My trip through Time Capsule Hell leads to a different backup approach

David Winograd
D. Winograd|07.09.10

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My trip through Time Capsule Hell leads to a different backup approach
I bought a one terabyte Time Capsule shortly after it hit the market, along with an external 1.5TB drive. I use the Time Capsule's internal drive to back up two smaller capacity Macs, while the external disk backs up my two larger capacity Macs.

Working with Time Machine in Leopard or Snow Leopard, the Time Capsule updates its backups every hour. This makes perfect sense if you're just dealing with one Mac wired into the Time Capsule, since it really doesn't slow anything down. But if you are using it to wirelessly back up multiple Macs, hourly backups slow everything down to a crawl.

TimeMachineEditor (a free utility that I highly recommend), allows you to set Time Machine to back up as frequently or infrequently as you like. I created a setup where, with staggered backups starting between 2am and 4am, each Mac gets backed up once a day. Outside of some errant sparse image problems that required a reformat, all was well. I had long beaten the 18 month Time Capsule funerals that were recently reported... but then things turned ugly.
About two weeks ago, my Time Capsule died, taking my home network down with it. The next day I went to the Apple Store and bought a replacement. I was quite unhappy that many months of backups were gone, but machines do break. I brought the new unit home and configured it. In less than 10 minutes, I was up and running ... for a week. Then my unit died again. The Time Capsule showed a solid amber light that could not be corrected with a factory reset. After replacing the cable modem, and being able to successfully plug it into my iMac, the problem persisted. I went through another two Time Capsules that would not complete the start-up sequence.

Although strange, the problem seemed to be the power feeding the Time Capsule. All other devices on the same circuit worked fine, but it took a dedicated power line devoted to the Time Capsule for everything to work properly. This may be related to power issues that impaced many users, or maybe not. It seems that power fluctuations that any other devices would take in stride can wreak havoc with a Time Capsule. [For those folks in parts of the country where power hiccups play havoc with electronic devices, APC's US$41 voltage regulator can be a real help. –Ed.]

All of this got me to thinking about how fragile my backups were, and after some head scratching, I came up with what I considered a workable solution. I bought a couple of cheap external drives (one for my iMac and another for my portables) to be used as emergency drives. On each drive, I installed Snow Leopard, DiskWarrior, and TechTool Pro, which were my go-to diagnostic and repair applications along with Disk Utility.

Each week I boot from the external drives, and using Disk Utility I create a fresh disk image of each of my Macs that I store on the emergency drives. I also use them to copy over my Parallels .pvm files, which I exclude from the Time Machine backups. Any virtual machine disk image needs to be excluded from Time Machine to avoid backing up the same 20+ GB over and over, so I had to find a way to back them up outside of Time Machine. Manually copying these huge files to the bootable emergency disk is one way of keeping them safe. [Parallels 5's SmartGuard feature does save snapshots of your virtual machine to your disk, but it doesn't help if your hard drive crashes. –Ed.]

Having a bootable drive also gives me the flexibility to repair, store disk images, or run DiskWarrior to fix directory issues. I can even keep an extra copy of important data, like my iTunes library, my huge iPhoto file, and anything else I want stored on the emergency drive.

Some may consider this to be overkill, but I feel like I can't put my data at risk. This way I can ensure that, regardless of what happens, I have backups that are never older than one week. Any mechanical device can break, and it's likely that they eventually will.

I do know that you can archive Time Capsule backups, but it's sort of a hidden feature in the Airport Utility that I don't think many people use. It adds another level of complexity while still requiring you to buy another drive to hold the archives. I also know that the drive in the Time Capsule is just as subject to failure and data loss as any other hard drive, but I do believe that it would be unlikely for both the Time Capsule and external drive to die at the same time.

If worst comes to worst (and it already has more than once), I can always use Disk Utility to restore a computer from the last disk image. It's more work, and takes more time than the fairly transparent Time Machine system, but it does give me peace of mind and can potentially save me from a data catastrophe. One could also use Carbon Copy Cloner (donation ware) or SuperDuper! (US $27.95) to clone the Mac boot drives to disk images, but I happen to like Disk Utility -- it's simple, it's Apple-provided, and it does the job.

The take-away from all of this: although it's easy and transparent to use a Time Capsule and Time Machine as a backup strategy, it's only a partial solution. There can still be major problems, and it's not enough to give you the security you need.

If you've come up with an easier system that would be just as safe, please let me know. For comparison approaches via other TUAW team members, check out how how Steve Sande, Mel Martin and TJ Luoma have dealt with various aspects of backup hell; Merlin Mann and John Gruber share their rotation strategies (and fondness for DiskWarrior) as well.

--Authors note 7/13/10--

My Time Capsule hell started with one of the units that are being recalled. Because of this I'm getting my money back for the entire cast of Time Capsules mentioned. Ian, in a comment, gave an extremely valuable bit of information that everyone should know: Mine died too and I did my research. Apparently they don't want you to know that your peripherals are covered under your desktop/laptop AppleCare. It isnt easily found. If you don't ask they will most definitely let you pay for a new one. I got mine replaced no problem after I mentioned it. While reading, about 50% of people realized it and got free replacements.

So with the recall and my AppleCare I had two avenues of recourse.

For the record I still stand by my use of a Time Capsule. If the darn thing doesn't break, it's a good partial solution for me. Aside from being a backup device, I use it as a router, and hub, and the difference in cost between a 1 TB Time Capsule and and an Airport Extreme is $120, which I really don't consider extortion.

We want to thank everyone for such varied and useful comments relating personal backup strategies. I've culled what I thought were some gems and excerpted them here. The beauty part of TUAW is our amazingly knowledgeable and helpful community that really pitched in this time.

shan wrote: I use my desktop machine as a virtual Time Capsule. I have an external USB drive for every mac that needs to be backed up connected to it full time, shared over the network...My laptops connect to those drives, and back up via Time Machine as normal. I found it's far more stable than the Time Capsule setup.

Chris wrote: If you are using time machine and have a separate 1.5tb drive attached to the side of it, I would recommend you use Superduper to create a Smart Sparse Image of your entire computer to the drive each night at say 1.00am...Superduper lets you do this onto a network drive like that attached to the Time Capsule. That way you have a nightly back-up of your entire computer if it and time capsule happen to go down...Then all you need to do is use Disk Utility to install it onto a new drive or computer when and if you need it by then plugging that separate drive into a computer and putting your new one into target mode.

Jack Chance wrote: PUT YOUR ELECTRONICS ON A UPS!!!! Generally 2 things kill electronics: heat and bad power (either too much or too little)...Hardware can fail. But if you take care of the power to your devices and keep them cool you will save yourself a lot of headaches...For example, my wifi (linksys wrt54g) was flaky. I put it on a UPS -> no more problems.

tuaw wrote: I use a Drobo for physical failure protection connected to an Airport Extreme. I also use TimeMachineEditor to keep backups to once per day. The Drobo fully protects me from hardware failure and the setup works in a fairly hands off way.

Many people wrote about the virtues of CrashPlan, a service I knew little about, but I'm checking into:

Nicole wrote: Crashplan is a free-to-download program (for home use) that allows you to backup to attached hard drives or to friends for free. So in my case, my parents backed up to an attached harddrive and then sent it to me. It now connects to my computer and they continue to back-up changed files over the network...

supbluetag wrote about the specifics:
I went with CrashPlan and never looked back. $180 bucks for unlimited data for all the machines in my house to their online storage cloud. No managing anything. As a plus, I can access my backup data from anywhere in the world either through the app or their website. Amazing.

Four interesting points:
CrashPlan uses 448-bit encryption (not 256 as stated above) so it's way more secure than TM. [note: CrashPlan does use 256 bit encryption for free personal accounts, but the more enterprise oriented, and honestly the only one you'd want to have, CrashPlan plus, uses 448 bit encryption. It's also $180 for three years regardless of the amount of data or computers as subbluetag later notes].

CrashPlan also deduplicates large files like VMs so only the bytes that have changed between backups gets copied.
I can backup to as many destinations as I want: As a result, I send everything to my tower and to their cloud simultaneously for ultimate redundancy (Imagine if your house burned down for example. You would lose both your data and the backups...)...Because of the deduplication and compression, my backups take a fraction of the space as they used to. I can fit all my machines (and my girlfriend, mom etc) backups on one 2TB external with tons of space to spare.

Aelver wrote about a service that sealed the deal for me on CrashPlan: The other great part is you can seed an initial backup by paying for a HD to be sent to you and send back ... awesome idea for large amounts of data. Saves 6mths of data over the internet.

Many thanks to everyone who commented on this post.
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