It took me very long to arrive at something that feels like a comprehensive backup and emergency data access strategy for my data. As many others I started using TimeMachine from the day it has been included into Mac OS X. Prior to that I did the occasional full disk backup using SuperDuper. That was pretty much all I did and it did not feel comfortable at all.
Ever since the number of backup options has exploded and so has the need to for a more structured approach to it. In addition more, if not all, of your key documents and memories are now digital. This begs the question how to ensure people can access the data in a situation where you cannot do it yourself anymore. If I, for whatever reason, would not be available, my wife and family would have major challenges to obtain documents and information they require to keep things running or take appropriate action in case of an emergency. That is the downside of being paperless.
While this requires thoughts we typically do not enjoy, they are as relevant as they have always been. With the difference that today your loved ones have no physical folder to pull out of the cupboard if needed. Your data is distributed across your computers, the cloud, secured with (hopefully) cryptic passwords and while you find it natural to access it, less nerdy people may struggle big time.
Diverse Backup Strategy
Today I have not one, but effectively four different backups of my data. Three of them are always up-to-date, while the fourth one is the 'nuclear event' offsite contingency.
I keep all my data, with the exclusion of my work related data (corporate information security, you know), on Dropbox to start with. Even all my pictures are on there. The latter is only possible because I make a ruthless selection of pictures - no one will want to look at 20 variations of the same picture in 5 years from now. With exception of maybe the odd application settings, there is little data which is not on Dropbox. Get yourself at least the 100GB option, pay for the service and it becomes a feasible work & backup option.
My music is all on iTunes Match and it would be a shame to lose it, but it is actually the data I care about the least. In addition to Dropbox I keep my reference material, e.g. invoices or contracts, on Evernote. Evernote is not only an extremely useful tool, but provides actually a 5th backup tier for some key documents.
It goes without saying that you need to be comfortable with the data you put on cloud storages such as Dropbox or Evernote. These services can and haven been compromised. Be mindful about this and make sure you have the right security measures, e.g. encryption or password protection, in place or just keep sensitive data off these services.
Both Dropbox and Evernote keep local copies of your data. Using other backup mechanisms, like the ones I am covering next, will save these local copies which comes in useful as long as you know how to access them.
Accessing the local Dropbox data is typically straight forward since it is intrinsic to the service itself. If you have not changed it, your Dropbox data is located at
~/Dropbox/. With Evernote it is slightly more complicated as the data is designed to be accessed via the application only. However, should you need to access it without a client installed, you'll find all notes and attachments in
~/Library/Application Support/Evernote/accounts/Evernote/[your account]/content/.
Remember that Dropbox as well as Evernote offer web front-ends to access your documents. This is maybe the easiest way for anyone that needs to access your data in case of emergency.
While Dropbox and Evernote do not only provide a work environment for your data, they also serve as a backup, at least in parts. In parts because anything outside of them will not be synchronised with the cloud and may leave you exposed if your machine goes South.
This is why I opted for an additional Cloud Backup. CrashPlan is what I went with because I got an extremely attractive deal (90% off) for the CrashPlan+ Unlimited Family last Black Friday. CrashPlan is a solid solution with many options. For example you cannot only backup to the cloud but also to any other destination part of your backup group, e.g. your sister's iMac on the other side of the planet. The downside of CrashPlan are the rather slow backup speeds, in particular when you are trying to get your initial backup in to the cloud it can days or even weeks to complete. Maybe the experience is different if you are based in the US, but in Europe it is really sluggish.
Backblaze is a similar service and is said to offer higher backup speeds. I have not tried it personally, but have seen some good reviews.
Again, your local copies of Dropbox and Evernote data will be covered by services like CrashPlan or Backblaze as well, adding another layer to your backup strategy.
This is typically the default option for nearly anyone using a Mac. However, it can and should not be your only option. Setting TimeMachine up could not be any simpler, although I need to admit I never got it to reliably work with NAS or USB attached drives over Wifi. Other than with TimeCapsule, which I no longer use, TimeMachine backups over Wifi tend to never finish successfully for me. However, I blame my Wifi network rather than TimeMachine. Consequently I have chosen for a simple setup where my backup hard disk is connected directly to my Thunderbolt Display via USB.
Using RAID hard disks, whether as NAS or hardwired via USB or Thunderbolt adds yet another layer of safety to your backup strategy. While TimeMachine setup is straight froward, it is worthwhile to call out that there are settings that allow you to exclude certain folders from backup and there are indeed some that are worthwhile excluding. If you keep data on external drives, you can also configure TimeMachine to back those up by making sure they are not on the 'exclude' list.
The last piece of my multi-redundant backup jigsaw is my physical offsite backup. Next to my Cloud and TimeMachine backup I keep an external hard drive which has full clones of my family's MacBooks hard disks. It is a 2TB drive with four partitions which each fit a SuperDuper bootable clone of the four machines we have at home as well as one additional partition for a backup of our photos and movies.
Every 6 months I have a repeating routine project in OmniFocus that requires me to get the hard disk from my brother-in-law, who is my offsite backup location, erase it and run full new backups from all laptops before retiring it back into his trusted hands.
Access In Case Of Emergency
It is a topic we typically do not enjoy to discuss, but what happens if you are no longer able to access you data and your loved ones do not know how to either? If you are unconscious in hospital and your partner needs to get information about insurances, invoke HR procedures at your employer or simply needs to manage the family's bank accounts that you always managed?
If you went paperless and your wife or husband is less of a techie, accessing your diligently organised, filed and tagged data is not easy for them. In particular if it sits on a cloud service, is encrypted and/or password protected. You always assume this should be straight forward, but it is not.
Hence prepare for the worst case. You have a responsibility to do so. It is also recommended to have a technology buddy your loved ones can turn to for help when needed. Mine is my brother-in-law and I am his.
Handing The Keys
You take security serious, use randomly generate passwords that differ from account to account, turned encryption on wherever you could and anyways locked everything down as you do. So the first thing someone that needs to access your documents requires are the keys to your data castle. Typically you do not want people to find or get them, but in an emergency case you want the process to be as easy as possible for someone who possibly is not the biggest nerd on the planet.
The answer, as so often, is 1Password. What many do not know is that every 1Password keychain as a secure mechanism to be opened in a modern web browser called 1PasswordAnywhere. So assuming the person you trust has access to your keychain, either by logging into your Dropbox account via the web or by having physical access to your computer or a backup drive, and knows your master password, getting 'the keys' can happen without jumping through too many hoops.
I have an emergency document which I cover in the next section that includes simple instructions for the above process straight from the AgileBits help section for 1PasswordAnywhere. Next to Dropbox my 1Password keychain file is manually copied to the root level of my TimeMachine and Offsite Backup on a regular basis to facilitate quick emergency access.
A Text File With Key Instructions
All instructions anyone who would need access to my data in an emergency case can be found in a text file on the root level of my physical backup drives (obviously not on any cloud storage or backup) plus a printed copy is stored in two different secure places accessible by my family. While the document features some key data and as-simple-as-possible instructions how to access 1Password, Dropbox and Evernote, it does not contain any (master) passwords. These are accessible in a different way, which everyone that needs to know knows, but which I am obviously not going into at any detail here.
The text file, which is neither encrypted nor password protected, contains the following information in a short and concise manner:
- Access instructions for 1Password
- Where to find key documents (e.g. access instructions to Evernote/Dropbox)
- Which backups exists and how to access them
- Bank accounts & credit cards, incl. Paypal account
- Investments & stocks
- Insurances & pension
- Taxes & tax advisor
- Apartment/house (gas, power, insurances, mortgage/rent, ...)
- Broadband, phone and mobile contracts
- Online service subscriptions like iTunes Match, Dropbox, Evernote, …
- Online identity incl. email, domain registrations, web hosting/server, …
- Work contacts, procedures & benefits
- Any obligations towards others
- Key family affairs (like financial arrangements with/for your parents, brothers or sisters)
While the document contains contact details, contract and account numbers there are no usernames, passwords, PINs or anything similar referenced. For all of these 'The Keys' are kept in 1Password.
Being a little paranoid I made sure when I wrote the document that drafts are really only saved on one of the local backup hard disks or a separate USB stick. At no time I wanted even traces of this document flat and unsecured on my laptop's hard drive, iCloud, Dropbox, etc.
It took me a good three months to work out and implement my backup and emergency data access strategy and I hope sharing it helps people to take similar measures. It is not perfect and I hope to develop it further over the years, but it is hopefully a good starting point. Just avoid exposing your data, yourself or your loved ones by the lack of such strategy!