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Mac Backup Apps in 2018? Part One

Nowadays, the average Mac user is reasonably tech savvy. They use their tech daily and are pretty comfortable with MacOS and iOS. Generally, the average user has multiple Apple devices and they use Google Apps, Dropbox, Adobe CC and web apps such as Shopify and WordPress, home automation tools such as Amazon Echo and Sonos, the list goes on…

On the face of it everything seems fine, a utopian tech paradise, but looks can be deceiving! In this mini-series, I’ll be looking at the not-so-sexy areas of IT that are often missed or overlooked; areas that won’t necessarily improve the quality of your work or make your tech more enjoyable to use, but will help you build a solid foundation for future tech use.

First on the list is backups! I’ll try and show you the kind of backup software we see on customer Macs, from the residential to business environments, and break down some of their pros and cons. We offer some in-house backup tools at FatMac however, I’ll try not to oversell these (!) and be as objective as possible.

These posts may get a bit lengthy and I’ll probably split them into multiple articles.

Time Machine and it’s ‘pros’…

Time Machine was introduced in 2007 with Apple’s ‘Leopard’ OS and is Apple’s built-in backup ‘applet’; it’s  a small set of command line tools (see tmutil) and consists of a basic GUI interface accessible through System Preferences. Using Time Machine for your backups has some clear advantages, such as:

  • Free – Time Machine has been included with all versions of Mac OS X since 10.5 and as it’s part of the base OS X installation, it’s completely free to use.
  • Integration with MacOS – As an Apple product, it integrates seamlessly with MacOS in a user-friendly manner. You will immediately feel comfortable with the clear, ‘Apple-esque’ user interface.
  • Hourly backups – Time Machine incrementally, and automatically, backs up your data every hour. It will skip pending backups when the backup destination isn’t available and retry when it is re-connected to the system.
  • Easy to use file recovery – In the event that you need to recover data, Time Machine has an easy to use recovery interface, complete with search and browse functionality, so you can quickly locate the data you require.

Another advantage is that Apple have integrated Time Machine into MacOS Server which enables administrators to offer centralised backups to users on the same network. Backups can saved to internal or external server storage and with some modifications, can even be network attached storage. If you are using Mac OS X Server as your main or workgroup server, this can be an easy way to roll out network backups to client workstations. Backups are stored in personalised sparsebundles on the destination backup location and come with restrictive file permissions so backups so data is kept private.

Time Machine and it’s ‘cons’…

Time Machine is a great tool for the average Mac user. You will find it easy and convenient to use and recover from and, as it’s part of MacOS, it integrates seamlessly and is very accessible. That said, it does have numerous faults and issues when used in a more structured, business setting. Our main gripes with Time Machine are the following:

  • Automatic backups? In some cases, Time Machine has a very annoying habit of not running in a consistent manner, which is a pretty big issue for a backup app! In the worst case scenarios, backups may silently fail and not notify the user. You have to be aware of this; it’s up to you to periodically check for the last completed backup and manually start a backup, if necessary, or risk losing valuable data.
  • Backup mechanism – During a backup, Time Machine stores all of the copied data into a file called ‘inProgress’, which is hidden on the backup destination. It then unpacks the inProgress file after the backup is complete and moves the data into the correct location. With large backups or where the backup has failed, Time Machine can have issues clearing out this file which leads to an increased chance of the next backup failing. These instances require an administrator to log into the affected Mac or Server and resolve the issue, which usually means removing the inProgress file altogether.
  • Lack of Apple support or documentation – All software, Apple developed or not, can have issues from time-to-time that require human interaction to fix. For such an important Operating System feature, there is a surprising lack of official documentation. Luckily however, a great deal of community-based documentation exists.  The best support resource in our opinion is Pondini’s ‘Apple OS X and Time Machine Tips’.

Should you backup with Time Machine?…

With this in mind, what’s the bottom line?

Time Machine is a decent application for Mac backups and, as it’s integrated into MacOS as standard, it’s probably the first backup app that a new user will seriously consider using to secure their data. When it works, it’s great as it provides an easy-to-use backup and recovery process.  When it doesn’t, you will no doubt rue the day you laid eyes it.

On balance, we recommend using it in a residential or SOHO environment, where there are no more than a handful of workstations.  As long as you’re aware it’s not really a ‘set it and forget it application’ and might need that magic human touch every so often, everything should be fine.

If you are in a commercial environment, our advice changes a little. We tend to use Time Machine in larger environments if two criteria are met:

  1. We are administering an all Mac environment. This kind of goes without saying! and,
  2. We are complimenting existing backup strategies.

If however, your environment doesn’t meet this criteria, we strongly advise using a more appropriate, business-class backup application.

In the next article I will examine another popular backup application for use at home and business.

Stay tuned!

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