A layered approach to backups

[Update: 08 Mar 2018 – Style updates (thanks, Richard!) and added information about source code backups.]

For the last 20 years I’ve been pretty paranoid about backups. While my approach has changed over the years, one constant is that losing data is disastrous. I started with manual backups to floppy disks, then to Jaz disks where I’d rotate disks and store one at my parents’ house, then moved to burning DVDs that I’d put in a safe deposit box.

These days my routine is more refined: I use a modified 3-2-1 strategy to protect my data. If you’re not familiar with the 3-2-1 strategy, it is to have 3 copies of your data, on 2 different media, with 1 off-site backup.


  • 2017 MacBook Pro as my main machine
  • 2012 MacBook Pro for my wife’s machine
  • 2013 Mac Pro
  • Akitio Thunder2 Quad attached to the Mac Pro with four 6 TB drives; 2 are dedicated to backups. The drives are arranged in JBOD.
  • 9 1 TB bare drives
  • Newer Tech Voyager S3 connected to my MacBook Pro for doing backups to the bare drives
  • HighPoint Dual-Bay Thunderbolt Dock that I move between the Mac Pro and my wife’s MacBook Pro for backing up to the bare drives.
  • Carbon Copy Cloner. I used SuperDuper! for many years, but switched last fall because CCC has more features that work in my current strategy. SuperDuper! is a great product for cloning drives and has some features that CCC doesn’t have.


  1. My wife and I each have iCloud accounts with extra storage mainly to keep copies of our photos. Not only are the photos in iCloud, but they are synced to our MacBook Pros which are then backed up.
  2. Each of the machines in my house backs up to Time Machine. My MacBook Pro and my wife’s MacBook Pro do this over the network to my Mac Pro acting as a server. The Mac Pro does a local Time Machine backup to the Akitio. I don’t consider a network Time Machine backup to be a primary backup as the disc image that Time Machine creates seems to get corrupted far too often. I have no idea why, but it is a thorn in my side. Time Machine, however, has saved data on more than one occasion.
  3. Every day both of the laptops are set to backup their home directories using Carbon Copy Cloner to a disc image residing on the Mac Pro. The disc image is temporary storage, but an extra copy just in case.
  4. Every day the disc images from the home directories are backed up to a folder on a different drive on the Mac Pro. This takes the files out of the disc image.
  5. Every day my accounting data and my Paperless libraries are copied to iCloud Drive on my MacBook Pro. Since my Mac Pro is also connected to iCloud, this has the advantage of copying the data to the Mac Pro and keeping extra backups.
  6. A full backup of the Mac Pro is done daily using Carbon Copy Cloner to a partition on one of the Akitio’s drives.
  7. Each week I use a bare hard drive and the hard drive dock to make a full copy of each computer. This is a manual process, but easy to do. Carbon Copy Cloner is set to backup on connect.
  8. Each week I take a set of the bare drives to my safe deposit box. I have 3 sets of bare drives and rotate them weekly. The 2 sets that aren’t in the safe deposit box are stored in a First Alert 2037F Fire Safe.
  9. My source code for work and some of my projects is stored on github.com or bitbucket.org.

While my setup isn’t the simplest or least expensive, I don’t worry about losing data. Of course there are failure points in this setup but in general most of my data will be preserved in case of some type of data disaster.

8 Replies to “A layered approach to backups”

  1. Wow, you are 10x more paranoid than I am and I am truly paranoid. I recently had a total failure, machine died and the SSD HD chip could not be read from the USB adaptor. My Time Machine backup worked perfectly, It did take many/many hours to complete. The second/third backup on a SSD and 1T old disk drive were not needed. (done weekly). One copy is on my boat, away from the house. Critical files (code) are encrypted and stored on DropBox weekly, and the SVN repository.
    Great Post!

    1. Hi Bill,

      It is always great not to need a backup; as I mentioned I don’t rely on Time Machine but it is good to know that it sometimes works. I also forgot to put in the post (just updated it) that my works source code is stored in either GitHub or BitBucket giving me an extra copy (as well as versions of it).

  2. I agree about over the air Time Machine. I finally had it with a year’s worth of archive going south and having to start again so I switched to a hard disk that’s directly connected to the machine. A bit more awkward but it works and I just do it once a day on both my Mac Pro and my wife’s MacBook Pro.

    I too used to use SuperDuper but the author was very slow to make the last few updates so I decided to re-try CCC which initially I found terribly complex to use for a simple clone. CCC is now as easy to use as SD and I’ve been using it for a year to make backups.

    My system is a simpler version of yours.

    Daily Time Machine backup of both machines.
    Daily CCC backup on disk 1
    Disk 1 goes in a fire box in the basement and is swapped with disk 2

    My basement is my offsite backup.

    My “disks” are 1TB SSDs.

    All of this is done through USB 3 which is fine. C would be better and someday I’ll get there but for now, 3 works and isn’t too slow except for an initial backup which I haven’t had to do in a long time.

    1. Hi Richard,

      I haven’t made the leap to SSDs for my backups as that is a significant investment. While non-spinning drives would be more reliable, the amount of use my backup drives get is minimal and having all fail at once is highly unlikely.

      I’m not sure that anything faster than USB 3 is going to make a huge difference. The backup programs are comparing a lot of relatively small files and the raw disk I/O won’t be seen unless you are moving large files like videos.

      The author of SuperDuper! has taken a different approach than CCC and its simplicity is perfect for many people. If you compare CCC and SuperDuper! for just a simple clone, I think that they may be on par. However as I’m no longer just doing simple clones, CCC is my preferred choice at the moment.

      I don’t have a basement and even if I did, I think I feel more comfortable with a true offsite backup. Yes I do have to go somewhere weekly but since I moved my box to a different credit union branch that is next to Trader Joe’s, I’ve started doing the weekly grocery shopping saving my wife a trip.

  3. I thought I was concerned and I do a relatively simple solution. TimeMachine to a local drive (perpetually) and Backblaze with zero knowledge encryption to their datacenter. This way I am protected against hardware failure or my house burning down to the ground. As we learned in this area recently. A fire safe only works so well and many were burnt right through.

    1. Hi Jared,

      One of the issues with a completely online solution is the amount of time it takes to restore a full backup. It is definitely better than nothing, but I think having additional backup layers is going to provide additional protection.

      Any backup, of course, is better than none.

      1. That is true. The speed of recovery is part of the reason I use TimeMachine to the local drive. Backblaze is also a nice safety net because they will send me a drive at no charge if I don’t have access to my local copy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.