Apple’s Leopard backup breakthrough

A string of columns could be filled writing about the many interesting features of Apple's OS X 10.5. To my mind, its integrated, automatic backup — Time Machine — is by far the most significant.

Much virtual ink has been spilled in recent weeks cataloguing various elements of what Apple claims are some 300 new features included in the 10.5 release of OS X. While a string of columns could be filled writing about its many interesting features, to my mind, its integrated, automatic backup — Time Machine — is by far the most significant.

One can argue the relative productivity benefits of Apple’s OS X 10.5 Leopard vs. Microsoft’s Vista. While Leopard has integrated the “cover flow” flip-the-pages of the iPhone and the new iPod touch, Vista has its own set of features. Often, the difference can come down to personal preference. And evaluating these features with respect to the enterprise is yet another matter.

When it comes to productivity, however, I don’t think anyone would argue that losing hours (or days) of work when an application, system or disk crash wipes out files is about the biggest drain to productivity imaginable -- and that doing something significant to avoid such situations would be a worthy goal.

Aside from developing good work habits — saving and backing up often — there isn’t much that can be done to avoid these situations. Traditional backup programs typically run at set times, and while files can be restored, the interface to do that is often unfriendly and brings with it the very real possibility that a “restore” could wipe out other important information if the restore process is not executed properly. Enter Time Machine.

As the iPod revolutionized portable music and the iPhone set a new standard with mobile phones, so does Time Machine change how we interact with our system and its data. And our data as it existed an hour ago, and each of the 23 hours before that, and yesterday and the 30 days before that --- and every week before that until our backup disk is full. With a 500GB portable USB drive going for less than $200, the storage economics that allow this to happen are a no-brainer.

Running Time Machine simply means turning it on and pointing to a volume that will hold the data repository. Period. Truly a “set and forget” — until you realize that you need to recover a file.

When you invoke Time Machine to track down a wayward file, you are presented with the same “Finder” window that one uses to locate files “in the present.” Only now the user is presented with the ability to see the contents of the drive as they existed in the past. Unlike most restore programs I’ve seen over the years, which present a “batch” approach to choosing and restoring a file, Time Machine offers the instantly intuitive, nonthreatening ability to poke around in the past. If you find what you are looking for, you click “restore” to recover just the files you want. Dead easy.

Although I’ve chosen a portable USB drive as my target, it appears the Time Machine repository can sit on any drive you have access to. You don’t need to dedicate a drive to Time Machine, and because of the way Apple structures the backup repository, it would appear that multiple people can target the same drive (though I haven't explored the security implications of doing so).

This is a personal rather than a corporate-class backup, but its benefits are so substantial it is hard to ignore.

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