Recent blog posts by web developer/designer Chris Bowler and photographer François Arnold started me thinking about my own computer backup strategy.  I would like to think I’ve developed a reliable and workable system over the years but on inspection I think have a few gaps.

Chris’s blog posting is about how he uses Time Machine as part of his backup strategy.  He also compares his strategy to that of others.

My own process is similar, making use of a 1 TB external drive for weekly clones of my hard drive and video storage, a 750 GB external drive for Time Machine backups, a 120 GB external drive for monthly clones of my hard drive, and Dropbox for everything that is important (even my music and photos).1

François on the other hand focuses on creating a detailed backup strategy for Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.

As photographers, we mainly want to backup our master files with their editing (so we don’t have to do it all over again) and our catalogs.2

François’s strategy starts from the moment he imports his photos into Lightroom which includes choosing the right format to keep his images and edits. François is a Mac user so his strategy also includes Time Machine.

My current strategy is not quite as organised or well thought out as Chris’s or François’.

My current backup system involves three external hard drives and a cloud backup service. My Lightroom catalog is kept on one of the external drives; a 1TB G-Drive Q attached to my iMac. My wife prefers iPhoto so I import photos from her iPhone and any images of family. The iPhoto library is kept on the same 1TB drive as the Lightroom catalog. iMovie files are stored here as well. The second external hard drive, a 500GB G-Drive Q attached to the iMac, stores my iTunes library. Some of my important files are stored in the Documents folder on the iMac’s 250GB internal drive and some are stored on the 500GB G-Drive Q. I use Dropbox to store my 1Password keychain as well as documents that I’ve import onto my iPad via GoodReader. These documents might have come to my iPad via Mobile Safari or the Mail app.

The backup process is both automated and manual. I use the Backblaze3 cloud backup service to backup the entire Lightroom catalog, the files stored in the internal Documents folder and the Documents folder on the external 500GB G-Drive Q. The Backblaze agent runs continuously and copies any changed files up to the cloud service. Occasionally — there is no set schedule — I connect a 250GB Seagate FreeAgent drive and run Time Machine to backup. This backups everything except the default exclusions4. I also have a 500GB Time Capsule that I never use. The Time Machine backups were taking too long over Wi-Fi.

After reading Chris’ and François’ post I realise that I have a gap in my strategy. The first issue is that I only have two copies of my photos and documents. The copy on the external drives and the backups in the cloud (for the photos and documents) and the Seagate drive (for documents). I think a good backup strategy requires at least three copies of important files — the original and two backups — with one of the copes stored off site. The second issue is that I don’t have a backup for my iTunes library. All my purchases — movie, music, and apps — are at risk5.

I think I need a new system. I have not bought any equipment yet but I think I have a strategy that will work.

  • Move all important documents — tax paper work, receipts, etc — to the Documents folder on the Mac’s internal drive. I’ll use TimeMachine Editor to automate the schedule. Continue to backup the iMac via Backblaze but add a twice weekly backup to the FreeAgent via Time Machine. That’s one off site backup and one onsite backup.
  • Continue to keep the iTunes library on the 500GB G-Drive Q. There is still the issue of a second and third backup. I could backup to Backblaze but media files tend to be quite large and I’m worried about exceeding my Comcast bandwidth cap.
  • The photo libraries are already being backed-up to Backblaze but as with the iTunes library the second backup is an issue. My Time Capsule does not have enough storage to keep my iTunes library and my very large photo libraries. I could add another FireWire drive to the iMac but I’ve already got two drives hanging of the back of the thing and the desk could get crowded. The Seagate FreeAgent Drive is too small to hold iTunes and the photo catalog.

I’m not sure what to do about the other backups. I guess I could perform manual backups on a weekly basis to another external drive but I really want an automated solution. I need to do more thinking.

When my MobileMe account came up for renewal, I let it expire. I did not need it. I had found cheaper and better alternatives.

When Apple’s $99 MobileMe service was released I was quick to register. With MobileMe I could access my mail, contacts, and calendar information in the “cloud” and keep everything in sync across my Macs, my iPod Touch (not iPhone for me as yet), and the web automatically. I could upload my photos to a web gallery and invite my friends and family to view my photo slideshow and download their favorites. iDisk allowed me to store and share files online and access them from another Mac, or from my iPod Touch or from a web browser on any computer. With iDisk Sync, I could keep a copy of my iDisk files on my local hard drive for offline editing and when I reconnected my changes would automatically sync back to my iDisk.

However, when my subscription for MobileMe came up for renewal I let it lapse. Why? I’ve been using the Google Mail service since it launched in 2004 and with Snow Leopard I am able to sync my Gmail to Mail.app, my Google Calendar to iCal, and my Google Contacts to AddressBook. I can access these services from any computer with a web browser (I prefer Google Chrome), any Mac on which I have an account, and from my iPod Touch (and iPhone if I had one). All for FREE!

But what about MobileMe’s Gallery feature? I’ve had a Flickr Pro account for a few years. For just $24.95/year, Flickr provides me with unlimited uploads and storage for high-resolution original images and high-definition video. With a free Flickr account, you can upload 2 videos and 100MB worth of photos each calendar month. I can create slideshows, edit my photos, share with friends and family, or link my photos back to my blog. Don’t try any of that with MobileMe.

While MobileMe provides 20GB of storage that space is used for all your email, calendar, address book, photos, and files. With my photos hosted on Flick, and my email,calendar and address book safely stored on Google’s super reliable “cloud”, I found that I did not need much online file storage. I started using Dropbox. Dropbox allows me to sync my files online and across multiple computers (Mac, Linux and Windows) – automatically. The free version provides 2GB of online storage, which is quite sufficient for my needs. Sharing files is simple and Dropbox provides access to my files via any web browser and my iPod Touch. Oh, and it also provides interactive photo galleries.

So, yes, I let my MobileMe account expire. And I did not miss it. My wallet felt a little heavier too. I had saved about $75.

Then a few months later I was working on my brother-in-laws Mac and needed access to files on my Mac mini. Of course, the very files I needed would not be on my Dropbox account. I had no way to access my Mac mini. It was then that I realized how useful MobielMe’s “Back to My Mac” feature is.

Back to My Mac puts any Mac OS X Leopard or Snow Leopard Mac you use within easy reach. MobileMe finds your remote Mac computers over the Internet and displays them in the Finder on the Mac you’re using. With Back to My Mac Screen Sharing, you can control your remote Mac as though you’re sitting in front of it.

Fortunately my brother-in-law lives near my home but Back to My Mac would have been more convenient than driving back home, copying the files to the Dropbox folder, and driving back to my brother-in-law’s home. I did not like that. I had to find a solution. A few weeks later I discovered an application from YazSoft called ShareTool. ShareTool lets you access all of the Bonjour services on your home network from anywhere. This includes iTunes Music Sharing, Screen Sharing, File Sharing, printing, and more. In effect with ShareTool I can remotely access any Mac service on my home network as though I was physically on the home network.

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Once installed, ShareTool presents the user with two choices of operation – Connect or Share. The Share options configures a Mac to provide services over the Internet while the Connect options allows the remote Mac to connect to that share node. Click the Share button and ShareTool automatically configures your router and the current Mac with the proper network settings. To connect to a remote host over the Internet from your other Mac you’ll need information about the Internet address address and port that the remote ShareTool host is using. Don’t worry about writing this down as ShareTool contains a feature that will email this information to you when you setup the “Share”. Simply copy that information from the email into the other ShareTool and start working.

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Screen shot 2009-12-24 at 11.38.20 AM.png ShareTool provides a number of other features to make accessing your Mac over the Internet both easy and secure. You can specify exactly which Bonjour services are available including, iTunes Music Sharing, iPhoto Picture, sharing, Apple File Sharing, Windows file sharing, Screen Sharing, SSH, printing or any other service running on the remote Mac that uses the Bonjour service. I have my HD TiVo set to share files with my Mac via Bonjour. From work I am able to pull up one of my recorded TV shows and watch it during my lunch hour. I’m the paranoid type and allow access to my computer over the open Internet can be scary, so I am happy that ShareTool encrypts it communication using AES-128 bit encryption and uses a unique and randomly generate key each time a connection is created. ShareTool can also be used over a VPN and provides an audit feature so I can see exactly which users are using the service.

When sharing my network I configured ShareTool to send an email with the connection information, automatically update an external DNS service, and auto launch iTunes and iPhoto. From the comfort of my desk I can listen to my entire iTunes library over the Internet. How sweet it is. When connecting to my home network from work ShareTools will show me my home network just as though I was sitting at home. I can see all my Macs in the Finder, connect to them, open and edit files, move, create or delete folder – pretty anything I could do while at home. I am able to connect to my Time Capsule over the Internet and setup Time Machine to use the remote Time Capsule for backup.

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I am still playing around with ShareTool but I have not discovered any limitations to what I can do over the Internet. The trial copy of ShareTools limits each session to just 15 minutes but this is enough time to discover the true potential of this awesome tool. ShareTool is just $20 for a single license but you can get a discount when additional licenses are purchased.

original.pngOn August 26 Apple released the latest version of it’s MacIntosh operating system, OS X 10.6, code-named Snow Leopard. Some have called it a service pack while other say it is a foundation for something bigger. Whether a service pack or future proof update, the sales figures have Wall Street buzzing causing Apple’s share price to soar. Good for my IRA and good for my Mac. But what does Snow Leopard offer and what is in it for you? Read on.

No PowerPC allowed

The bad news is that Apple, in the interest of moving the platform into the future, has dropped support for the PowerPC. Snow Leopard will not install on a G4 or G5 Mac. Time for an upgrade?

Under the hood

The refinements in Snow Leopard can be broken down into two general areas with a small number of user interface (UI) improvements.

  • Technology
  • Exchange

Exchange 2007

Like most of corporate America, my employer uses Microsoft Exchange to provide enterprise email and calendar services. On Windows, I use the Outlook client to read email and manage my time. Outlook is part of Microsoft Office for Windows. The MacIntosh Business Unit of Microsoft does not provide Outlook for the Mac but instead provides Entourage; something that most agree is a poor substitute. In any case, to connect my Mac to the corporate email and calendar service, I had to purchase Microsoft Office for Mac.

Snow Leopard changes that requirement.  The Snow Leopard versions of Mail.app, iCal and AddressBook provide built-in support for Exchange Server 2007. Even though I was using the corporate VPN, setup was relatively easy using the Autodiscovery wizard that each application provides. Autodiscovery will use the information provided with your email address to find all the information needed to setup Exchange support. I completed the setup in Mail.app and iCal and AddressBook were setups automatically. Not everything worked for me though. For some reason, iCal won’t sync with my Exchange calendar. Other than Exchange 2007 support nothing else appears to be (visually) difference about these apps except I can now manage my personal and business calendar from one app and view them all at once in a single window.

32bit/64bit

64bit_icon_20090824.jpgSome of the changes in Snow Leopard will only be exciting to computer scientist and software developers but will still yield tangible benefits to most users. Nearly all system applications — including the Finder, Mail, Safari, iCal, and iChat — are now built with 64-bit code to take full advantage of the multicore CPUs in the Intel processor. This configuration will boost overall performance because the Mac can now take advantage of more memory (16 terabytes) and process data twice as fast. However, not all Intel Macs are created equal. To run Snow Leopard in 64 bit mode, you’ll need an Intel Core 2 Duo processor and a 64 bit EFI. If you bought your Mac in late 2008 or sometime in 2009, you could take advantage of 64-bit computing with Snow Leopard. Right now most applications are still written for a 32-bit computing world, so this isn’t such a big deal.

32 or 64 bit, there is still some processing improvement to be had in Snow Leopard even for those older Intel Macs. The Intel Core Duo and Core 2 Duo processors are two processors on a single chip. Apple has developed a new Application Programming Interface (API) called Grand Central Dispatch (GCD). “Grand Central Dispatch takes full advantage by making all of Mac OS X multicore aware and optimizing it for allocating tasks across multiple cores and processors.” To take full advantage of these processors software applications will need to be reprogrammed. Once software developers start programming their applications to use GCD, they will be able to boost that applications’ performance on a dual-core Mac mini, an 8-core Mac Pro, or anything in between.

Apple has also developed OpenCL, a new API I to take advantage of the fast graphics CPU (GPU) in Intel Macs thus potentially making the MacIntosh user interface (UI) faster. “OpenCL in Snow Leopard is a technology that makes it possible for developers to tap the vast gigaflops of computing power currently in the graphics processor and use it for any application.” We may finally see the Mac become a computing platform that gamers will like.

090614_quicktimex.pngYou can see evidence of the new APIs, (GCD and OpenCL), at work in the new version of QuickTime; QuickTime X. QuickTime X is quite visually different it’s predecessor. If less is more, then QuickTime X embodies that. I open a .mov file from my library, and I am presented with a spartan black box in the middle of my screen. Playback is smooth even on my 3-year-old MacBook (2GHz Intel Core Duo, 2GB RAM). One of the features I love, that was absent in the previous version, is that I can now record video straight from QuickTime. “QuickTime Player can now capture audio or video using the built-in camera and microphone in your Mac.” I can now create high definition video-cast and how-to videos with QuickTime and post them directly to MobileMe or YouTube. Thanks to QuickTime I can now launch my movie career.

Is that all?

While there are a large number of other “refinements” in Snow Leopard the ones I talked about here are the most noticeable. Services, Exposé and Stacks has small but useful improvements, Time Machine is faster, and Preview has been enhanced. Is it worth it to upgrade? I think the three items I outline here justify the $29 cost of Snow Leopard. I no longer have to switch to Entourage to read my corporate mail and manage my work calendar. My three-year-old computer seems faster than it did before and I am starting a side career in video. If you don’t have an Intel Mac, the question is moot. For all Intel Mac owners running Leopard or Tiger, get yourself a copy and install. If you have more than one Intel Mac (like I do) get the family pack for $49. It’s a good deal.