The culture of backup

Tech Life

First of all, I have a confession to make: for three months I haven’t been doing what I’ve often preached, backups. I have a backup of vital information and documents stored in the cloud, but I’ve been living dangerously for three months or so without a Time Machine backup of my main machine. The old external drive I used for that died around last September, so I went and bought a new one (1 TB, with FireWire 800) planning to split it in two partitions: one, to make a ‘snapshot’ of my Snow Leopard system when I would upgrade to Lion, so that I would be able to boot from it in case of problems with the new cat or for running the occasional application with PPC code. The other, larger, partition would be used for Time Machine backups.

Then I got knee-deep in work and started postponing the backup… until the other day. Every time you have to begin from scratch with Time Machine (and with any other backup program/system) is a bit of a drag because the Mac has to copy all data to the backup drive. And since internal hard drives keep getting bigger, there’s an increasing amount of data to be copied, the majority of which are tiny files, and as any of you will surely have experienced, it takes longer to copy 50,000 2KB files than two 50MB files. Anyway, I was ‘lucky’ enough to only have 1,632,008 files for roughly 180GB of data, and when Time Machine started the process I was told by a little window in the Finder that it would take 5 hours. Since I wanted the Mac to be idle during the process, I started the backup just before going to bed, certain that the morning after all would be fine.

Not so. I had left only three applications running the night before: the Finder, System Preferences and Safari. When I sat again before my Mac, everything except Safari was non-responsive (you Alt-Tab to that application and the cursor becomes a beach ball) and the Time Machine backup was hanging at 86GB copied (still almost 100GB to go). There was no activity from the external drive, so it was clear that the backup wouldn’t go anywhere from there. I had no other choice than to force-reset the Mac, wipe the partial backup and try the process once again, this time while keeping an eye on it. The frustrating thing being, of course, that I couldn’t do any work on the MacBook Pro (luckily there is an abundance of Macs in my studio, so I took the occasion to do some catching up of my RSS feeds on the Power Mac G4 Cube).

After a short while, even this second backup attempt hanged. Perhaps it had something to do with Spotlight, deciding to reindex my whole world while Time Machine was trying to back it up. So: rinse and repeat. Third time’s the charm and finally, finally, 24 hours after the first attempt, I had a successful Time Machine backup. And this over FireWire 800. I don’t even want to imagine doing it on a Time Capsule, wirelessly. Now I’m pretty sure that my next hardware upgrade will involve a Thunderbolt-everywhere kind of policy.

Backing up is right. And wrong.

What happened with my unfortunate Time Machine session is probably an extreme case (or not, you’ll tell me), but while I was babysitting the second and third attempts, half-wasting my time (because I wasn’t completely idle, yet I couldn’t help checking up on the backup process from time to time), I kept thinking about today’s backup culture. And getting angry.

The backup is something sensible and advisable to do on a practical level. There are important data (both personal and work-related) that you simply cannot afford to lose, so what do you do? You duplicate them on another drive, or even on another different medium. This isn’t a new strategy in the computing world, it’s basically as old as computer themselves. I remember visiting the data processing centre of the company my mother used to work for. It was 1986, I think, and they had these huge tape units whirring, constantly backing up essential information. At that time I was beginning to get acquainted with the backup process, and when I started working with Macs in 1989–1990, the agency I was collaborating with had most of its data on Bernoulli cartridges.

The philosophy was simple: you back data up so you end up with at least one more copy and you store it on a supposedly more reliable medium. At the time I remember backing stuff up from floppies to hard drives, and from hard drives to Bernoulli cartridges (or, later, SyQuest cartridges and other magneto-optical media).

And today… we do the same. For the same reasons. Not much has really changed in decades. Today’s storage media may be physically slimmer and hold tens of thousands of times the data a hard drive could hold in the 1980s, but the question of reliability still stands. We distrusts storage media no more no less than 30 years ago. And to protect the integrity of our data we still resort to old practices. In the end, the copying as an act of preservation is a centuries-old practice. But instead of working towards more reliable solutions to store our information (now I’m back in the computing context), we’ve just been perfecting the copy strategy. Which, as I said before, is good and all in practice, but on a theoretical, philosophical level it’s starting to feel wrong to me. It’s like with cars. Today we have wonderful cars: great design, great performance, great optimisation, and surely a 2011 car is safer, better, faster, more comfortable than a 1911 car. Yet what makes it move is basically the same stuff. A 2011 car without petrol is as fast and useful as a 1911 car.

When I see concept videos about future interfaces, when I hear people constantly referring to a multi-touch interaction as it appeared on Minority Report, I’m actually more interested in storage solutions. What really fascinated me in Minority Report were those glass discs people used as a storage medium: they looked so visually pleasing and so reliable. That is something I’d love to be using in ten years or so. We should not, in 2011, be worrying about copying our stuff, redundantly, in many different places to store it securely. I know that it’s easy to do, that devices are cheap, that it can be a fully automated process without the user even noticing, etc. But I think it should be something even more hassle-free. Of course I’m not expecting eternal lifetime from devices, but at least something much more durable. Like audio CDs one bought in 1988 and still play on a 2011 CD player. I’m sure that when you bought them you didn’t think “Oh now I have to do a backup because something might break down in a month and they might lose data in the process”. I just want the same thing for the data I have on my Macs. Enough with this ‘everything’s disposable’ culture. Our personal information simply deserves better, more reliable storage options.

The Author

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!