A few months ago, I posted asking for help planning for a laptop-centric lifestyle. Specifically, I was hoping to get some insight into what sort of NAS to use for Time Capsule-style wireless Time Machine backups.
My laptop has arrived, and in a couple weeks, I’ll be done with my iMac Pro. My wife uses a MacBook Air, so we’ll both be on portable machines. I’d love to have a wireless Time Machine solution. So I’ve been doing more research into it. After reading this MPU forum post about the difficulties of restoring Time Machine over the network, and this Tidbits article about different wireless backup options for Mac, I feel drawn to the Mac mini as a wireless Time Machine / file server. It sounds like most NAS solutions, including Synology, are really great at backing up your files, but not always great at restoring your files. And restoring files is really where the rubber meets the road.
Here’s what I saw as the advantages:
easier restores in the case of catastrophes (this is the biggest one), along with access to APSF and HFS+ file systems for the external drives
I’d get the power of M1, which is nice since the MacBook Air is also M1 and my new laptop is an M1 Max. They’d play well together, in theory.
I don’t need to buy new external drives and could keep using our existing backups
Backblaze would reliably back up this Mac mini.
I priced out the Synology along with the drives I’d outfit it with, along with extFS for Mac, and I’m pretty close (in Canadian dollars) to the price of a refurb M1 Mini.
Are there any cons to using an M1 Mini for remote Time Machine drives and/or an external archive disk?
It should be noted: I do not need remote access to these files, and the M1 can sit on or under my desk and be plugged into the Studio Display if it never needs to be.
I tried an Mac mini as a remote time machine device a few years back. It was ok. The only problem was, every few months I would get a notice that the backup was no good and it hard to create a new backup. When I switched to local I never had that problem. I am thinking about going back to remote, as others have said it’s been more reliable lately.
For my NAS backups I use Carbon Copy Cloner. This way the file structure is exactly the same on both devices and restorations should be simpler.
You would only need this if you pulled the drives out of the Synology and accessed them via a USB drive (and that’s assuming you didn’t format them as BTRFS). If you’re accessing over the network, SMB does all the hard work for you and no additional software is required.
No, but an M1 has no advantage over an Intel Mac in this situation. Serving files doesn’t require a lot of horsepower. A Mac that you wouldn’t want to use for email and browsing the web could be used as a home file server, IMO.
It’s been my experience that a Mac mini is a better choice for a remote Time Machine solution than a NAS. However the problem @mitchell3417 describes is a common one. I have run TM on multiple minis and Drobos and they all eventually failed.
Have you ever had to restore via CCC over the network? Can you share anything about your experience there? I’ve used SuperDuper but not CCC; is it safe to assume it’s similar?
It is somehow cheaper to buy a refurb M1 mini here than it is to buy a used Mac mini locally, so I’ll probably end up with an M1. More importantly though: Did your TM backups fail silently, or did you get a notification? My experience has been that TM fails silently during local use, which drives me nuts, so I’ve also relied on SuperDuper. (Although it seems everybody uses CCC for remote backups, so maybe I should too.)
I’m not sure why Wayne has had better experiences, but what got me down this rabbit whole was a Tidbits article. Specifically, read about the difficulties of restoring from Synology. The tl;dr:
wireless restores often fail
unless you use third party software and hack your way through it, taking a hard drive out of a NAS and plugging it in for a local restore is difficult or nearly impossible because the Synology uses an incompatible Linux-based file system
For me, restoring is much more important than backing up. I’ve needed to restore a couple times after catastrophes, and my Mac runs my business. Any downtime costs me money. So a slow and unreliable network restore is out of the question.
I forget the reason they gave, but the help documents for ChronoSync state that a remote Mac is a better choice for ChronoSync backups than a NAS. I think it had something to do with benefits of the native file system. Speed was one benefit. If using a NAS, ChronoSync recommends mounting a sparse bundle on the NAS. That is for ChronoSync backups, though, and I don’t know if the same holds true for Time Machine.
In every case a user would get an error message that backups were failing. In describing Time Machine Apple says “The oldest backups are deleted when your backup disk is full.” This failed to happen every time a user exceeded their available storage on their Drobo. The only solution was to delete the entire backup and set up Time Machine again. It also happened on a Mac mini I was using, just not to every user that filled their storage.
Eventually I gave up on TM backups and started backing up most of these users once a day using the same system we were using for our servers. Our president had approximately 450GB of personal photos on his Mac so I backed up his computer twice a day to another Mac using Chronosync and ChronoAgent. I’ve been using Chronosync for many years. It is fast and reliable.
Time Machine is far from perfect but when it works, it’s great, so I use it as my first line of defense. But I also run daily and weekly Carbon Copy Cloner backups to a set of (currently) six external drives that I manually plug in on a rotating basis. And, finally, I have started doing a weekly backup via Arq to their cloud storage. (I used to rotate a backup drive to a safe deposit box every two months, so even a weekly offsite cloud backup is an improvement.)
Time Machine is a native app on Macs and an add on to everything else that offers TM support. I consider TM a 90% solution. So, IMO, if Apple cannot deliver a rock solid backup on their own hardware how can a third party?
I still back up locally to TM because it is the easiest way to recover quickly in the case of a total failure. But I also backup to a local drive and to the cloud using Arqbackup. And I do test restores from each system on a regular basis.
Thanks to the native Mac file systems, if a Mac mini or older Mac is feasible, that would potentially make a better backup server than a NAS.
I ought to use CCC or Chronosync, either instead of or in addition to Time Machine (whatever is more feasible based on budget and the hard drive setup over time). CCC in particular sounds like it facilitates easy backups to remote drives and easy restores from local drives.
I know there are, technically, thing I’m missing out on by not using a NAS: out-of-the-box RAID (although I’ve had some bad RAID experiences that make me less likely to trust it), easy web servers, etc. But if I mostly just care about making sure I have reliable backups for two laptops, it sounds like NAS would require more maintenance than I’m willing to give it. Do I have the right read on that?
I use an Intel Mac mini with a big OWC RAID array as my home server. I previously used a NAS (Drobo, in my case) and had found the mini with lots of attached external storage to fit my needs much better. There are certain things that don’t work well on a network share (Photos and iTunes libraries, for example). Having them directly attached to a Mac gives me confidence that I’ll have a full local copy of these. The fact that my big pot of storage is directly attached to a Mac also makes online backup much easier. Just install Backblaze and pay for one of their unlimited storage plans. IMO, a Mac mini with sufficient attached storage makes a much better home server solution than a NAS.
That said, I have never found Time Machine over the network to be reliable. This has been true whether the target was a Time Capsule, NAS, or a network share from another Mac. I’ve switched to Arq for my network backups. It’s been far more reliable and consistent for me so far.
Chris, I hoped you’d chime in! I had a feeling you might have experience with this. Thanks for your feedback; this is all very helpful.
I’m still confused about what backup solution is best. Time Machine has failed me before, so it wouldn’t be the only one I use. I’m looking towards CCC, but curious what you use Arq for in this case. Is it just for quickly moving manually selected files from one machine to another, or do you make automated backups with Arq?
I would argue the other way - the uptime on my NAS is currently at 26 days, and Synology emails me to let me know when there are updates for the pacakges I’ve installed so it’s set and forget pretty much. I don’t have to keep logging in or connecting a screen to a Mac to check if it’s working (or worry to much about remote desktop connections) or to check and install updates.
Note your comments about accessing the hard drives externally from the NAS - this may rule out using RAID on the NAS.
Arq is a full backup solution and is my preferred backup method. I have it access my NAS and save data to it every hour - similar to Time Machine. However, it’s never failed me, but Time Machine has. I’ve a local hard drive setup as a time machine drive, but that’s overkill really.
Fundamentally, Arq is a backup product that does incremental backups (only saves things when they are changed) and stores a versioned backup history (you can go back in time to retrieve files you’ve deleted or previous versions of files that you’ve changed). This is essentially the same fundamental feature set as Time Machine.
The difference is that Time Machine can only store files on a directly attached drive or a network share (and as discussed, the latter doesn’t really work well). Arq can store files in a huge variety of online storage services.
Because of this, it seems like most people using Arq are using it more as a replacement for an online service like Backblaze. However, Arq can also back up to locally attached drives or network shares, meaning it can be used as a replacement for Time Machine as well.
In my case, I use Arq as a replacement for Time Machine’s dodgy network backup capabilities. I run Arq on my Mac Studio and MacBook Pro, backing them up to my Mac mini (via SFTP, so I don’t have to worry about network drive mounting issues).
All three computers also get backed up to Backblaze. The Studio and the mini’s SSD get cloned every night using CCC and some of the files on the mini’s RAID array get backed up to a rotating pair of external hard drives every week.
This is all a very good point, but as you also note, accessing backups locally prevents me from using RAID on a NAS, and for me I think probably rules it out (and that was part of the “maintenance” I was thinking of was the restore process, but I should have used better language).
@ChrisUpchurch, thank you so much for that level of detail! That basically sounds like exactly how I want my setup to work. Sounds easy enough that I can more or less set and forget it. I’ve bookmarked your post for reference.