43 Folders

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43Folders.com is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.

Yes. Another Backup Lecture.

Daring Fireball: An Ode to DiskWarrior, SuperDuper, and Dropbox

Hard drives are fragile. Read as much as you can bear to about how they work, how incredibly precisely they must operate in order to cram so many bits onto such small disks. It’s a miracle to me that they work at all. Every hard drive in the world will eventually fail. Assume that yours are all on the cusp of failure at all times. It’s good to be spooked about how long your hard drives will last.

John's article, advice, and success story about doing smart backup is exactly the reminder that a lot of people need to hear right this second. Because, it's impossible to overstate the importance of automated, redundant, and rotated backups. Trust me. You will need them all. Soon. Repeatedly. Forever. Always.

Worst of all, every stupid cliche about backup that currently makes you roll your eyes in exasperation will be visited upon you tenfold if you're not using some flavor of the anal-retentive system nerds like John and I live by. Because, unfortunately, most people you know (including me) have already repeatedly been struck by backup's biggest and most profound cliche:

Perform automated, redundant, and rotated backups as often as you can afford to lose every single bit of information that's been changed or added since your last backup. Because it's going to go away.

The Holy Trinity


  • If it's not automated, it's not a real backup.
  • If it's not redundant, it's not a real backup.
  • If it's not regularly rotated off-site, it's not a real backup.

Doing any one of these things by itself or in tandem produces "a copy." A copy is handy, and it may really save you, even a majority of the time. But, making casual copies is optimistic at best. Someday, you will need the benefits of all three layers, and you'll thank John, me, and your chosen $diety that you sweated all those years of monkey work and aggravation.

The Next Layer

I do have three suggestions to append to John's excellent setup:

  • Schedule Every Rotation; Then Do it. Peg your off-site rotation to a date-certain (like how you probably changed the 9-volt in your smoke alarm for Daylight Savings Time yesterday). I do my rotations within the first five days of each new month. So, yes, do automate the creation of backups, but then also do the physical rotation like you'd pay your mortgage. On time and without fail.1
  • Make and Update Specialized Disk Images. If the photos of your baby, the videos of your wedding, or those gigs of torrented Radiohead MP3s you've hoarded mean anything to you, give them extra-special treatment. At least every six months or so, burn them all onto drive(s) and rotate them off-site too. Either stick them in a safe-deposit box, or, even better, burn a new DVD of your kid's progress every month, then mail it to the relatives. Distributed backup plus familial bonding = win/win.
  • Make and Update Multiple "Go-Sticks". Buy a bunch of good 4GB+ USB sticks and use them to hold 256-bit-encrypted sparsebundles of your "Holy Shit!" files. Keychains, 1Password files, bank account numbers, insurance records, etc. Anything you need to either start recovering from a catastrophe or go on the lam. Make multiples, schedule update reminders, swap them out in known locations, and, if you have the skillz, maybe set up an Automator script that automatically updates the contents of each drive whenever you plug the little buggers in.

You're so sick of hearing this: automated, redundant, and rotated.

The Godfather of Ass-Saving

Also, a second high-five for DiskWarrior. I can't count the number of times that this annoying, ugly, slow, and hard-to-use application has saved every last strip of my bacon. Like John says, yeah, start with Disk Utility, because it's got 90+% of the firepower needed to fix the disk problems you'll encounter this year. But, DiskWarrior will do everything right up to the impossible. And, again, yes: you will need it. I sure have.

Go. Do it. Now.

Backup is boring, it's tedious, and it's not cheap. But once you've had your ass handed to you by a badly-broken drive, you really get the importance of a zero-latency recovery. It's positively liberating.

But, for now, right this second: go Gmail your kid's baby pictures to yourself. Do it.

  1. I realize I'm asking you to buy a lot of hard drives here. Can't change that, but I will say I've been very satisfied with 1TB Seagate Barracudas from New Egg (Personally, I buy them five at a time and always have at least 3 spares). The performance is fine, if unremarkable, in both my Macs and my two Drobos. Plus, the price is right, and New Egg is, in my experience, a proven and bulletproof retailer. Also, if you're the tidy type, you can cheaply pick up a case of Wiebetech boxes to transport and store your naked drives. 

About Merlin

Merlin's picture


Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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