Backing up to a disk image

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Disk images are not bootable backups. To create a bootable backup, you must back up to a hard drive that is attached directly to your Mac. We recommend that you only use a disk image if you are backing up to a network volume.

If you're backing up more than 4TB of data, please consider carefully whether a disk image is the right fit for your backup needs.

A disk image is a single file residing on your hard drive that contains the entire contents of another hard drive (except for the free space). When you want to access the contents of that filesystem, you double-click on the disk image to mount the disk image as if it were an external drive attached to the machine. Carbon Copy Cloner leverages disk images to provide you the flexibility of storing several complete backups on a single shared external hard drive. Disk images also greatly improve the performance of backing up to network attached storage (NAS) devices, such as the Airport Extreme Base Station and Time Capsule.

To back up to a new disk image:

  1. Choose your source volume from the Source selector
  2. Choose "New disk image..." from the Destination selector
  3. Provide a name and choose a location to save your disk image
  4. If you plan to back up to this disk image again in the future, set the image format to one of the read/write formats. If you want a read-only disk image for archival purposes, set the image format to one of the read-only formats.

To back up to an existing disk image, select "Choose disk image..." from the Destination selector and locate your disk image.

Read/write "sparse" disk images

A sparse disk image is a type of read/write disk image that grows as you copy files to it. In general, sparse disk images only consume as much space as the files they contain consume on disk, making this an ideal format for storing backups.

Read/write "sparsebundle" disk images

A sparse bundle disk image is similar to a sparseimage insofar as it grows as you add data to it, but it retains its data in many smaller files inside of a bundle rather than inside a single file. A sparse bundle may be desirable if the underlying filesystem upon which you save the disk image has a file size limitation (such as FAT32).

Running out of space on a sparseimage or sparsebundle disk image

CCC reported that the destination is full, but the underlying disk has plenty of free space. CCC initially sets the capacity of your disk image to the amount of free space on the underlying disk. If you have freed up some space on that disk since you created the disk image, you can manually expand the capacity of the destination disk image in Disk Utility. Choose Resize... from the Images menu in Disk Utility, select your destination disk image, then expand it as desired. We recommend that you do not expand the disk image such that it is larger than the capacity of the underlying disk.

The disk image file is larger than the amount of data it contains, why? Sparseimage and sparsebundle disk images grow as you add data to them. They do not, however, automatically shrink when files are deleted from them. As a result, the amount of disk space that the disk image file consumes will not necessarily reflect the amount of data that they consume. To reclaim disk space that is occupied by the free space on your sparse disk image, CCC will compact the disk image before attempting to mount it if the free space on the underlying volume is less than 25GB, or is less than 15% of the total disk capacity. In most cases, you do not need to compact the disk image yourself, but this functionality is documented here so you'll understand why you might see CCC spending time "Compacting the destination disk image" at the beginning of a backup task.

If you would like to compact a disk image manually, drop the disk image file onto this application: Compact Sparse disk images. Be sure to unmount the disk image volume if it is already mounted. Also, note that the compacting process can take a while (e.g. an hour for a 100GB disk image on a locally-attached volume). Finally, be sure that your system is running on AC power. The system utility that compacts the disk image will refuse to run while the system (e.g. a laptop) is running on battery power.

Read-only disk images

Read-only disk images cannot be modified without invalidating the built-in checksum, therefore they are a good container for storing archived material. Whether to choose read-only versus read-only compressed comes down to time and space. If your destination is tight on space and you have a bit of extra time, you can compress the disk image. Compression rates vary on the content of your source, but you can typically expect to reduce the size of your disk image by about half when using compression. There is a subtle behavior that you should take note of when considering this option as a space-saving measure: CCC will first create a read/write disk image, copy the selected items to it, then convert the disk image to read-only compressed. In this case, you will actually need twice the space on your destination as the items to be copied consume on the source.

Encrypting disk images

If any of the data that you are backing up is sensitive, and if your backup device may be in an insecure location, encrypted disk images can improve the security of your backup. CCC offers 128 bit and 256 bit AES encryption to encrypt disk images. To create an encrypted disk image, select one of the encryption levels from the Encryption menu. After you click on the OK button, you will be prompted to specify a passphrase for the new disk image, and CCC will give you an opportunity to save the passphrase in your own keychain. CCC will also store the passphrase in a private keychain so the disk image can be mounted automatically during scheduled backup tasks.

Note: If you create a read-only, encrypted disk image, the intermediate disk image that CCC creates is NOT encrypted. This intermediate disk image file is deleted once the final, read-only, encrypted disk image has been created, but it is not shredded. Take this into consideration when choosing your destination media. If the destination may be placed in an insecure location, use Disk Utility to securely erase free space on the underlying destination volume after you have created your encrypted disk image archive.

Running a backup task whose destination is a disk image on the startup disk

If you specify a disk image that resides on your startup disk as the destination to a scheduled task, CCC will impose some more conservative requirements on this task. To proceed with this configuration, one of the following requirements must be met:

  • The amount of free space on the startup disk is at least 1GB larger than the amount of consumed space on the source volume.
  • The disk image won't grow, e.g. it is a .dmg file, not a sparseimage or sparsebundle disk image.

These requirements avoid a scenario in which the startup disk runs out of free space, causing instability on macOS. If you cannot accommodate the free space requirement, we recommend that you create a .dmg disk image in Disk Utility (choose File > New... > Blank Disk image, set the image format to read/write disk image). Disk Utility will pre-allocate exactly as much space as you request, and CCC will gladly use this disk image without fear of filling up the startup disk.

Sparsebundle disk images are not supported on some filesystems

If your Mac is running an OS older than macOS Sierra, CCC will refuse to save or mount a sparse bundle disk image if the underlying filesystem that the disk image file resides upon does not support the F_FULLFSYNC file control. Most filesystems support this file control, but the SMB file sharing protocol does not. Most people that encounter issues with creating a sparsebundle disk image on a network volume are encountering issues because the network volume is mounted via SMB.

Starting in Mavericks, Apple's preferred file sharing service is SMB. As a result, if you attempt to connect to a sharepoint, Finder will use SMB to establish that connection unless you explicitly specify AFP as the protocol to use. In this configuration, a sparse bundle disk image will not work, and CCC will issue an error. To avoid this error, connect to the sharepoint explicitly using AFP:

  1. Eject the network volume if it is currently mounted
  2. Choose "Connect to server" from the Finder's Go menu
  3. Type in "afp://yourserver.local" (changing the hostname, of course), then click the Connect button and mount the sharepoint
  4. Go back to CCC and choose "Choose disk image" from the Destination selector, then select the sparsebundle disk image on your network volume

Why can't I use a sparsebundle disk image on a filesystem that does not support the F_FULLFSYNC file control?

When your computer writes a file out to the hard drive, the data usually goes to a "write buffer" — a small portion of RAM that is installed on the circuit board of the hard drive. By accumulating smaller write operations onto this RAM chip, the hard drive can increase overall write performance by writing large blocks of cached data to the physical media all at once. While this write buffer improves performance, it also carries a risk. If the power fails or the disk's connection to the computer is suddenly broken between the time that data was written to the buffer and when the buffer is flushed to the disk, your filesystem will have an inconsistency. Filesystem journaling typically mitigates this risk, however it doesn't offer enough protection for Apple's sparsebundle disk image type.

In Mac OS 10.5, Apple implemented the F_FULLFSYNC file control for network servers and clients. The F_FULLFSYNC file control is a command that is sent to the hard drive after some (or all) write operations that tells the disk to immediately flush its cache to permanent storage. To provide better protection for data on sparsebundle disk images, Apple disabled support on Mac OS 10.6 for using sparsebundle disk images that reside on filesystems that do not support the F_FULLFSYNC file control. Apple relaxed this requirement in macOS 10.12 (Sierra).

You are likely to encounter this error condition if your sparse bundle disk image is hosted on a pre-Mac OS 10.5 Macintosh or various Network Attached Storage (NAS) devices (especially SMB). When you encounter this error, copy the sparsebundle disk image to another network sharepoint, or ask CCC to create a new sparseimage disk image file (sparseimage disk images are not the same as sparsebundle disk images).

A message for new Mac users coming from the Windows world

Backups on a Windows system are very different from those on a Macintosh. If you're coming from a Windows background, the term "imaging" and the concept of making a disk image backup is probably familiar to you. Restoring from disk image backups is made simpler on Windows because the startup environment is built around them. That's not the case for a Macintosh. When you create a disk image backup of your Mac's startup disk, the logistics of restoring that backup are actually fairly complicated. Due to these complications, we don't recommend using a disk image as your primary backup on a Mac. Disk images are useful for storing a backup of your user data on a network volume, but for your Mac's startup disk, we recommend that you back up directly to a disk that is attached to your Mac; not to a disk image.

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