Many people think of the networking gear in their houses (cable or DSL modem, WIFI router) like plumbing: they get it all installed and set up and then forget about it as it runs in the background.
The problem with this thinking is that the amount of stuff we have moving through this “pipe” is increasing at a rapid rate. It was acceptable to have a 300 baud dial up modem in the old days for email and AOL but now that we have the internet and streaming video and voice over IP and all sorts of other stuff running through the same pipe, having a faster internet connection is important.
In short, we upgrade our computers from time to time to take advantage of new and faster processing power but we tend to not upgrade our home networks.
In fact, cable modems can be upgraded and cable internet services can be upgraded as well and it’s useful these days to look into that if you have a lot of stuff connected to your cable modem and home network: AirPort router, Apple TV, computers, printers, thermostats, etc.
Downstream of the cable modem is the router which tends to be a bigger bottleneck than a cable modem. I’ve been using Apple AirPort routers since they appeared and while I’ve sometimes been slow to upgrade them, I do consider upgrading them when newer models have faster speeds or more capabilities.
The latest model of the AirPort Extreme has been made taller to incorporate larger antennas for better coverage and the wifi protocol has been upgraded to 802.11ac to accommodate the increased use of streaming video. We’ve been using one since they came out over a year ago and it’s improved our network speeds considerably and given us much better coverage both in and outside our house.
I use SuperDuper! to back up my MacBook Pro and I back up my wife’s MacBook Air with it as well (on a separate disk). I also have a hard disk dedicated to Time Machine which I manually connect to my MacBook Pro daily to make a different kind of backup. I stared using Apple’s Time Machine religiously when I bought a new computer and Migration Assistant balked at recognizing my SuperDuper backup disk and I had to use my Time Machine backup disk to migrate my stuff onto the new machine.
A piece of me will always like the SuperDuper (or Carbon Copy Cloner) kind of backup better: you’re left with a disk that is essentially a clone of your computer and you can boot from it. This means that if your computer has a problem, you can easily boot another one from your backup and be back in business immediately.
However, Time Machine has it’s selling points as well, the most important of which (for me) is that it’s automatic, happens over the air, and once it’s set up and working, falls into the background.
Apple has combined a Time Machine hard disk and an AirPort Extreme router in a product called Time Capsule which looks identical to an AirPort Extreme router except it’s got a 2 or 3TB hard disk in it.
This product has appealed to me for years but there’s something about having a hard disk built into a device in a way that makes it tough to replace that scares me. And, what happens when you buy a new Time Capsule to replace an old one? How easy or awkward is it to move your backups to a new one?
It would seem to me that it might be better to connect an external hard disk to the AirPort Extreme and treat it as a Time Capsule. This way you get the benefit of over the air backups but can replace or even remove (for safe keeping) the hard disk.
Experiments and what I learned
File sharing has been possible with AirPort Extreme routers for a long time now. You can plug a USB hard disk into the router, find it on your home network, and copy files to and from it. However, the Time Machine software would not work with disks connected this way. No doubt there were many reasons for this but the one that seems likely is that the firmware on the AirPort router has to be able to wake a connected disk from sleep when the Time Machine software wants to use it. And, once the copying is done, the disk needs to be able to spin down.
When I started researching this a few weeks ago I found this article on TidBits: Use Time Machine with the 802.11ac AirPort Extreme Base Station. The article is a few years old and comments are closed but it was a useful read for me.
Then I read the Time Machine entry on Wikipedia: Time Machine (OS X) and specifically noted this:
“On a Time Capsule, the backup data is stored in an HFS+ disk image and accessed via Apple Filing Protocol. Although it is not officially supported, users and manufacturers have configured Linux servers and network-attached storage systems to serve Time Machine-enabled Macs.”
I then did a bit more digging and found this from Apple: AirPort base stations: About USB disks
“OS X Time Machine supports compatible unencrypted USB disks connected to AirPort Time Capsule (802.11n and 802.11ac), and AirPort Extreme (802.11ac).”
Then I found this piece by Apple: Backup disks you can use with Time Machine
“An external USB drive connected to an AirPort Time Capsule (any model) or AirPort Extreme (802.11ac model only)”
Time Machine has two different file protocols for two different ways storage devices are connected to a Mac. USB, Firewire, or Thunderbolt disks directly connected to the Mac get a different type of backup than Time Capsules or disks connected via USB to an AirPort Extreme both of which are being written to over the air. I found this out by noting that when I first connected my already in-use Time Machine hard disk to my AirPort base station Time Machine would not continue to backup to the existing file(s), it kept wanting to make a new backup. This is because the local backup files are different from the networked backup files. This difference is probably because of security and possibly other speed related issues.
How to do it
You’ll need a hard disk or SSD with at least as much storage as the disk you’re backing up. A Time Capsule will back up multiple machines on a network so you need to add up the sizes of all the various machines you’re backing up.
Time Machine will continue making incremental backups until it runs out of room, then it starts deleting the oldest backups.
My wife has a MacBook Air with 128GB of SSD, I have a MacBook Pro with 1TB of SSD. Neither of us has more than half of our storage used.
I had an older 1TB Lacie Rugged Drive with a USB 3 port on it. Its not super fast (5400 RPM) but given that it’s connected via USB 2 I figured drive speed wasn’t an issue. If I buy another hard disk for this I’ll no doubt get a 3 or 4TB disk.
I found that desktop (AC powered) vs portable (bus powered) isn’t an issue as long as the disks adhere closely to the USB protocols (for mounting and sleeping).
Format the disk with disk utility as you would a normal, modern OS X disk: Mac OS Extended (Journaled). Consider naming it “Time Machine” or “Backup” or something other than “Untitled.”
Connect the formatted, empty disk to your AirPort Extreme base station’s USB port.
Run the AirPort Utility, click on your AirPort Extreme, and click “edit.”
Click the “Disks” tab.
Click Enable File Sharing.
Secure Shared disks with a password. It can be a simple password and each machine using this disk will store the password in its keychain.
You could also use “Accounts” to remember the Mac OS X accounts using the disk. We used password.
I did not click the “Share disks over WAN” checkbox. Checking this would allow you to get to this disk from outside your home network. This is probably safe but somehow it scares me. If anyone reading this has experience doing this I’d love to hear about it.
When you have this screen set up as you want it, click “Update” at the bottom to update the settings on your AirPort Extreme.
That’s it, you’re done.
You should see your AirPort Extreme base station in the finder on the left side of the main Finder window under “Shared” but if you don’t, you will the next time you log in or restart. You don’t need to interact with the disk there unless you want to use it for non-Time Machine related file sharing.
Go to the Apple Menu and choose System Preferences, then click on Time Machine in the bottom row of icons.
Turn Time Machine on if it was off, select disk and consider clicking the “Show Time Machine in Menu Bar” checkbox so you can monitor things easily as you get started with this.
After this, backups should happen automatically. The first backup takes a long time but what’s great about this is you just go about using your machine as always and it will stop and restart on its own. My machine’s screen went to sleep but as far as I know, Time Machine kept working in the background. My wife leaves her machine open but sleeping and it wakes up and does it’s backup, then goes back to sleep. Very slick.
You can monitor what’s happening in the Time Machine preferences pane which you can now get to easily in the Time Machine menu on the menu bar.
I’ve had this set up working for three days on both my wife’s and my machine and it’s simply amazing, no bumps, and while I’ve not tested the backups, I have run the Time Machine application on each of our machines and poked around in the backups and it’s working as it should.
So far, so good. Again, very slick.
Wish list for future AirPort / Time Capsule routers
It would be great if both the AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule had faster USB or some other, faster connection protocol. It would make the initial backup faster and allow faster file sharing on connected disks. It’s not essential but given that USB 3 is a standard on Apple devices and hard disks, that would be nice.
One thing that would get me to dump my home made set up and buy a “real” Apple Time Capsule would be if the Time Capsule backed up iOS devices like my iPhone and iPad. The fact that I have to use the kludge that is iTunes to back those devices up to my Mac, then have my Mac backed up is awkward. No doubt Apple wants to sell more iCloud backup space for iOS devices but a local backup would be good as well.
No doubt there’s a lot more Apple might do with the AirPort Extreme to support the coming home control (HomeKit) devices people will be connecting to their networks.
Until then, my home made Time Capsule is working just fine. Let me know if you give this a try or have suggestions for improvement.