OS X Backup sucks

by Michael Alderete on 2/26/2005 · 15 comments

I was recently trying to configure automatic backups for a friend’s computer, the idea being that once a week his important files would be backed up to his .Mac account. Having remote backup is one of the reasons he is paying for a .Mac membership. It’s not an ideal or comprehensive backup solution, but definitely a good thing.

But, the whole point is it’s supposed to be automatic, transparent, set and forget, don’t think about it until the time comes when you have to restore. The problem is, the backups just keep taking up more and more space on his .Mac account. Eventually it fills up. And Backup stops working.

Backup’s only built-in solution in that situation is Edit › Clear iDisk Backup Folder, but that blows away all his backups. Not the best thing.

How hard would it be for Backup to be pretty good? Just a little bit of effort, to add better recurring backup capabilities, including the ability to automatically delete older backups to make room for new ones?

You don’t want it to be hard to configure…or to kill the market for backup software. But that’s not hard — just come up with one decent scheme, and make it easy to select. One simple preference for recurring backups to iDisk: “Delete oldest backups to make room for new ones.” And just like that, you’d have good, rotating backups. Want to limit the amount of iDisk space the backups take? Add “Keep at most xx backups.” Or maybe “Backup can use at most xxx megabytes on iDisk.”

Something like this:

Backup Improved

Now obviously there’s some complexity hidden there. And who knows what the right implementation would do, behind the scenes, to make the user experience this simple. My point is simply that Backup right now can confuse people, or make them use it incorrectly — my friend is living proof. I just want Backup to be something that he can use, reliably and without anxiety.

Me, I’ll stick to Retrospect.

Alex February 26, 2005 at 9:06 am

Rsync, yo!

Adam Bell March 1, 2005 at 2:42 pm

I gave up on .Mac altogether, bought an 80 GB hard disk for less than .Mac, and stuffed it in a spare slot in my machine. CCClone everything I care about every night at 3AM. Absolute cheapest way to go in my view.

mph March 1, 2005 at 3:12 pm

Heh. I woke up just this morning to an “iDisk out of space” message from Backup. Because I assumed sensible behavior and hadn’t really thought about how Backup behaves (my real backups are built around rsync), my initial assumption was that I must have drug something into the target directories that was over-large.

I guess I’m happy to know otherwise.

Alderete March 1, 2005 at 3:40 pm

Alex, rsync is a terrific tool, but isn’t something a non-expert can handle. I could set up a nice script up for him, but he could be stuck if he had an emergency, and I wasn’t available. I suppose it’s not impossible to make it work, but what the heck is Backup for, if not cases like this?

Adam, my own backup routine involves a “Granite Digital”:http://www.granitedigital.com/ drive, and three disks in hot-swappable trays. Two are used on alternating weekends, and are stored off-site. The other is my daily backup, and stays home for immediate restores. All this using “Retrospect”:http://www.dantz.com/en/products/macpersonal.dtml.

It’s a great solution for me, but there’s no way my friend wants something that complicated. Even remembering to take one single drive home with him at night is too much. And given that his laptop lives at his restaurant, where fire and theft are both serious concerns, any backup that isn’t off-site isn’t safe.

M.e. March 1, 2005 at 6:09 pm

I have Backup scheduled to back up my keychains, Safari settings, Address book and iCal calendars every week. There is just under 8MB of space total, and it has been about this much space for the two years I’ve been using it. I was under the impression it worked like rsync and only replaced modified files.

I use rsync for the real stuff, but haven’t had a single issue with Backup. Deja Vu puts a nice little GUI on rsync in your system preferences. That might be a good option for your friend.

Zack Martin May 11, 2005 at 9:01 am

its not too hard to expect Apple to put together some good uses for the $100 that people pay for .Mac every year. Sadly, that part of Apple is not logical.

Brian Mikol May 12, 2005 at 8:16 am

Little late to the party on this one, but I just got a sweet hookup on a LaCie 250GB drive and just started playing around with it today. They provide a not-quite-Retrospect, but-more-than-Backup utility for free, called SilverKeeper. So far so good (and it does allow you to select how many copies you want kept).

Digital501 March 11, 2006 at 7:53 am

I don’t trust the .mac backup program. I’ve found I get the best results just using the Disk Utility. http://www.digital501.com/2006021110/mac-backup-osx/

Dan Mochizuki June 11, 2006 at 10:20 am

I also have several backup hard drives, etc. There is something to be said however for the peace of mind of having offsite backup in the event of burglary or fire. Although .Mac Backup sucks in many ways, it does provide this peace of mind for me, I just have to purge the iDisk when I get the out of space message.

Shawn January 25, 2007 at 8:30 pm

I am truely pissed off. All i can say is GOD DAMN YOU APPLE for making this piece of shit backup program. I have been using in faithfuly and come to find out after updating to Tiger and formating my drive……. everything that I thought was being backed up WAS NOT.

I wish to hell I could have some kind of recourse for loosing all my photos of my daughter from the day she was born till now ( 4 1/2 years worth). Not to mention my, almost 30GB of music that was on iTunes.

Take your piece of crap application off the market and save a lot of people a LOT of grief.

other than this…. I love apple.

Sid February 25, 2007 at 9:00 am

Yep just had the same thing happen to me Shawn. I have a pre-tiger backup on 17 DVDs - it still works like a charm (not sure which version of backup, I think 3 also)

Not too long ago I did a backup onto an external 500GB hdd - cos swapping DVDs is annoying! Everything went smooth, woke up the next morning to find the confirmation message on screen, so I proceeded to wipe the drive clean.

When it came time to restore, the restore failed. On further investigation I found that a couple of the Backup files were an amazing OKB in size, lost a lot of personal stuff - music and photos and mail - which REALLY SUCKS! Luckily all my work was already moved to the external HDD, but there were some important family pics now gone forever. Funny how that’s the exact angle Apple uses to pimp their .Mac setup - and yes, this is coming from a .Mac user.

Ryan June 9, 2007 at 8:48 pm

If you are serious about not losing things like 4 1/2 years of children pictures, personal memories, financial data, etc. etc. then it is well worth the ~$130 for Retrospect and a decent external hard drive. It is too bad the Apple backup software is bad, but I have seen equally as bad things happen to people using Microsoft’s built-in backup software, so the problems are the same across both platforms. Sorry for your losses. Third-party commercial software is almost always the best way to go. The only other application I have seen work well for backup’s is SuperDuper, which is a great shareware application.

Alderete June 9, 2007 at 10:39 pm

I lost a hard disk drive, to a severe hardware failure (even “DriveSavers”:http://www.drivesavers.com/ couldn’t recover it), more than 10 years ago. I learned then that whatever it costs, backing up is worth it.

So certainly I have no difficulty spending the money for backup hardware and software; since that time I’ve spent way more than $150 on my backup drives, in fact more than $5,000, covering two different DAT tape drives, a Ecrix VXS tape drive (plus expensive tapes), a Granite Digital hot-swappable drive (plus 8 increasingly large hard disks for it), and most recently an Infrant ReadyNAS. And I’ve owned and used a plethora of backup software solutions, currently both Retrospect (for archival backups) and SuperDuper (for a bootable copy of my system).

But I’m crazy, zealous about doing backups, and I’m a very technical person. My friends who have experienced problems with Backup are neither of these things. My approach is far too expensive, and requires too much expertise to manage. (Retrospect in particular is notoriously hard to use, even for people who use it all the time.) And Backup, offered as a big benefit of .Mac, could easily be the perfect solution for them.

If it worked. But it doesn’t. Backup bills itself as really easy, and in many ways it is. But in the overall lifecycle, it becomes pretty challenging. And some things don’t work at all, or fail at the worst time.

My ultimate point isn’t that it’s possible find a good backup solution, if you work for it. (SuperDuper, while excellent, does require effort to learn about, acquire, and understand.) It’s that Backup, with some minor (from a user experience perspective) improvements, could be excellent, instead of failing miserably.

Fortunately we’re not too far from having “Time Machine”:http://www.apple.com/macosx/leopard/timemachine.html, and this complaint will probably vanish forever.

Jeff October 8, 2008 at 2:06 pm

I’ve found that TimeMachine and the other Apple utilities are not up to par for me. I use “TOLIS Group’s”:tolis “BRU Server”:bruserver to backup my Mac, Linux, and Windows systems. It’s saved my butt many times and it’s cheaper than Retrospect’s server product!

[tolis]http://www.tolisgroup.com [bruserver]http://www.tolisgroup.com/products/bruserver/

Lance November 9, 2008 at 9:33 am

I’ve just figured out that Backup left about 24GB of essentially invisible volumes on my hard drive that I guess were mirrors of backups I had instructed it to put on my iPod. I dunno if this is an idiosyncrasy of the iPod or of Backup, but I figure it’s a Backup thing given how it’s wired to cram up any destination disk. I feel like a total dumba** that it took me months to figure out that my diminishing hard drive space was due to Backup and not to me overloading it. Of course, I’ve already purged tons of music files — thanks Apple!

What helped me find and delete those old volumes was an application called Disk Inventory X that shows you a graphic representation of what’s on your hard drive, plus it shows you a file tree that’s ranked by size. This is how I finally figured it out, because the Volumes folder wasn’t visible in the Finder window for the Hard Drive, yet by doing the math on the folders I could see, I knew there was something not right.

Once in Disk Inventory X, I was able to click on the offending volumes, use the “Reveal in Finder” menu option, and get to the folders and delete them.

So I get to hang back before splurging on an external drive… at which point I’ll be using Carbon Copy or Super Duper.

And this is to say nothing of the one time I actually needed to retrieve a file from a Backup backup and couldn’t bloody find it in the old backups. And I’m not a stupid person by any means, I promise :)

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