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Retrospect 8 problems? Forget it. ChronoSync is the best backup software for backing up a network of Macs.

December 13, 2009

April 2010 Update: I wrote a streamlined version of this article, called Backup Your Entire Mac Network, in the April 2010 issue of Mac|Life Magazine.

I briefly mentioned this at the bottom of my last article on backups, but I really wanted to dedicate an entire post to the wonderfully reliable & robust solution that I have found for backing up an entire network of Macs. This is a great solution if you aren’t already using the “Portable Home Directory” feature of Mac OS X Server (for more details on this, see below).

Goodbye to Retrospect. Hello to ChronoSync/ChronoAgent!

After 8 months of total hell with unreliable and incomplete backups from Retrospect 8 (you can see the thousands of angry posts from hundreds of other dissatisfied Retrospect users in the EMC Retrospect 8 forums), I have finally found my replacement backup software! I am now gladly & happily saying goodbye to Retrospect for good! Retrospect 6 used to be phenomenal, but Retrospect 8 is a new product that fails on every single level. So, goodbye for life, Retrospect… you have burned way too many bridges with me and have caused me way too much grief for any one person to have when it comes to software.

I am now using ChronoSync and ChronoAgent as my Mac backup software of choice for backing up networks of Macs.

I’m using these products successfully at multiple different office locations, including one office location that has about a dozen Macs on their network. ChronoSync and ChronoAgent work absolutely flawlessly on a nightly basis for backing up multiple computers to multiple external hard drives, and they will totally accommodate you in just about any sort of backup schedule that you desire (for example, rotating hard drives off-site once a week).

In fact, ChronoSync and ChronoAgent do just about every single thing that Retrospect 8 does — including backing up Windows clients! See below for all of your options on backing up Windows clients. (Although ChronoSync doesn’t backup to tape drives, so if you use a tape drive, you’re out of luck here.)

With the additional purchase of ExpanDrive, you can even use ChronoSync to backup to your FTP servers, thus giving you immediate off-site backups.

But ChronoSync is not just an alternative to Retrospect 8. The most profound benefits of ChronoSync and ChronoAgent are that they do everything better than the way that Retrospect 8 did things. ChronoSync and ChronoAgent perform backups elegantly & reliably, they do it with incredible speed, excellent error reporting, an intuitive user interface, and with outstanding pricing as well. You can backup an entire network of 25 Macs for only $190, with no upgrade fees ever! I have no idea how they can stay in business on such affordable pricing! And the best news of all is that these products come from a company that has been committed to creating top-notch Mac software ever since the company was founded, unlike the Retrospect people who abandoned the Mac platform for many years.

What about Time Machine?

Before I dive into more details on how to use ChronoSync and ChronoAgent, I should briefly mention that you could use Time Machine on each one of the client Macs on your network to backup to a Time Capsule (or any drive connected to any other Leopard or Snow Leopard Mac). But there are 2 problems for me with that approach: (a) the backups are not centrally managed, and (b) you can’t backup a single client to multiple hard drives without manually re-configuring that client machine.

So, ChronoSync and ChronoAgent really fit the bill for me.

How to setup ChronoSync and ChronoAgent

There are an almost unlimited number of ways to configure ChronoSync and ChronoAgent to your liking, but to set it up in a way that is fairly similar to how Retrospect 6 used to operate, I’ve created some basic instructions here for you. (More detailed instructions can be found in the ChronoSync help documents.)

The idea here is that you will have one centralized server Mac backing up a large number of client Macs to 2 external backup drives: Backup Drive A and Backup Drive B.

These are the simple steps you’ll need to take:

1. Install & configure the ChronoAgent system preference on all the client Macs. This will entail entering a valid license #, setting a username & password, and requiring a secure connection. I recommend selecting the checkbox for “Require Secure Connections”, because I’ve found it to provide more robust and stable connections. Also, you may want to go into the Energy Saver system preference and either (a) make sure that the computer doesn’t go to sleep, or (b) set a schedule to wake the computer at a certain time so that it doesn’t miss its scheduled backup.

2. Install ChronoSync on the server Mac. Go to ChronoSync’s Preferences>Scheduler, and set it to “Wake System To Synchronize”. Then, go to Preferences>Connections and login to all of the agent machines.

3. Using ChronoSync on the server Mac, create just one backup document (called a “synchronizer document”) for now. Set the left target with one “source” (such as one client’s “Users” folder), and set the right target with one “destination” (such as one folder on one of your external hard drives that is attached to the server).

On the left: If you’re choosing a local volume, choose “Local Volumes (Admin Access)” from the pop-up menu.

On the left: Be sure to choose the “Users” folder instead of an individual home folder, so you don’t have to worry about users adding & deleting users on their machines.

On the right: Choose “Local Volumes (Admin Access)” from the pop-up menu.

On the right: It is very important to create individual folders on the right target for each one of your left targets. Use each client’s name as the name of each folder on the right target. If you don’t create separate folders on the right target, you might end up in a situation where ChronoSync overwrites one client’s files with another client’s files.

On both sides: Click on the “Options” button on each side — uncheck “Strict Volume Identification”. If you leave that checked, it will cause you more headaches than it’s worth in the future if you have to replace a backup drive.

In the Finder: I have alleviated lots of strange problems by performing a “Get Info” on the external drives and checking the checkbox at the bottom that says “Ignore ownership on this volume”.

See this screenshot for an example of what your screen might look like:

4a. Set your synchronizer document to “Backup Left-to-Right”.

4b. Check the boxes for “synchronize deletions” and “archive replaced files”.

4c. On the right, choose the option that says “When deleting files, move to archive.” PLEASE NOTE: There is a VERY IMPORTANT exception to this rule if you are backing up FileMaker Server’s Backup folder! Since FileMaker Server makes its own archives that ChronoSync would NEVER recognize as a replaced file (because FileMaker always creates brand new folders with each backup) , then *BE ABSOLUTELY SURE* to set Chronosync’s option to “When deleting files, delete immediately”. Otherwise, your destination drive could very quickly fill itself up with FileMaker backups.

5. Go the “Options” tab, and set your “Reporting & Error Handling” options to:

– “Skip” upon encountering errors. Otherwise, you won’t be able to leave the backup unattended because it will wait for user interaction in case of an error. Don’t worry, any errors will still be logged for you to review later. However, be sure to check the checkbox that says “Post more detailed information to the log”, otherwise you won’t be able to review any errors at all.

– “Copy” upon encountering roll-backs. This is a rare circumstance that comes up from time-to-time, but I have found it more beneficial to copy roll-backs than to skip them. You may want to modify this pop-up menu to better suit your needs.

Your document should look like this:

6. Also on the “Options” tab, under “Archive Handling”, set the maximum number of duplicates that you would like to have in your archive. For example, if you set this to 7, that means that you’ll be able to restore the 7 most recent versions of any backed-up file.

7. On that same screen, if you’d like to purge old files from the archive that have been sitting there for a while (this could happen when a user deletes a file from their computer), specify the number of days that you’d like to “purge files archived.” I recommend setting this option to 30 days; otherwise your hard drives may fill up sooner than expected with files that your users deleted more than 30 days ago.

8. Do not set email notifications here. You will do that later in step #13.

9. Save your synchronizer document (“File>Save”) into a folder on your desktop called “ChronoSync Documents”. Name your document with a descriptive name representing your left target and your right target. For example, name your file “Megan to Backup Drive A”.

10. Now that you’ve got one synchronizer document with all your settings the way you like them, you now need to duplicate that document multiple times in the Finder (or you can use the “File>Save As…” command within ChronoSync). You will then open & edit each individual synchronizer document to contain a unique combination of “left target” and “right target”. When you are done editing each individual synchronizer document, save it with a descriptive name in the Finder. For example, take a look at the following screenshot of my ChronoSync documents. I’ve named each document to match its settings.

11. Once you’ve got all of your synchronizer documents ready to go, you will go back into ChronoSync and create a new “container” document (“File>New Container”). A container is a “master document” that groups together individual ChronoSync documents as one group, so you can schedule them all together as one group. Create one container for each external drive that you are backing up onto, and drag in the related synchronizer documents. In this screenshot, you can see that I’ve setup my Container (called “Backup A”) to run all of my synchronizer documents which are set for the Backup A Drive. I’ve dragged them into the order that I want them to backup, and ChronoSync will execute them one at a time, from top to bottom.

12. On the “Options” tab in your container, under “Reporting & Error Handling”, check the first 3 checkboxes so that the operation will continue without user interaction.

13. Also on the “Options” tab in your container, setup email notifications so that you can be alerted in case of any errors. In ChronoSync’s preferences (“ChronoSync>Preferences…”), you can setup emails to be sent via “Direct Messaging”, which means that the emails will be sent directly from ChronoSync without the need for an email client to be configured on the server.

14. Save each container document with a descriptive name, such as “Backup To External Drive A”. You can’t move onto the next step until you save your container document.

15. Now is the time to schedule your container document. Click on the “Schedule…” icon at the top of each container document and choose whatever days and times you want that container to run. You have an almost unlimited amount of flexibility here, and you can select multiple days & times by holding down the command key while you make your selections.

16. A new window called the “Scheduled Documents Manager” will appear. If it doesn’t, pull down from the “Window” menu to “Scheduled Documents Manager”. This will show you all of the schedules that you’ve got set for ChronoSync.

17. And now, the final step: go into ChronoSync’s preferences (“ChronoSync>Preferences…”) and make sure that the checkboxes are set for “Use background scheduler” and “Wake system to synchronize”. This will make sure that the server machine will wake up and launch ChronoSync whenever you have a scheduled synchronization take place. (On a side note, make sure that your client machines are awake during the backups as well.)

What about backing up Windows clients?

Now, what if you have one or two Windows machines in your all-Mac office, but you still want to use ChronoSync and ChronoAgent, which are Mac-only programs?

Well, even though ChronoAgent is Mac-only, you can still use ChronoSync as your backup solution! ChronoSync can connect to and backup any Windows SMB share, just as easily as it can backup a ChronoAgent machine! So just set the SMB share as your left target and you’re set to go.

Another option, if you want to leave the world of ChronoSync, would be to use the free software which lets you backup files from your Windows PC to your Mac server, and then use ChronoSync to backup from there.

Or you could use the outstanding Dropbox, which keeps any important files in sync between your Macs, your PCs, and your iPhones. Then, you would just make sure that you store your important files in your Dropbox folder, and set ChronoSync to backup your Dropbox folder. The following screenshot might look like a normal folder in the Finder, but it’s really the special Dropbox folder that synchronizes with the Dropbox service. The amazing thing is that programs like ChronoSync simply see it as a normal folder and can regularly back it up:

Portable Home Directories

And last but not least, if you have Mac OS X Server running on your server machine, you can use its “Portable Home Directories” feature to keep all of your Mac OS X users’ folders in sync with the server machine at all times. Then, you only need to worry about backing up one computer — the server machine — and you can use ChronoSync to do that. For more instructions on how to use portable home directories, download the “User Management” manual on Apple’s “Mac OS X Server Guides” page.

A Little Thank You

p.s. I’d like to thank my longtime client & blog reader Lisa Colton who told me last week that my company has the best FileMaker and Mac consultants in Austin. I greatly appreciate hearing that sort of positive feedback from my clients, as that is what I strive to be. I am absolutely and steadfastly obsessed about finding the perfect solution for my clients, and I try to pay attention to the closest of details. I will not rest until I find the perfect solution for my clients, and this blog entry came out of searching for the perfect backup solution for some of my clients. Thanks for reading!

I hope you enjoyed this article. If so, please donate a small amount so that I can continue to post blog articles in the future.


Who is ScottWorld? ScottWorld provides the best FileMaker developers in Austin & Los Angeles.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. January 8, 2010 7:26 AM

    Thanks for the detailed post. However, I’m not sure that Chronosync can solve my problem of laptops coming & going from the network. Retrospect polls the network regularly, so laptops which are brought back onto the network can be backed up when they are present, rather than in accordance with any particular schedule. And will also backup to whichever target disk happens to be available at the time, once again rather than in accordance with any particular schedule. (Schedules can be used instead if required.)

    Retrospect also supposedly backs up the computer with the oldest backup to the target with the oldest backup of that computer first.

    I can’t see a way for Chronosync to solve my coming-and-going laptop problem.

  2. January 8, 2010 8:54 AM

    A feature coming in a future version of ChronoSync is going to be able to trigger a backup on the server machine when it senses the presence of a client machine.

    In the meantime, you could install ChronoSync (instead of ChronoAgent) on the laptop and PUSH the files from your laptop to the server itself. You could schedule it to automatically backup when the user logs in, or when the user mounts the server, or any other different criteria that you specify.

    You could even have it set to backup every 30 minutes or 60 minutes throughout the day… since it only backs up the files that change, the backup might only take a few moments to complete, and if it can’t find the server machine, it won’t backup at all.

    You could also set this up from the server machine as well — backing up every 30 or 60 minutes. If it doesn’t find the client machine, it will just skip it.

    Although if you’re in a network of mostly laptops, you might really benefit the most from Mac OS X Server’s Portable Home Directory feature, which keeps everyone’s home directories in sync with the server whenever there’s a network connection. Then, you just have to backup the server machine, because everyone’s home directories are there. I mention this above in my article.

    (By the way, regarding your comment on Retrospect backing up the computer with the oldest backup first, yeah, I don’t think that is possible with ChronoSync. But even though Retrospect claims to have all of those wonderful features, when they don’t work 95% of the time, it doesn’t make a difference. I would avoid Retrospect like the plague… and I speak from 8+ months of trying to get Retrospect to work in an environment that ChronoSync hasn’t blinked once at.)

  3. justnotmyfault permalink
    March 30, 2010 3:12 AM

    I enjoyed this piece brought back memories of retrospect issues

    Have used Chronosync for years but not in this way (never crossed my mind to put it on the server)
    Contacted Econ in regards to laptops not usually on the network and this was their answer.

    Currently, the only way around this is to use a pre-sync AppleScript.
    Also as you said: A future release will include a feature to sync when an agent becomes available.

    To use the AppleScript, just write an AppleScript to check to see if the agent
    mac is connected to the network. If it is, return success and the sync will
    run. If the agent mac is not available, then return error and the sync
    document will be aborted. The next sync in the container should then be run.
    This may help anyone who knows how to write an Applescript.

  4. iphoneadmins permalink
    May 31, 2010 5:58 PM

    Love the article. Use Chronosync at home for backups.

    I would be interested in what hard drive setup people use to with Chronosync to backup gigs and gigs of data at work. I’m used to using Retrospect to back up with an AIT-3 eight tape autoloader.

    I’d love to stop using Retrospect.

  5. May 31, 2010 8:33 PM

    Well, ChronoSync doesn’t support tape drives, so you won’t be able to use a tape drive with ChronoSync. However, if you want to backup to a hard drive, check out the highly reliable, high-capacity hard drives from OWC:

  6. willhkirby permalink
    June 28, 2010 10:19 AM

    Great article! I am happy that I found it.

    It describes exactly what I have wanted to do – back up a two computers to external drives connected to my “base” computer via ChronoSync. I bought ChronoAgent for the two computers last night and made the configuration that you outlined. Works great!

    A question: I am backing up the “Home” folders on each of the three computers but was wondering whether the other Library folders at the drive level and in the System folder also need to be backed up?

  7. June 28, 2010 10:31 AM

    Great! Glad you enjoyed the article! 🙂

    Typically, you won’t have any important user data in “Macintosh HD/Library” or “Macintosh HD/System/Library”. The contents of those folders will usually get replenished when you reinstall the system or reinstall applications. Some exceptions to this would be if you’ve installed your own custom fonts in “Macintosh HD/Library/Fonts”, or if you’ve installed a server-type program like FileMaker Server. For example, FileMaker Server keeps all of its user data in “Macintosh HD/Library/FileMaker Server”.

    But for the most part, in general usage, those 2 folders can be safely ignored for backup purposes.

    So even though you’re not really backing up the users’ ENTIRE computer, at least you’ll have all of their important files from their home folder. In case of a catastrophic failure, you’ll still need to reinstall the system and reinstall all of their apps from scratch again, but that should be relatively easy to do. The important thing is that you’ll have their data which is irreplaceable: their own personal files.

  8. September 23, 2011 8:24 PM

    Scott, I am looking to migrate off Retrospect w/ Tape drives in the windows world to a new Promise Raid, I was about to upgrade Retrospect and move it from windows to Mac to support a 75% Mac Network of about 60 clients that are mixed laptop and desktop. Do you feel that ChronoSync would work for a 60+ Mac network with Mac OS X Server? Do you do consulting? Thanks

  9. September 24, 2011 12:59 AM

    Hi Alan,
    I’m not sure, as that sort of setup isn’t my expertise. I would recommend sending an email to the technical support team at Econ Technologies, and ask them if they think their product would meet your needs. I don’t see why it wouldn’t, but you should check to be sure.

  10. juliazo permalink
    March 7, 2012 9:41 AM

    Thanks for your thorough article, Scott! Sorry for the late post, but I found it to still be quite relevant, since I am also looking for a replacement for Retrospect 8.
    Apropos of your field of expertise (and since you specifically mentioned it in your article!), have you found ChronoSync to coexist well in a FileMaker Server environment? That’s one of the things that absolutely frustrates me about Retrospect…



  11. March 7, 2012 9:46 AM

    Yes, ChronoSync works fine on a FileMaker Server machine. But you should NEVER backup actively-running databases, or else they will become corrupt. You can only backup the FileMaker Server backups.

  12. juliazo permalink
    March 7, 2012 10:31 AM

    Wow, thanks for the prompt response! And yes, I’m currently only backing up the backup databases, though I had to setup a separate schedule with CarbonCopyCloner, since Retrospect refuses to even backup those…


  1. Retrospect 8 problems? Forget it. Here’s the best backup software for backing up a network of Macs. | High technology information

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