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OS X Online Backup (Intro)

March 19, 2007

Online backup lets you backup your Mac to a secure remote server, using “spare bandwidth” from your broadband connection when there isn’t something else going on.

It’s a great idea, and there are really only three problems with most of the options out there for Macs — they usually exhibit some combination of being expensive, slow, or having limited capacity.

Linux server jocks, on the other hand, often take advantage of rsync, and a couple of great online storage facilities that support it — cheaply.

Rsync is a wonderful tool — it quickly compares files on both ends of a connection, and only sends the differences. This works clear down on the byte-by-byte level – if two copies of a file are different by 100 bytes, that’s all that gets sent.

Several firms specialize in selling industrial quality rsync backup cheaply. One of the best known is probably BQ Backup, who will sell you 100GB of rsync-able storage for only $20 per month (or 10GB for $5). There are competing vendors, and even those who resell BQ Backup at an even lower price.


As you may know, since OS X is genuine Unix underneath, and as such, has rsync built right in.

Unfortunately, most of these great rsync backup services are very sparse on instructions (they’re aimed at people who know this stuff like the back of their hand), or if they do have instructions, they’re aimed at Linux users, which are somewhat different than the Macs we know and love.

In this series, I’ll give you step by step instructions for setting up rsync to use one of these accounts. When we’re done, you should have a Mac that backs itself up each day to cheap, secure online storage, without ever disrupting your other activities.

Materials needed

  1. A broadband connection. Moving this much data, even over a broadband connection, is slow. If you’re not on DSL, a cable modem, fiber or similar connection, this probably isn’t for you.
  2. A Mac running OS X. This was tested on OS X 10.4.8 — it should probably work on most 10.3 or 10.4 systems, but I’ve not tested it — if you try it, please leave a comment to let us all know how it came out.
  3. An account at an rsync backup service. I’ve set up an account with Talanov Media, who resell BQ Backup at a slightly cheaper rate yet — $4/mo for 10GB to $15/mo for 100GB. These instructions are written assuming a Talanov Backup account, although you can probably edit them to suit most any similar service by comparing them to the instructions for using Linux on that service. Again, if you give this a try, please leave a comment.
  4. An FTP program that supports secure FTP (SFTP). I use Panic’s excellent Transmit program ($30, and well worth it), although many people are very fond of the freeware Cyberduck package. Whatever fits your taste and budget is fine. You’ll use Secure FTP (SFTP) to verify that your backups are doing what you expect when you first start, and it’s also the tool you’ll want to use in most cases to restore a file from the backup.
  5. An ability to follow instructions where indicated, and to perhaps improvise where necessary if you’re using a different system or tools.

Caveat — I make no guarantees of the fitness of these instructions for backup or any other purpose; use them at your own risk. If you lose your data, destroy your Mac, or cause an increase in sunspot cycles, I’m not responsible, m’kay?

In the next post in this series, we cover how to set up and test the connection to the backup server using SSH and rsync.

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