Backup strategy: Drobo, JungleDisk & Time Machine

Back in March this year our home was burgled. They took lots of stuff including my iMac and week old MacBook Air. Thankfully they left behind an old iBook and all my external backup disks even though they had all been in the same room as the computers they took.

Still, getting back up to speed in my work and homelife was a slow process. Thanks to an ad-hoc strategy (when I remembered basically), my backups were a week old so I did lose some work however relying on server-based IMAP mail meant email was ok.

Whilst waiting for the replacements to come (and I have to say the insurers were great in getting everything) I put some thought into a better backup strategy. I already had two 1TB LaCie external Firewire hard disks that were mirrored using software RAID. My first step was to schedule SuperDuper to backup a full system image to the LaCies every other night.

I got a third, smaller, LaCie drive also on FW800 so that I could use Time Machine as a more fine-grained incremental backup, but of my home folder only. This wouldn't let me do a full restore but could recover from file corruption and deletions in error.

Finally, to cover the scenario of fire, flooding or another burglary I set up JungleDisk as a remote backup system of my home folder (less music and movies). This uses Amazon S3 as a low cost reliable online storage system 'in the cloud'. The Mac client was a bit flakey originally but now is superb and I can highly recommend it though I have turned off encryption to prevent lock-in improve speed. The initial backup took an extremely long time, days, but now nightly backups only upload changes. This plus a move to 20MB broadband has made JungleDisk completely practical.

Back to those LaCie drives… Unfortunately, while the 800MB connection was fast, the many drives and RAID software meant initial access after they had gone to sleep or on a reboot was painfully slow… minutes in fact. I also found the software RAID to not be particularly reliable if one of the disks experienced problems. This may have been compounded by each LaCie 1TB disk actually having two hard drives inside it. Throw in the cables and three power adaptors involved and I wasn't happy about the setup or its power consumption.

Enter the Drobo, a clever drive system which uses RAID-like features to store your data across up to 4 drives which are removable and upgradeable. Even better this was all handled on the Drobo, no software was needed on the computers accessing it. I had been watching this for a while, aware of my growing storage requirements however on launch it had been USB 2 only and I knew only Firewire 800 would meet my needs.

Lo and behold they released an updated version with FW800 and I was tempted. When one of my LaCie drives started to have trouble I quickly resolved to buy the Drobo. To be fair to LaCie I've used many external drives and I personally have found LaCie drives to be excellent, quiet and fast. They also come with all the cables you need which I find to be a very decent touch, especially when there are three or four types they include for all the possible connectors. Yet drives do die and comparing the cost of a new LaCie, or the wait on warranty, versus getting a new 1TB drive for the Drobo only further makes the case for Drobo. I bought the very quiet and low energy Western Digital Caviar Green Power 1TB drives. The price on Amazon seems to keep dropping giving an excellent cost per GB.

The Drobo and Green Power drives were extremely easy to set up. The Drobo was nicely presented in a Mac-like fashion. The only minor quibble was that the provided software didn't alert me to new versions being available despite saying it had checked. A manual download from Drobo resolved this and now I'm delighted with how fast, quiet and painless using the Drobo has been. With two 1TB disks formatted as a single Drobo partition I have SuperDuper backing up to a sparse image every other night. I also have Time Machine continually backing up to a sparse disk image thanks to Erik Barzeski's investigations' which I came to via the always excellent Jon Gruber.

One thing worth noting that I didn't see mentioned on Erik's post is that you can't restore from your Drobo Time Machine backup via the swishy star warp interface (for want of a better name!). You need to manually mount the disk image and use the Finder to copy over the files you need. Not as cute but I've tested it and it works fine.

So now I have one local gadget, the Drobo, and JungleDisk in the cloud for all my backup needs. Less cables, less power adaptors and less hassle. I certainly don't want to see any more burlars but I'm glad I rethought my backups. Please have a look at what you're doing to protect your data too.

UPDATE 23/1/09: Paul Owen points me to a comment on Erk's Drobo post which shows that the 'warp interface' can still be used in fact:

When you want to restore a file from a sparse bundle, mount the sparse bundle manually. Then option-click the TM icon in the menu bar. You'll notice that the “Enter Time Machine” entry has changed to “Browse Other Time Machine Disks”. Use this option, navigate to your sparse bundle and — lo and behold — all your backups are there.

I have also decided to keep using a single LaCie disk as another offsite backup, I update it with SuperDuper every month or so and store it at my parents' house. It's painfree and just adds another level of comfort in case my Drobo is stolen/destroyed and restore from JungleDisk is problematic.