Time Machine Backups on Apple Hardware is a Paradox

Posted on April 13, 2012


TimeMachine on Synology

What is Time Machine?

You’ve got to give it to Apple and their wonderful ability to make something as mundane and dreaded as backing up your computer through an archaic interface and turn it into a very cool sexy feature that is actually fairly easy to setup and a joy to use!  Time Machine is Apple’s backup utility that is included with all OS X macs. If you own a Mac the easiest way to use your built in Time Machine is with Apple Time Capsule, a wireless network router with built in NAS storage.  It does Time Machine backups for your Macs right out of the box.  For most folks that never used to back up their Macs this works just fine. Apple offers Time Capsule in two different hard drive sizes: 2TB ($299 USD) and 3TB ($499 USD).  You could save $180 by buying Apple’s Airport Extreme Base Station ($179 USD) and USB connect an external 3 TB hard drive ($140).  Apple’s Airport Extreme is the precursor to Time Capsule that is still sold.  That said, Apple has responded to some users saying that the Airport Extreme is not an officially supported Time Machine backup solution.  You can read more about the issue here.

If you want to read the best FAQ on how Time Machine work’s check out James Pond’s website covering all things Mac and Time Machine.

Why your Time Capsule should already be buried…

However if you are like a growing number of us with multiple Macs, a dramatic increase in the number of family photos and videos you are taking, and to all the music and movies you are buying on iTunes you will find that you are quickly running out of the backup drive space Apple gave you. Despite 4 revisions of Time Capsule with ever increasing hard drive space, the current 3 TB model isn’t enough.  Adding additional external USB hard drives formatted in Apple’s HFS+ drive format also presents its own issues regarding that your backups are not safe from data loss if Time Capsule’s drive fails. Apple should have come out with a true Apple NAS to address this issue, but their attention has been focused on iPhones and iPads lately. This has left legions of loyal Mac users scrambling for a better solution than the Morlocksthey are finding today.  Time capsules are something better off buried and forgotten and used for their home wireless and router functionality than as a viable Time Machine backup solution.

Apple’s band aids so far:

  • Add a USB powered hub to your Time Capsule or Airport Extreme and then add multiple external USB HFS+ formatted drives and try to jerry rig your backups across these collection of mismatched drives.  This was the path I took that lead me down this journey and ultimately to creating my first blog on the solution I found.  You can read more about my pain in my first post.
  • Use Apple’s iTunes Match to offload your iTunes collection to the clouds, but that costs $25 a year, and has a host of streaming issues where you end up re-downloading the music again anyways, so you don’t really ever get rid of the music on your hard drive. iTunes match doesn’t offer cloud storage of movies and TV shows bought on iTunes, so any real disk space saving of dumping your iTunes library isn’t possible for now.
  • Apple’s new iCloud service has raised questions if this is Apple’s online alternative to local Mac OS X Time Machine backups.   For now, nothing could be further from the truth!  Apple gives you 5GB free, but you can only get an additional 50 GB more and that will cost you $100 USD a year.  Apple doesn’t allow OS X backups to the iCloud.  Even if they did, doing a restore on a Mac’s 1 TB hard drive is not something you would want to do over iCloud anyways because it would take too long.  Do the math -Check your Internet speed and type the drive size in the up/download calculator.  In my case with enhanced Comcast cable at a blazing 35Mbps I calculated that it would take 65 hours to restore a 1 TB drive!  With my Synology the data would transfer in under 13 minutes!  Until internet speeds improve or Apple offers next day shipping of a replacement hard drive for your Mac with your data preinstalled I don’t see online backups being useful for anything other than iPhones/iPads.

Solving the Time Travel Paradox using a True NAS

What is a NAS?  It is what the Time Capsule should have been.  A true NAS (Network-Attached Storage) is a dedicated data storage device optimized for handling files with a simple setup compared to a full blown network server. The key reasons of why you would want a true NAS to do your Time Machine backups instead of Apple’s Time Capsule come down to these issues.

  1. Your data is safe because it is backed up.  Apple’s Time Capsule has no ability to recover from it’s own hard drive failure.  The purpose of using Time Machine is the ability to backup up your data in case of drive failure or accidental file deletion, so why would you backup to a device that itself wasn’t designed to protect your data.  Most NAS devices offer the ability to configure multiple hard drives to share redundant data in case one of the drives fail.  You can then simply swap out the bad drive with a new one and recover without any data loss.NAS uses RAID configured drives that allow 1 or more hard drives to fail without losing your data.
  2. Your data is secure because it is encrypted.  Time Capsule currently has no support for encrypting it’s internal drive.  A good NAS offers AES level encryption on it’s drives.  This keeps backups protected from others.
  3. You can expand as your backup needs grow.  The coolest feature about Time Machine is the fact that you can go back in time to any previous backup it has made.  How cool would it be to take your Mac back to 1984!  Unfortunately as Time Capsule runs out of space the first thing it does is delete the oldest backup.  In many cases that is your cleanest moment your Mac ever was before you installed everything!  A 4 drive bay NAS offers four times the storage possibilities as Time Capsule.  Some NAS manufactures offer RAID formatting that lets you swap a smaller drive with a larger drive and have the NAS automatically rebuild itself to use the new storage while still doing it’s backup duty.  Truly impressive and what a NAS is designed for – network attached storage.

Time Machine as a backup program is definitely thought out better than Time Capsule as a NAS.  When I started looking at NAS devices I didn’t want to stop using Time Machine for backups so finding a NAS that supported Apple’s backup program was critical. If you want to read about how to choose a NAS feel free to look at my earlier posts, but my end decision was to choose Synology DiskStation as my NAS. My next post will be on how to configure a Synology DiskStation NAS for use with Apple’s Time Machine.

Stay Tuned, or Travel Forward In Time My Friend…