Send in the clones

hard_drive_with_cracksIs there a computer user worth his or her salt who has not experienced a hard drive failure and lost precious digital cargo? I’ve heard countless tales of woe around just such an event, and it’s happened to me once or twice over the years.

Sometimes there are options: utility programs that can rescue data from wonky hard drives; or service companies that can do it for you.

But often, when a drive crashes and burns, there’s no relief to be found. The data is lost, and the consequences can be devastating. Precious family photos and home movies, important documents, music collections, videos, applications, and other digital valuables can evaporate suddenly and without warning.

World Backup Day

Monday, March 31, was World Backup Day. Despite its proximity to April Fools Day, the theme of World Backup Day is no joke. But at the same time, we shouldn’t need a faux holiday to remind us that a backup strategy to prepare us for the inevitable demise of our computing hardware is critical.

Walt Mossberg has written a great article that describes his strategy, and the approach he maps out is excellent, if somewhat costly. I’m not going to repeat Mr. Mossberg’s strategy here, but it’s certainly worth a read.

Carbon Copy Cloner

What I want to do instead is sing the praises of an inexpensive but priceless tool that I use as a critical part of my backup strategy. It’s called Carbon Copy Cloner (C3), a program from Bombich Software.

With most shareware, C3 included, you can download and use applications without paying for them. Payment is usually on the honor system. In a way, it’s the purest form of commerce. If you find value in something, you should pay for it. If not, you shouldn’t have to.

Shareware developers need their users’ continued support, or they can’t continue to create and improve good software. So if you use it, pay for it. C3 is not just good software, however. It’s great software. I quickly found C3 so valuable and easy to use that I happily sent the developer his requested payment.

C3 works on Macs only

One important note about C3: it only works for Macs. There are cloning programs available for the Windows PC, but cloning a PC is a more complicated process.

On the Mac, however, the process with C3 couldn’t be much simpler. To use C3, all you need is the program and an external hard drive connected to your Mac. The hard drive has to have enough capacity to copy all the data on your main (internal) drive.

A clone is better than a copy

What C3 does is clone your entire system drive to the external drive. You don’t need to tell the program what to back up, because it backs up everything, making an identical, block-for-block replica of your system drive.

The added benefit of this is that the external drive is bootable, so you can continue being productive even if your system drive fails. All of your programs and data appear just as if you were working from your system drive.

Of course, the backup drive will likely not have the very latest data on it. Depending on when you last cloned your system drive, the data might be a day, a week, or a month old. That’s why it’s important to maintain a regular backup schedule, so you never lose more data than you can afford to lose.

How C3 works

First, you launch the program. I’ve placed C3 on my Dock so I can launch it with one click of the program icon.


Launching the program displays the main screen:

C3-mainBy default, the last settings that you entered are maintained. You select the source drive to be cloned. Then you select the destination drive, typically an external drive connected to your Mac via a USB, Thunderbolt, or Firewire cable.

In my setup, I’ve designated an external hard drive named “tech-52 Clone” as exclusively for backing up my main system drive, “tech-52 iMac”. So there is no data on the external hard drive that I’m worried about.

At this stage, you can simply click the Clone button:


When you do, C3 displays a warning that data on the destination drive may be deleted and requires you to confirm the process by clicking the Continue button:


When you click Continue, the Mac OS takes over and asks you to authenticate with your administrator name and password:

Enter your administrative password, and click OK to start the cloning process. C3 displays a progress screen that keeps you apprised of the process:


The first time you clone a hard drive, the cloning process can take several hours. It depends on the amount of data being duplicated. As a point of reference, the tech-52 system drive has approximately 350 gigabytes of data on it.

The good news is the second and subsequent times you clone your hard drive, C3 is smart enough to only copy the files that have changed since the last time you ran the process. I typically clone my hard drive once a week, and the process usually only takes about 20 minutes.

When the cloning process is completed, C3 displays:


Click OK, and you’re done. Well almost.

Paranoia is good

In backups, paranoia is a good thing. What I mean by that is it’s always good to confirm that your clone was made successfully, at least the first couple of times you do it.

The best way to do that is to ensure that you can boot your Mac from your clone. Go to System Preferences, select Startup Disk, and select the external drive that contains your clone:


Then click Restart. Your Mac should boot up from the clone, and everything should look and behave exactly the same as your normal system drive. I suggest not making too many changes to the data on the clone, as you may want to restore from it down the road.

To finish, go back to System Preferences and reset your internal system drive as your Startup Disk, then restart again.

It’s a comfortable feeling to know that you have the clone available. And provided you clone your system drive once a week or so, you should be in good shape.

Make cloning part of an entire backup strategy

But remember that paranoia thing? Bad things can, and often do, happen. Cloning is only one part of a good backup strategy. If your house burns down, or the equipment is stolen from your home, or a lightning strike fries all your connected drives, a cloned external drive is not going to be of help.

You could power down and disconnect the external drive, store it in a secure location, and bring it home once a week to repeat the cloning process.

You could also employ an inexpensive cloud backup solution, such as Dropbox, to store your irreplaceable files. Dropbox gives you 2GB of space for free, but after that you have to pony up a few dollars. There’s a lot of competition in the cloud storage area, so look around for the best deals. But also make sure the service you select is reliable and will be around for the long haul.

An offsite backup plus a cloud solution equals a solid backup strategy. While it can seem like a lot of work, you’ll be glad you had this redundancy that one time when you experience a hard drive failure.

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