Getting started with an online backup service for your Mac

Whether you got an online backup subscription as a holiday gift or just decided it’s time to have your backup offsite, it’s a good idea to keep your data protected, and one that will never go out of style. There are, however, good ways and bad ways to go about getting started. Here’s the right way.

Get settled in for the long haul

One of the key downsides of online backup is the time it takes to actually get your initial backup into the cloud. Some companies such as CrashPlan and DollyDrive¬†allow you to ship a physical hard drive to “seed” your backup, greatly reducing the amount of data that needs to be transferred online initially.
If you aren’t with these companies or want an alternative, you can create a tiered backup strategy. If you do it all at once, it can take months and you’ll find you’re missing key files when you need them. Here’s what I typically recommend in terms of a staged approach for the average user:
1. Work first. Realize that while most people say pictures are the most important items to back up, those typically take the longest to upload. I prefer to start with the Documents folder. These typically are probably the hardest to recreate, as well as being time sensitive. This is the folder you’re also working in most often, so you may be more likely to accidentally overwrite things. If you use Outlook (s msft) or Entourage, exclude the Microsoft User Data as the database for those email programs tends to be huge.
Keep an eye on the backup program, and make sure it not only successfully backed up that initial folder, but is also correctly backing up changes daily. Typically this takes just a few days. Once you have that folder backing up, the next folder I suggest is the Desktop folder. For convenience (and a bit of poor training), many users keep documents on the desktop rather than the Documents folder.
2. App and system settings. Next is the Application Support and Preferences folder in your user library folder. These contain the settings for your various programs as well as some supporting data files.
After you’ve got those critical files happily updating it’s time for the bigger folders such as email and the rest of your library folder. Email, of course is very important and annoying if lost, but often it’s already stored elsewhere, like on your email provider’s servers.
3. Photos and home video. Once you’ve got the documents and various support files and folders, it’s time to tackle the photos. More and more users keep copies (albeit at a lower quality) on services such as Facebook and Flickr(s yhoo), as well as sync photos to their iPhone, so it probably isn’t so urgent for most. What I do recommend is to spend some time and back up your photos manually by periodically burning them to disc from iPhoto. Be sure to keep these disks offsite in case of disaster, maybe with friends or family.
4. Music last — or not at all. Finally, after these elements are successfully updating each day, it’s time to back up the rest of your hard drive and can go with the software’s suggested recommendations. You might think about excluding your iTunes folder, however. With iCloud¬†and iTunes Match, you might consider waiting on these folders or not backing it up at all. A large media library can choke a backup system for months without a large return on investment. While Carbonite or Mozy is trying to back up a movie you ripped off of DVD to entertain the kids on your last road trip, it’s missing the actual pictures from the trip. Which are more important?

General tips

A general recommendation I have for the initial load is to upgrade your broadband speed, at least for a month or so. Most companies will give you a free trial period of around 30 days at a higher speed in hopes you keep the service. Take advantage of that and upload like crazy, although be careful if you use a metered service not to exceed your monthly bandwidth limit.
Make sure your Mac doesn’t go to sleep during the initial backup period. I’ve seen clients subscribe to an online service and never get an initial backup because the computer is shut down when not in use. Unfortunately, they often learn this when they try to restore after a disaster. Ouch.
Each hard drive is unique, so your data may not conform to these guidelines, but consider a game plan for your initial backup and make sure that you stagger that backup so at least something new is being backed up every month. Nothing hurts more than to have a data disaster and find you’ve been paying for a service and it hasn’t been backing up the stuff you want.