six years, so I trust its reliability and robustness, at least. I think it's more effective than a placebo, although I haven't run clinical trials.

I tried to make the EncFS installation harder than it needed to be by compiling from source, which sent me down the dependency rabbit hole, before discovering the good people of MacPorts have already prepared it nicely for us.

My paranoia satisfied, I'm pretty well settled now with my new backup rituals. Although I'm also experimenting with putting a few key files on Dropbox. And Google Drive. And there are still surplus USB drives floating around. Surely some rsyncs are called for, just in case?

I clearly won't be satisfied until my system and myself are completely occupied with backing up data, which will thankfully halt the generation of new data to worry about.

Backup problem SOLVED.

Published on 02/12/2013