Backing up iCloud Photos to a Synology NAS

A few years ago, I decided to go all-in with iCloud Photos. My library was just over 1TB at the time, so I’ve been paying for the 2TB plan ever since (I’ve been collecting photos in my library since 2001 and while it could definitely use a bit of trimming, I don’t think there’s much I want to get rid of).

It’s super convenient to have all my photos everywhere at all times (what’s the point in taking them if you can’t enjoy them?), but I did want to find a way to have a secondary backup solution that doesn’t rely on Photos or iCloud.

I already have a Synology NAS for other backups and as a general storage system, so I wanted to find a way for it to always have an up-to-date copy of my Library.

Why back up the cloud?

So since I’m already paying Apple, why would I want another backup?

Well it basically boils down to wanting an independent backup: what if I lose access to my iCloud account? Or Apple loses my data somehow? Both unlikely, but it can happen.

Options considered

Direct backup

First I looked into ways to get the Synology to pull my photos down directly. There are a few command line scripts that can talk directly to your iCloud account, but they all looked a bit fragile – I want a setup that is going to work reliably and doesn’t require maintenance.

Via Windows

The next option I tested was using a cheap miniPC running Windows 10 and Apple’s iCloud software to copy the files onto the mounted Synology drive.

In hindsight, I’m not sure what I was expecting: the cheap miniPC was temperamental, Windows never stopped updating and Apple iCloud for Windows seemed… well not their main focus, lets put it that way.

It sort of worked, but quickly felt like more hassle than it was worth.

Via a Mac

Ok so this is by far the easiest way of doing it, but it does require you have a desktop Mac or a MacBook that

a) has a full copy of your photos library

and

b) Is awake and connected to your network at regular intervals to run the backup

Since my MacBook is usually closed / not plugged in and doesn’t have a full copy of my photo library, I bought a used Mac Mini and hooked it up to an external 2 TB drive. Then I configured Photos.app to store a full local copy of my library.

(Note: Why isn’t this enough backup? My concern is that if my photos are wiped on one device accidentally, the Mac Mini’s library would also be wiped)

Finally I installed Synology’s Backup Mac client on the Mac Mini and told it to monitor the photos directory and mirror those files to the Synology. It’s configured to only add files, not delete them. That way, if my library is ever accidentally wiped, it won’t also delete the files from the Synology backup.

So now I have the following setup;

  • I take or import a picture on my iPhone
  • It gets uploaded to iCloud Photos
  • The Mac Mini downloads a copy to its Photos Library
  • The Synology app copies the photo into its backup

I’ve configured the Mac Mini and Synology to wake up for a few hours every day to do this and so far it’s working really well.

Stuff used