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How to use an old Mac as a backup server

Keep backups and store information safely

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What to back up

Part of the backup battle is figuring out what you should and shouldn’t back up. If you don’t have a lot of data and do have plenty of storage, there’s no harm in backing up your entire Home folder. As long as you store your important data within this folder, you’re set. However, if you routinely store data outside of your Home folder, at the root level of your hard drive for example, you should consider moving it to within that Home folder or prepare to configure your backup software so that it looks in such nooks and crannies for your data.

If, however, you’re backing up multiple Macs and all of them have a significant amount of data on them, you must be choosier. At this point, ask yourself this important question: Which of this data will cause me to burst into tears when it’s lost? For many people the resulting list will contain these items: Personal photos and videos, email, financial data, in-progress work projects, personal creative projects, contacts, calendar events and bookmarks.

Now work your way through descending layers of potential regret. For example, if you’ve purchased a lot of content from the iTunes Store (music and videos rather than books and apps, as you can easily redownload the latter) or spent weeks ripping your CD collection, you’ll want a backup of this content somewhere. On the other hand, you can probably exclude the college papers you penned in the mid-90s and that archive of jokes forwarded to your AOL account. Additionally, if you have your application installers (or can easily download them) you needn’t back up your applications nor their support files, iDVD’s themes and GarageBand’s loops come to mind.


There are many backup options available to you. Apple’s Time Machine couldn’t be easier to use and is a solid solution for single computer backups. Both Bombich Software’s free Carbon Copy Cloner and Shirt Pocket Software’s SuperDuper are solid choices for making bootable backups.

For straightforward backups of multiple Macs I prefer Econ Technologies’ ChronoSync. If you have a mixed environment of Macs and PCs (running Windows and/or Linux) the venerable Retrospect 8 (now owned by Roxio) is a good, though occasionally complicated, option.


Although its name hints that it’s a synchronisation tool, with version 4 ChronoSync became a more powerful backup tool. At its most basic you choose a source, a folder on your Mac for example, and a destination, which might be the external hard drive attached to your Mac. Click the Synchronise button and the selected source files are copied to the destination in their current state as individual files and folders, making it easy to restore just the files you want.

But it can also back up the data from Macs on the network. Simply mount the drive of a networked Mac, choose it or a directory on it as the source and then select a destination, again the backup drive attached to your Mac running as a backup server. When choosing a networked drive you can ask ChronoSync to mount it if it’s unmounted. (You have the option to store the username and password necessary to mount the server so that ChronoSync doesn’t prompt you for this information when it performs the backup.) ChronoSync can also be configured to unmount the drive when the backup is complete.

ChronoSync provides options for deleted and updated files. Enable the Synchronise Deletions option and any files you delete from the source will also be deleted on the backup. Enabling the Archive Replaced Files option instructs ChronoSync to keep a copy of all the revisions of a file. So, much as you can with Time Machine, you can visit ChronoSync’s archive area and retrieve older versions of documents.

Although ChronoSync can mount networked drives and volumes, for a multi-Mac backup setup I’ve found it wisest to install a copy of the company’s ChronoAgent on each Mac I wish to back up. ChronoAgent brings a couple of advantages. First, it communicates directly with ChronoSync. This direct connection allows it to scan files more quickly than it can using the normal AFP or SMP network protocols. It also allows ChronoSync access to the entire contents of a Mac’s drive rather than just approved folders and directories. ChronoSync, mounting and backing up network volumes by itself, may encounter permission issues. When used with ChronoAgent you don’t have these issues.

Also, those Macs running ChronoAgent can be configured to back up their data as soon as they connect to your network. This is handy for backing up laptops that have returned from a road trip or have been unavailable during a scheduled backup.


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