Idea for the next generation of computers: automatic backups on a second internal hard drive

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
May 4th, 2005 • 4:23 am

In my experience as a Macintosh technical support person, there are a few recurring patterns. One of the key topics that I have to discuss again and again with my clients is the issue of file backups. There are simply far too many computer users who never back up their files — and then they get hit by a hard drive failure and everything is irretrievably lost.

The fact that most computers include a CD or DVD burner doesn’t help. It doesn’t take long to build up a collection of many gigabytes of files, and it simply takes too much work to sort through these files and back up the “important” ones on CD or DVD.

User-friendly software titles such as Apple’s own Backup application don’t help either. First of all, they are an additional expense. And then they are still too complicated to configure and require setting up a backup schedule, making sure that your computer is running when the backup is scheduled, etc.

Yet, when you think about it, we really do have all the necessary tools at our disposal to provide users with a transparent backup system that requires no effort on their part. Reading John Siracusa’s excellent article on Mac OS X 10.4 and especially his section on Spotlight, you get a pretty clear sense that Spotlight is just the beginning of an effort to develop system software that takes full advantage of the potential of the existing hardware.

Much in the same way that Spotlight is capable of detecting the creation of any new file anywhere on your system and index it in real time and transparently as soon as you’ve created it, I think it does not take too much imagination to envision a system that would be able to detect any new file anywhere on your system and create a backup of it instantly as soon as you’ve created it.

The only thing that’s missing? A second hard drive. There is no point in creating a backup copy of a file on the same hard drive as the original. If the hard drive fails, your backup is toast. On the other hand, the likelihood of two different hard drives failing at the exact same time is rather small. It can still happen, of course. If your computer is damaged by lightning or flooding or a fire, a secondary hard drive in the same physical location as the main one won’t help. For such situations, nothing can replace a backup in another physical location.

But the vast majority of the hard drive failures that my clients experience do not involve such a disastrous scenario. Their hard drive simply fails.

If they had been using a Mac OS X system that had automatically and transparently created a backup of all their stuff on a secondary hard drive, then their files would have been safe. It’s as simple as that.

I can always recommend that they purchase an external FireWire hard drive and do regular backups manually or with some third-party software. But nothing will ever match the security provided by a system-level backup procedure that operates transparently with no user intervention.

Hard drives are pretty cheap these days. I bet that quite a few of my clients would be willing to pay a little extra and get a computer that’s slightly bigger (in order to physically hold two drives) in exchange for the security provided by such a system.

As Spotlight demonstrates, Apple clearly has the expertise required to implement such a system today. And the existing hardware is powerful enough. The only big issue is to make some decisions regarding hardware design and pricing. I’d really like to see a new line-up of Macintosh computers with “dual hard drive” machines and system software that automatically backs up everything.

It wouldn’t be a panacea. People would still have to create backups on removable media or on remote servers in order to guarantee the safety for their files. And such a system — which would automatically back up everything instantly — wouldn’t help in those cases where the user does something destructive to his/her data. (The destructive action would be backed up instantly as well.)

But it would help greatly. And it could be a good additional selling point for Macintosh computers.

2 Responses to “Idea for the next generation of computers: automatic backups on a second internal hard drive”

  1. mricart says:

    I think that what you’re asking for is called RAID, and is already built-in Mac OSX. I you go there:

    You’ll find this:
    Improved RAID
    Use disk utility for software RAID, now including mirrored, striped, concatenated, auto mirror rebuild and block size settings.

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    Maybe the RAID stuff does this — but it requires manual configuration, including a hard drive reformat, etc. I am talking about something that requires zero configuration.

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