The Compleat Writer: Backing It Up, Part 1

Even before I get it out of the box, I find the ioSafe Solo reassuring. The box in which it comes via UPS weighs 18 pounds, and it takes both arms to bring it comfortably down to my basement office. Unpacked, it weighs 15 pounds, and still requires two hands to transport it to my desk and set in place.

This matters — not because I care about poundage per se, but because this object is so heavy, and so inconvenient to carry (though simply and attractively designed), that no one's likely to steal it . . . unless, of course, they specifically want your particular data. The Solo gives you the option of fastening the unit down — to your desk, to the wall, to the floor — via a bolthole on a flange that extends from its metal exterior, and I may decide to utilize that extra level of protection. For the moment, I'll simply accept the sense of security that its avoirdupois radiates. (Note to ioSafe design: a second identical flange on the opposite side of the case would enable me to bolt the unit to the underside of my work surface, getting it completely out of the way. Given the ioSafe's heft, I'd hesitate to do that using just the single bolt hole.)

The decision to make the Solo my backup unit of choice constitutes step one of my belated initiation of systematic backup of my data. An embarrassing admission from someone who started working on computers almost a quarter-century ago. Since 1987 I've backed everything up now and then — first on diskettes, then on zipdisks, in recent years on a portable external drive. But I've never set up a schedule (much less a program) to take care of this procedure regularly and thoroughly. The gods have blessed me with minimal losses of data over those two and a half decades, but they could turn their faces away at any time. I've decided to stop pushing my luck.

So, as a professional writer, I intend now to grapple with what every advisory on comprehensive backing up recommends:

• a safe, reliable unit for the primary home/office workspace;

• a portable unit for use on the road;

• a trustworthy, transportable unit (two of the same, preferably) for off-site storage in a secure location, swapped and updated regularly;

• some "cloud" storage;

• and some program(s) and protocols for making use of and coordinating what I do with all four.

The Solo will serve as the first of these. As a reviewer, I'm testing their largest unit, 1.5tb, MSRP $299.99. (They also offer 500 gb and 1tb versions.) Its footprint measures 5" x 7" x 11", with a clean flat top on which I can display some of my household gods — Père Ubu and Buddha, to be specific, the former to remind me that shit happens, the latter to help me stay calm when it does. The Solo will stay on my desk hereafter, sitting unobtrusively to one side, taking care of business.

The ioSafe claims to protect against fire (up to 1550F for 1/2 hour) and flood (10 ft. of water for 72 hours). Impressive tests I view online persuade me that I can take them at their word on this:

• "Torture tests with the ioSafe Solo hard drive (Macworld)

• "Hands-On With the ioSafe Solo" (End User)

• "Could your hard drive survive this? If it’s an ioSafe, yep." (Gear Diary)

• "ioSafe Solo Review with Fire Video" (Mac Life)

Instead of hauling out the fire hose and blowtorch in order to reinvent Towering Inferno and Hurricane Katrina, therefore, I just accept their claims of relative invulnerability, which are quite impressive. This enables me to go straight to setup in Snow Leopard.  

Mac Edition Radio's EIC, Harris Fogel, talks me through installation, which turns out to be a piece of cake. I plug the power adapter in, connect the USB cable to my MacBook Pro, and turn on the ioSafe. Blue lights on the front tell me it's ready, and its icon appears on my desktop.

We start with a GUID partition. I open Disk Utility, highlight the upper icon for the ioSafe (which reads 1.4TB ST315003 41AS Media), and click on Partition. In the next screen, under Volume Scheme, I choose "1 Partition," accept the default Format — Mac OS Extended (Journaled) — and, under Options, select the top choice, GUID. I take this opportunity to rename the drive. In a minute it's done. Since we've set up the disk as a GUID disk, I can now boot up off of it. (Time Machine is designed to function as a bootable startup disk for your computer.)

Next I go to System Preferences, click on Time Machine, turn it On, identify the new Volume to which I'll back up, and accept the default settings (including Show Time Machine Status in Menubar). That's it. My backup begins. According to the progress window, I have 1,265,192 items to back up, occupying 140.11 gb of space on my laptop. I begin the backup at 1:40 p.m. Clearly this will take awhile, so I go out for the afternoon. When I get back, around 5, it's done; clicking on the Time Machine icon in the menubar lets me see it.

Feeling a new sense of relief, I go to the ioSafe website to register my unit. This automatically signs me up for one year's warranty and Data Recovery Service: With "no questions asked," the company will perform a one-time effort to salvage my data. This includes online/email assistance to start with; if necessary, payment of shipping back to ioSafe for more intensive effort (with my data transferred to a new unit and shipped back to me); and, if that fails, ioSafe paying a third party up to $1K to retrieve whatever they can, with the results returned to me on a replacement unit. Hard to beat. After a few minutes' consideration, I decide to extend this coverage to 5 years for $99.99.

I've read the Users Manual, and I've also downloaded and read the several "white papers" that ioSafe provides: Their basic point: Get the "human factor" out of the backup process, by making it automatic and using the most destruction-proof drive you can get. Works for me.

Almost immediately, and quite unexpectedly, the opportunity for a test presents itself. Nearing the end of its Applecare coverage, my MacBook Pro manifests what I interpret as a few minor issues. An appointment at the Genius Bar in the Apple Store on 14th St. in Manhattan uncovers a problem with the hard drive that Disk Utility can't repair. My designated Apple Genius volunteers to install a brand-new drive — but they won't transfer over my data, not knowing whether it's intact or damaged.

Before taking it in for that purpose, the tech asks if I have a backup. Trusting to the ioSafe, I tell him yes. "When you boot this up after you get it home," he says, "just restore everything from Time Machine." I get the MBP back the next day; an hour after I bring it home and set Time Machine about its tasks, it's fully functional again, with all my data and apps intact. As the linchpin of my backup system, the ioSafe has shown me the security that it — in tandem with a regularly scheduled backup — can provide. (For a more thorough report on this experience, see "AppleCare, the Apple Store, ioSafe Solo, and Time Machine Have My Back.")

• A week later, I decide that I really need to get my iTunes library off the hard drive of my MBP. It's grown disproportionately large, and will only increase in size. Indeed, I want to get my growing libraries of photos and videos off the MBP as well; the machine will run much faster. After consultation with Harris Fogel, we conclude that I need to reformat and re-partition the ioSafe Solo, giving 1tb over to Time Machine and the remaining 500gb to media storage. Better now than later.

Feeling confident now, and able to handle this on my own, I start with a GUID repartition. I open Disk Utility, highlight the upper icon for the ioSafe, click on Partition, and, in the next screen, under Volume Scheme, choose "2 Partitions." Once more I accept the default Format — Mac OS Extended (Journaled) — and, under Options, select the top choice, GUID. I take this opportunity to rename the partition for Time Machine, and give a new, clearly different name to the second, to avoid any confusion between them. In a minute it's done. I click on the Time Machine icon on my menubar, turn it On, identify the new partition to which I'll back up, start Time Machine working, and go out to run errands. It's 1:07. Three hours later it's done.

Working with the ioSafe always on, which optimizes Time Machine's default backup program, I notice that I can hear its fan. Not annoyingly or intrusively loud, it whirs quietly at about the same level as a small air purifier set on low. Of course completely silent is best, but I decide I can live with this. After a few days it slips into the background. 

• Now that ioSafe has my back, so to speak, by ensuring my primary backup and physically protecting it to the max, I turn my attention to the question of redundancy. I'm heading to China for a month within the next few days, so I decide to postpone reconfiguring my iTunes storage in order to deal with the more immediate issue of transportable backup for my trip.    I decide to test a review unit of the Maxell GENpro, their smallest (250gb) version. This product line marks Maxell's entry into the external-drive biz. Aluminum-cased, sturdy, cleanly designed, small enough to slip into a shirt pocket, weighing under half a pound, this GENpro is a 2.5", 5400-rpm USB 2.0 drive that comes with a 3-year warranty (MSRP $119.99).

I follow the same formatting protocol as the one with which I began on the ioSafe: just one GUID partition, Mac OS Extended (Journaled). Figuring this will go more slowly, I use Time Machine Preferences to select the GENPro instead of the ioSafe, set it running before I go to bed, and find that by the time I'm at my desk with my second cup of coffee the next morning it's done.

Backups hereafter, to both the ioSafe and the GENpro, go much more quickly (because I'm only backing up those files I've revised). On the morning of my departure to Beijing I back up to both the ioSafe and the GENpro before shutting down my MacBook Pro. Leaving the ioSafe in its permanent location on my desk, I slip the GENpro into the suitcase I'll check in, slide my MBP into my carry-on backpack, and call a cab to take me to Newark International.

Though not as comprehensively as I plan to become, I'm now more securely backed up than at any previous time in my life with the computer. At home, a complete backup sits in the most disaster-proof consumer-end data storage unit available, the ioSafe. A second backup unit, the Maxell, travels with me, but separately — if something happens to it in my luggage I still have my MacBook Pro, and vice versa.

The GENpro has a small footprint, 3-1/4" x 5"; you can even stand it on end, so it takes up about two square inches. Its handiness encourages me to develop the habit of backing up regularly while on the road. So I plug it in whenever the thought occurs, which it does with increasing frequency as I go from Beijing to Shenzhen, then to Dali, then to Liuzhou, then back to Shenzhen. Using it quickly it becomes routine — as does ensuring that, whenever possible, I keep it separate from the computer I'm mirroring while traveling.

Knowing I'm backed up, twice over, doesn't incline me to carelessness, I find; I don't start tossing my MBP around casually or kicking the GENpro across the carpet in the hotel room. Instead, slowly, it begins to erode a nagging anxiety I realize I've carried for decades, the fear of catastrophic failure that any realistic computer user must absorb. No more tempting fate with my data; at most, now, I stand to lose an hour's work if things go massively awry.

I back up onto the GENpro before shutting down my MBP prior to the flight to Beijing, packing the little external drive in my check-in luggage once again. The MacBook Pro gets carried on, and after a few hours in Beijing I'm flying back to the States.

At home on Staten Island in mid-August I unpack my Mac, boot it up, and immediately connect it to the ioSafe. By the time I've finished putting my clothes away, Time Machine has updated the ioSafe. Perfect. I set the GENpro aside for my next trip.

• So Phase One of my plan is complete. I've put in place a safe, reliable unit for the primary home/office workspace (the ioSafe); activated a portable unit for use on the road (the Maxell GENpro); established some program(s) and protocols for making use of them (Time Machine, daily); and given this system a road test. On a basic level, everything has worked as it should. Yet, reflecting on this process, and my actions during the trip, I'm left uneasy. Here's why:

The data I left at home, on the ioSafe, was well-protected from physical harm, but not from theft. None of it's encrypted, and I've only password-protected a small proportion thereof. If someone had made off with the unit, the data thereon was hackable with relative ease.

On eight separate plane flights (my total for the China trip), a small, easy to steal/lose Maxell GENpro external hard drive was out of my hands, out of my sight, and available to anyone with access to my checked luggage. The data thereon, as with the ioSafe, was not encrypted, and only minimally password-protected. This was definitely not a good idea; the risk of loss or theft outweighed the advantage of letting that drive travel separately. I won't do that again.

In the two hotels where my wife Anna and I stayed, in two different cities, I locked neither my MacBook Pro nor the GENpro drive in the room safe when we left the room. What's on my MBP isn't encrypted, and only minimally password-protected. Moreover, when I shut down my MBP, I don't normally log out; and sometimes, if we're just leaving the room briefly, I don't even shut it down. So I left my data — not to mention my hardware — vulnerable to theft on mutiple occasions. (I decide to change all of those behaviors immediately.)

In short, if I'm serious about protecting my data then I have to consider not just damage and loss but also theft as a threat.

Now Phase Two, with further redundancy, awaits: offsite storage, both bricks-and-mortar and "cloud." Plus the stickier question of data security: password protection, fingerprint access, encryption, anti-theft options, and such. (More to come.)

By A.D. Coleman, Posted 9/10/2010

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© Copyright 2010 by A. D. Coleman. All rights reserved. By permission of the author and Image/World Syndication Services,