Dropbox and Backups

June 13, 2013 • #

I use Dropbox as the nerve center for all of my digital goods, keeping data, configurations, histories, log files, and anything else I need access to centralized and available from my Mac or iOS devices.

Here are a few of my daily tools or information trails I want to keep synced up, so anything here can be a few clicks or a search away:

  • Instant message chat history
  • iTunes library
  • Histories + log files
  • OmniFocus backups

Chat Archiving

I use Messages on the desktop for all chat conversations with my Jabber and Google accounts. I access the transcript history daily to find things I told people in chat conversations, look up links I sent, and other things. So much of my communication happens via instant messaging that I rely on it to keep logs of interactions (albeit securely).

Backing up chat transcripts is simple with symlinks. For me, I want all chat logs to be archived into a Dropbox directory continuously, so I don’t have to remember to back them up. Messages stores its transcript files here:


Since I want my chats to all be instantly backed up to Dropbox, I symlink the directory into a ~/Dropbox/backups directory, like this:

ln -s ~/Library/Messages/Archive ~/Dropbox/backups/chats/

Linking those files to a Dropbox directory will automatically sync them to your account in real time, if you have syncing enabled. These files are then backed up for good, in case I need to search later. A downside with Messages is the transcript files are .ichat files, not plain text. So they can’t be searched from the Dropbox iOS app or mobile text readers. The in-app search works okay, but hopefully we’ll see some performance improvement there in the upcoming OS X Mavericks release. This piece from Glenn Fleishman has some other good tips on instant messaging with Messages.


My iTunes media is mostly secure at this point, with iTunes Match and iCloud, but I still like to keep a backup of the raw XML library data. This contains a ton of stuff I don’t want to lose, like playlists, ratings, and other metadata. ID3 tags and album art are safe with the MP3 files. A couple of symlinks make it so every time I close iTunes, the latest changes to my library get backed up. The .itl file is the primary iTunes database, and the XML file adds a software compatibility layer for other apps that read from your library (like Garage Band and others):

ln -s ~/Music/iTunes/iTunes\ Library.itl \
  ~/Dropbox/backups/iTunes/iTunes\ Library.itl

ln -s ~/Music/iTunes/iTunes\ Music\ Library.xml \
  ~/Dropbox/backups/iTunes/iTunes\ Music\ Library.xml

History + Logs

On a daily basis, I’m all over the place with my machine — working with data in Postgres or SQLite, writing Ruby scripts, and just generally working on the shell doing tons of different things. I love having my command history for anything that has a CLI archived somewhere, so when I need to pull up some command or see how I had built a package from source, it’s as simple as searching a history file. Many Linux & Mac applications keep themselves a history file inside your home directory, typically hidden, like .bash_history for the bash shell environment. I use zsh, with the awesome oh-my-zsh environment framework, highly recommended. Here’s a few I keep around for posterity and convenience, in a “histories” backup1 directory:

  • ~/.zsh_history
  • ~/.irb-history
  • ~/.psql_history

With those backed up, I can always search the logs for when I installed something with Homebrew:

history | grep "brew install mapnik"

As for OmniFocus, backups are cake. Just check the preferences for the database backup location and frequency settings, and change it to somewhere within your Dropbox folder.

In addition to the convenience of keeping this stuff linked into a secure, synced place like Dropbox, using an online backup service (like the fantastic Backblaze) is a no-brainer for keeping your stuff safe. You should be using one. Even though Time Machine is super simple to get going to an external HDD, I don’t trust the hardware enough to rely solely on that.

  1. Remember, history files can often contain passwords and other secure data. Make sure if you keep them around they’re somewhere secure.