Network Time Machine Backups: Moving on from the Time Capsule

Originally published at: Network Time Machine Backups: Moving on from the Time Capsule - TidBITS

Apple may have discontinued the Time Capsule, but many Mac users still need a network-based Time Machine backup. This article reviews what options exist and weighs their pros and cons.

7 Likes

Very nice article. :slight_smile:

But, speaking from my experience as a consultant, I find that the vast majority of laptop users, myself included, are unlikely to plug in a drive regularly.

Just a tip for other notebook users who might be in the same situation. Also in light of the article’s conclusion that there really is no product on the market that checks all the boxes for a desirable network TM solution.

If you regularly plug in your MB to charge, be it at the office or at home, you can make a local inexpensive backup work without any added effort. Just get a simple USB-C hub with PD passthrough and connect your USB drive and your charger cable to that. From then on, instead of plugging in your charger cable, just plug your hub into you MB. No extra effort required. Your MB will charge just the same, it will automount the attached USB disk, and TM will perform its thing. The only step to remember is to eject the TM disk before you disconnect your MB when you’re done charging.

Here’s a decent USB hub with passthrough for 100W power. $20.

5 Likes

Your article came about a week after I had to deal with the same thing! Luckily, I came to similar conclusions, even if I didn’t find all the options that you did.

We decided to replace our Final-generation Time Capsule with a mesh Wi-Fi network, so we needed something to replace the Time Machine functionality. I ended up taking an existing (large) hard drive and connecting it to my 27-inch iMac (2020), setting it up for sharing as a Time Machine volume. One benefit that you didn’t mention about using an Ethernet-connected Mac for Time Machine backups is that you can also use it for Content Caching, since both functions require the Mac to be on at all times. I’ve been using that functionality since Caching Server was first introduced, so this didn’t require any change in my routines. So far, so good.

2 Likes

Since this is a USB 2.0 solution, I don’t think the slow performance of a hard drive will matter that much.

For example, a Toshiba N300 (3.5" internal) HDD has a maximum data transfer rate of 230-270 MB/s (that is 1.8-2.1 Gbit/s, depending on model). This is far far faster than USB 2.0’s 480 Mbit/s maximum speed. Even lower-performing consumer desktop HDD’s (which, unfortunately, don’t publish performance specs) should have absolutely no problem keeping up with the slow speed of a USB 2.0 interface.

In other words, if you think USB 2.0 is acceptable, then I see no reason why you would consider an HDD unacceptable. Conversely, if you feel HDD performance is unacceptably slow, then anything with USB 2.0 will be even more unacceptable, ruling out the use of an AirPort Extreme router altogether.

It’s available for earlier versions of macOS via Apple’s macOS Server app.

Note, however, that modern versions of Server have far far less functionality than the older versions. If your system is running High Sierra or later, there is no point in getting Server - all of the features you’re likely to care about (e.g. Time Machine server) have been deleted and/or moved into the base macOS installation.

2 Likes

I also did that math; USB 2.0 is the bottleneck, even with smaller 5400 RPM drives. Yet, subjectively, it has been my experience that while it makes little difference for the intiial backup, subsequent incremental backups get through the “Preparing…” phase more quickly with an SSD, and that if your backups include numerous small files (e.g. a Mail or Outlook database), the SSD performs better as well.

With that said, I did not do any formal measurements or comparisons of SSD vs HD with an AirPort Extreme, especially with a high-performing hard drive like you describe, and there may be less difference than I imagine. My guidance here is based only on my impressions.

4 Likes

Fortunately, Paragon makes a $15 Mac utility called ExtFS

Where is it available at that price? On the Paragon page it’s listed at $39.95. I also checked whether there was a discount for TidBITS subscribers, but none is listed.

This particular model of Asus router requires the storage drive to be formatted with the older (but still adequate) Linux Ext3 file system, which it can do via its Web-based interface.

One can format an SSD in Ext4 on an Asus router, though admittedly it’s not for everyone. I managed it without any difficulty by following the excellent post: How to partition bigger than 2TB disk with GPT and ext4. I’m running Time Machine on it and it’s been rock solid.

1 Like

Actually…I’ve concluded that TM over the network is simply unreliable and basically useless for laptops that don’t have the drive plugged in all the time. I’ve tired to set it up at least 3 different times for our two laptops under various macOS versions back to Mojave and despite building the shares on the destinations exactly identically to each other and setting TM up identically…it just randomly fails to find the destination or doesn’t finish the backup.

After that…I rolled my own solution using CarbonCopyCloner and using the destination option of Remote Mac after creating a share for each laptop on both my late 2014 mini and 2019 iMac. I set the CCC jobs for daily and alternating between the two destinations…and they’ve worked perfectly for months. And best of all it’s a Finder readable backup instead of a .dmg file and the Safety Net function in CCC. I did setup TM with a spinning OWC drive that only periodically gets plugged in so that the automatic hourly local TM backups would happen in case I need to recover something…that won’t protect as well against a total drive failure as TM would but at least I know the backups work. I also have a pair of Samsung T7s setup for full disk clones automatically when they’re plugged in and those jobs email to remind us to plug them in weekly. Everything really important either lives in iCloud, DropBox, or on the iMac which is also the house file server and it’s got BackBlaze on it for offsite backup as well as local CCC jobs.

1 Like

My bad for not catching that. I’ve corrected the price now.

It’s a shame it was a mistake as I’d have bought it immediately at that price.

Amazing article! My takeaway is: Just plug a damn drive into the laptop.

2 Likes

Well, I have the WD MyCloud (Two Drive RAID) and have tried multiple times to use it as a Time Machine backup device for my MBP. Initially it works, but then after about a week or so, I get a message saying the backup is corrupted and I need to start over. I try again, and the same thing happens. Apparently the Sparse Bundle created to hold the backup is very fragile. I have now switched to CCC for backups - they strongly recommend against using a NAS for backups, and specifically recommend against the WD MyCloud device. I have CCC working now (without the snapshot functionality) on the WD MyCloud - but WD pushed out a firmware update to the device, and my CCC backups failed. This is not a good solution. I have considered just getting a MBA, connecting a SSD and using that, but the expense exceeds the value.

1 Like

You could still use the Time Capsule in this case, if the network has a spare ethernet port. You could switch the Time Capsule wifi off, optionally.

2 Likes

Is it a My Cloud, or a My Cloud Home? The latter is a totally different product, inside and out. I haven’t seen that degree of corruption and unreliability with the My Cloud Home, at least with the single drive unit.

MyCloud Mirror. Two drives in RAID configuration. It has the new OS5 software.

Disappointing to hear your experience. I haven’t used that product.

The My Cloud Home is a very different beast, with different software than all other My Cloud models. It does not run My Cloud OS at all. It’s performed ok for network Time Machine in the various places I’ve installed it, except for one where I suspect the unit is defective.

That said, its primary virtue and the reason I included it is that it requires zero configuration for network Time Machine, not that it’s a best of class device. If one doesn’t mind configuring a NAS, I’d opt for a Synology over the My Cloud Home.

I have lost too many files during my computing life, some of them valuable projects that cannot be reconstructed. I have always tried to maintain a stringent backup regime, but sometimes events overtake you, like the time when all external drives started failing catastrophically in very quick succession at a time of zero available funds.

I have looked at all kinds of configurations and for now have ended up with the following configuration for my M1 MBP 13":

Power is provided over an OWC three-way TB4 switch so only one TB cable to attach. The switch connects my MBP to three WD USB-3 12TB harddisks. Nr 1 is for the Time Machine backup. Nr 2 is for user data, mostly media files like movies, books etc (but also iOS and iPadOS iMazing backups) that far exceed the MBP’s 2TB internal storage, some 6TB in total at the moment. Nr 3 is the clone from Nr 2, updated by ChronoSync each night. Besides all of that, Backblaze is running in the background.

Time Machine backups are notably fast. The media storage is just there and its cloning is unobtrusive.

I use DriveDX for drive monitoring.

In all it isn’t perfect, but hopefully it will go some way into the future.

On a side note: I never automatically restore a machine from a full backup. I do a clean install and then reconstruct my account manually. Therefore I use DAS for my backups; no tinkering required for getting at my files.
eMail is in several clouds and will sync from there. Passwords will sync from my iCloud keychain and a few password managers. Photos, music, Safari data etc sync from iCloud. Reinstalling a machine anew is relatively easy this way. Avoiding reintroducing the crud a system inevitably accumulates over time is worth it.

2 Likes

This seems like an overly convoluted approach with regards to restoring. Despite Time Machine’s many quirks, I’ve found restoring over the network (preferably wired) to work very well. You can easily choose the Time Machine network share as a source from Recovery or during install with migration assistant. This seems a lot less janky Than trying to connect the network storage device directly to your Mac.

My current setup is a TrueNAS Mini running three 14 TB drives in a RAIDZ (single failure tolerance). This provides plenty of space to back up all my family’s Macs to the same destination, and also some Windows systems as well

That said, I’ve found network Time Machine backups do not scale well. As the images get bigger, they are slower to mount and unmount, and they inevitably seem to end up with some sort of corruption that requires rebuilding the backup.

My solution is to only back up the system configuration with Time Machine. I exclude all my user data. Basically applications and settings only. For user data (Documents, Music, Photos, etc), I use Carbon Copy Cloner and back up everything directly to my NAS device’s filesystem. ZFS is great for this as it has very flexible character and pathname support, and supports large file extended attributes, so Mac extended attributes can all be preserved as native ZFS attributes - even legacy Resource Forks. This is extremely fast and I don’t have to deal with any of the weirdness of using disk images on a network share.

Once a week, my TrueNAS box copies everything to BackBlaze B2 storage (including Time Machine disk images) using Duplicacy.

I also leverage ZFS snapshots - the backup volume is snapshotted daily. This is something I highly recommend because it helps avoid the situation where you go to restore only to find your Time Machine disk image became silently corrupt at some point in the past. This is easy to set up with TrueNAS, and also with Synology if you’re using btrfs.

In a total restore situation, I would first restore the Time Machine backup using the transfer data option during a fresh macOS install, than copy over the user data with Carbon Copy Cloner.

1 Like

Yep…that’s one of the errors I kept getting…hence my move to my own CarboyCopyCloner solution.

So many disadvantages to the My Cloud Home that it would not be an attractive option for me. I did go to the WD Support Site and they have a support document (Answer ID 977) that shows the differences between My Cloud and My Cloud Home. Interesting in that it shows My Cloud Home as using OS 4. And it shows both My Cloud and My Cloud Home as supporting Time Machine backups. I know it doesn’t work on My Cloud Mirror which is what I have.

Actually, I think I will go back to connecting an external SSD each night for an overnight CCC backup. It’s not a lot of trouble - I just keep forgetting to do it! It is much easier to restore from the attached SSD. (I don’t have a need for frequent backups on my MBP 16 Max - the stuff I really care about is in iCloud.) My iMac Pro is connected to an external SSD also for CCC backups.

The My Cloud Mirror does work well for file storage (my photos) and is available for all devices connected to my local WiFi network.

Very interesting article - the first I have seen that really goes into detail on NAS used for backups.

David

2 Likes

That’s what I do, and CCC can remind you to–but only if you choose the “Run on disk appearance” option.

2 Likes