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Bugs & Fixes: Time Machine, AirPort Extreme drives, and multiple Macs

Ted Landau | Jan. 21, 2013
Ted Landau offers advice for backing up multiple Macs to a USB drive attached to an AirPort Extreme base station.

Sometimes one plus one doesn't add up to two.

One: OS X's Time Machine can back up a drive to any other drive physically connected to your Mac, internal or external. It can also back up to Apple's Time Capsule--a device that is essentially an AirPort Extreme with a hard drive built in. The advantage of Time Capsule is that its drive is accessible to any Mac on your local network, allowing you to simultaneously back up multiple Macs to the same drive.

Plus one: AirPort Extreme supports adding a hard drive to its USB port. Once connected, you can enable file sharing, allowing multiple users to share data from the drive.

Equals: You would think this adds up to a straight-forward conclusion: Time Machine can back up to a USB drive connected to an AirPort Extreme.

Yes, it seems quite reasonable. But you would be wrong. Apple states: "Time Machine can't backup to an external drive that's connected to an AirPort Extreme...."

This admonition hasn't stopped people from trying to do it anyway. The good news is that, over the years, many users have successfully gotten Time Machine to play nice with a networked USB drive connected to an AirPort Extreme. Many... but far from all. Apple has never clearly spelled out why the setup is unreliable. It just warns against doing it.

I have been one of the lucky ones. More precisely, as I will explain in a moment, I have been half-lucky. On my first try, I was able to successfully get my wife's iMac to back up to a USB drive connected to our AirPort Extreme. This was several years ago. It has performed flawlessly ever since. I wish I could offer some secret tip that accounts for my instant success. But I don't know what it is. It just worked.

However, this success had only limited value for me. If I just wanted to back up my wife's iMac, I could more easily have connected the USB drive directly to her iMac--avoiding the potential AirPort hassles. The real advantage of the AirPort setup would be if I could use the same USB drive to hold Time Machine backups from multiple Macs, especially my Mac Pro.

Unfortunately, every time I enabled Time Machine on my Mac Pro, adding it to the iMac backup already in play, Time Machine failed. Not only did it fail on my Mac Pro but it ultimately brought down the iMac backup as well. The precise error messages varied, but the end result was always the same: I had to trash the Time Machine sparsebundles and start over. Eventually, I gave up and returned to just backing up the iMac.


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