Backing up multiple Macs plus Media Disks in a nutshell without any new hardware

The cheap & managed solution for Mac-only users.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle — these are the three ‘R’ words behind sustainable living. So why buy new hardware, if the old devices do the job, too?

This is a short 101 on how to set up a cheap and easy-to-use Backup Solution for your Macs and optional Media Hard Disks.

All you need is an external USB Hard Drive for the Backup, plus an (e.g. used) Apple Airport Extreme or Time Capsule, which serves as a cheap, recycled NAS. If you haven’t the latter, you would find it on eBay at 50$+ or so.

Overview

All together the setup includes the following quick steps:

  1. Get the right hardware (if not already available)
  2. Create disk Partitions on the USB drive
  3. Set up the network
  4. Set up Time Machine on your Macs

It couldn’t be simpler! :)

So, let’s start!

The Details

1/4 — Get the right hardware:

  • An (old) Apple Airport Extreme or Apple Time Capsule (on eBay ~50-120$). All versions include LAN ports plus one USB port.
  • An external 2.5 inch portable hard disk with USB 3.0
    having e.g. 4 TB of storage (~80$, e.g. from Western Digital or Seagate). The storage size should be about twice the amount you intend to back up. More is better.

2/4 — Create dedicated disk partitions for the backups

Open the app Disk Utility, which comes with macOS. Using Spotlight, you will find it in 5 seconds. Otherwise, open the Finder and navigate to Applications → Utilities.

Then, attach the portable USB drive to one of your Macs. Within Disk Utility, select the drive, and go to the Tab: Partition.

Now, create one partition for each Mac you intend to back up. This ensures one backup cannot “eat up” the storage you intend to reserve for another Mac.

If one of the Macs has external drives (like Media) attached to it, which should be saved, too, reserve more storage space. I would suggest reserving at least 1.5 times the storage a single backup uses, but better twice or even 5 times. More space you reserve, more can you go backward in time.

Partitioning your Backup Disk using Disk Utility.

3/4 — Set up the Network

Now, attach the Apple Time Capsule (“TC”) or the Airport Extreme (“AE”) to your Internet Router, using an Ethernet cable. Afterward, attach the USB Drive to the USB port of the Apple TC or AP.

If you do not have the Airport Utility app already installed on your Mac, download it for free from https://support.apple.com/de-de/guide/aputility/aprtc6ff2ed9/mac and install it on one of your Macs.

Open the tool, and click on the Time Capsule or the Airport Extreme:

Your “NAS” Device (Time Capsule or Airport Extreme).

Pressing on Edit opens a Settings Editor with 5 Tabs. Given your (Wireless) Internet Access is managed by a dedicated Router, the TC/AE is in Bridge Mode. Therefore, set the following options:

  • Tab: Wireless
    Network Mode: off.
  • Tab: Network
    Router Mode: Off (Bridge Mode).
  • Tab: Disks
    Here you should see the partitions you created with the Disk Utility app. If you cannot see them, ensure your USB drive is connected, wait a minute, and open the Tab again.
    Then, choose the partitions you created and select “Enable file sharing”.

4/4 — Set up Time Machine on your Macs

Finally, the fun part: setting up Time Machine for each of your Macs. For my MacBook Pro 17 (old-as-the-hills: 2009) the process is the same as for my iMac (2012) and my brand-new MacBook Air M1 (2020).

Simply open the Time Machine app (Finder: Applications → Utilities) and select the dedicated partition on the drive attached to the Time Capsule or Airport Extreme.

The Time Machine Dashboard. The Options allow choosing Folders to be ignored by the Backup.

If any of the Macs you are connecting, have an external drive connected to it (like a Media drive with Photos, Videos, and Music), this drive will be included in the Backup, per default. Using the button on the bottom-right (“Options…”), you can select this disk to be ignored by the Time Machine.

Now, the backup starts automagically. The very first backup can take a while, but then the process will be fast and seamless.

Perfect — that’s it!

Lay back and enjoy all your Macs are secured by hourly backups, without the hassle of complex management.

Summary

I hope you find this instruction useful. I have this solution up and running, and I am quite happy with it. After all, I did not buy any device to do the setup. All recycled. :)

Sure, in a couple of years, some cloud-accessible solution (see below) might do the replacement, but that’s really not a must-have for now.

If you find this article helpful, or if you had problems with the setup, let me know.

Alternatives (ignoring the “recycle” option)

As explained in an article on MacWorld, if you want to spend some more bucks, then there are some other options out there. For details, best follow the article on Macworld. The shortlist of hardware is:

Lead Data Scientist @ GKN-PM. Strong statistics and Machine Learning background. Loves excellent UI & UX. Creative and always open to new ideas.