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My daughter is headed off to college. I'd like to send her off with a Time Capsule so she can wirelessly backup her MacBook automatically.

My concern is that Time Capsule will not work properly on her dorm's WiFi network, which she clearly won't have access to from a management perspective.

I know she can connect her MacBook to Time Capsule via ethernet but that is effectively a manual backup and I know that my kids (and many others) won't do that every night.

Does anyone have any more information on this or know how this could work?

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The best answer is not technical. The best answer is "let her figure it out herself" Don't be a helicopter parent. Let her go off and be independent. Let her figure out for herself if she wants to backup and how to do it. She may even figure out a better solution (dropbox) then the one you devised. Yes, she may lose data, she may have a hard drive crash right before a big final paper is due. She may call to cry. That is all part of college. Let her experience it, she will be better for it. –  user9918 Aug 15 '11 at 22:34
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The cloud, Fred. It's all about the cloud... :) I'd use dropbox if she only needs certain docs backed up, or backblaze/carbonite/mozy/etc for everything. Also, if she has a USB hub on her monitor, for her printer, charging her phone, whatever (I have no idea what kids these days use), and plugs into it whenever the computer is on her desk, you can just add a USB hard drive to that, and time machine will backup to it when it is available, so it's at least a little bit better than a manual backup. –  daryn Aug 15 '11 at 22:37
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The IT department will be happy to have an incoming student with working, automatic backups - you might check their web site knowledge base / FAQ on how they prefer students with Time Capsules to set them up. She will have to be sure to not enable DHCP and operate in bridge mode if she joins the campus WiFi, but other than that it's not a hassle for the IT to have a file server appliance on the network. –  bmike Aug 15 '11 at 23:03
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@bmike That has not been my experience with college sysadmins. They tend to be very particular about random stuff on their network, as well they should be. –  Kyle Cronin Aug 15 '11 at 23:04
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As a previous campus sysadmin, I can't help but get a sinking feeling whenever a non-technical user wants to add a router to a campus network, which is exactly what is happening. If the user can't be trusted to regularly plug in a drive, I don't think they should also be trusted to configure a router to operate in non-DHCP mode with proper security. Yes, it is technically possible, but outside of best practice. I would personally recommend a simple external disk. Rogue DHCP offers are an absolute nightmare, especially on move-in day, and can affect many more students than just herself. –  moonslug Aug 15 '11 at 23:49

8 Answers 8

She could probably tie the time capsule into a ethernet line in her dorm (I assume there is a wired option) and then set the time capsule to be on bridge mode (where it doesn't issue a new IP adress but rather passes the one issued by the school's DHCP).

She could then use her Time Capsule (which is also a wifi router) to have her own private wifi locked down for her dorm, this is what I do in my house as Telus doesn't offer DSL modems as a standalone.

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Bridge mode makes sense if the Time Capsule joins the network as a peer (to prevent her from answering campus DHCP requests and handing out bad IP addresses to others), but if there is a wired drop, why not make a new network and have the benefit of a private WiFi to secure her mac and get better speed/signal? Why bridge mode if connected via ethernet? –  bmike Aug 15 '11 at 23:18

The best answer for laptop backup in a college dorm is NOT an Apple Time Capsule. Everyone here has already examined why that won't work well at length.

If you haven't bought the Time Capsule yet, don't. Go with a simple bus-powered USB or FireWire mobile hard drive, like the WD Passport. Get one larger than the laptop's internal drive and configure it for Time Machine.

If she just leaves it on her desk and learns to plug it in whenever she's working there with her computer, she'll be covered. As a recent college student (who used to advise his dorm-mates on that sort of thing), I'll attest that this is pretty easy for most people to condition themselves to do, and if it doesn't, it'll only take ONE case of data loss to teach them soundly how to practice good backup habits.

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It's the "and learns to plug it in whenever she's working there with her computer" part that the OP specifically mentioned as a limitation. He surely knows his daughter better than we do. –  Matthew Frederick Aug 16 '11 at 2:25
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Right, and that's why I wrote the last part of that paragraph. Either way, I was attempting to codify it in terms of "when you put the laptop on the desk, plug it in" which should be a more successful conditioning strategy than "don't forget to back it up!" since people will charge their laptop by plugging it in at their desk anyway. –  NReilingh Aug 16 '11 at 2:49
    
this is helpful NReilingh. it's great to hear from someone who has been in this situation recently. thanks! –  Fred Wilson Aug 16 '11 at 9:00
    
You might also add a task management tool like The Hit List or Remember the Milk to help with these tasks. Add a repeating tasks for "back up" and you've semi-automated it. –  Reid Aug 16 '11 at 21:20
    
Also in OSX Lion, "Local" Time Machine will save copies of your documents in-place and then archive them on the backup drive when it's plugged in and Time Machine runs. This makes the non-wireless Time Machine approach a whole lot more usable (in fact, prior to Lion, I simply used SuperDuper on SmartUpdate as it was superior to TM -- it is bootable and I only plugged in 1/week). –  r00fus Aug 17 '11 at 18:07

Extending the network might be a little fussy and require some help/advice/rights from the school, but that won't affect setting up the Time Capsule.

This slightly defeats the point, but a Time Capsule can also run as a standalone unit in such a way where you don't have to get the cords out, but you switch to the offline Time Capsule network and make your wireless back up that way; sort of a one-to-one wireless network.

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Extending the network would be a bad idea - this is not at all a hard or fussy thing - just have the TC join the network. Choose a great password so others can see it, but not get to the files. –  bmike Aug 15 '11 at 22:55

Fred,

If the dorm does not have wired jacks, the latest TimeCapsule equipment can extend or relay a WiFi network, without needing any Ethernet cable. It can pick up the dorm WiFi, and relay the same network name, or give it a new network name. If using a new network name with security on, then only your daughter would be able to see it and get on it.

If the dorm tries to prevent the double NAT WiFi relay, you can use an Airport Express to pick up the dorm WiFi, then run an Ethernet cable from it to the TimeCapsule WAN port, and create a private WiFi for her and her other devices.

I'm @terretta on Twitter if you need to reach me to discuss further.

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As long as your daughter is allowed more than one device on the network, the TimeCapsule can join the net just like an iPod Touch or her Mac can.

Just as her mac needs to be secured, her TimeCapsule needs a good password, but there is nothing inherently wrong about backing up to "her" Time Capsule using another WiFi network in between her mac and her capsule.

She should have an ethernet cable to speed things up if she has a large backup or restore. Unless the network is locked down with 802.1x or some web client for authentication, she will have no problems.

There are ways to get around those issues, but it's a bit of a pain and not likely to be an issue either.

And of course - If she gets an ethernet drop in the room, she can secure things much better. Her mac can be set to prefer her room's WiFi connection created from her TimeCapsule and she will get the benefit of less access to her TimeCapsule disk (only people she shares her WiFi password with can even see the volume) as well as possibly faster backups and internet access since her Mac to TimeCapsule throughput may very well be significantly faster than the WiFi throughput in her room to the nearest campus base station. It's likely there will be less other traffic on her private WiFi network as well so this is a superior option for the reasons listed.

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I've occasionally found that network traffic between computers is often blocked in a dorm, as this is a very common way for worms to spread. Unless she's connecting to the Time Capsule AP, she probably won't be able to back up. –  Kyle Cronin Aug 15 '11 at 23:06
    
Great point, and unless the network can sniff for rogue DHCP servers, her Time Capsule needs to be in Bridge Mode if it's joining the network as a peer and not through a network drop. That causes IT departments lots of trouble tickets and pain. It really depends on the specific school. What flies at MIT might not at Ohio State. –  bmike Aug 15 '11 at 23:11

All of the other answers here address some of the technical issues about getting it connected to the network, except for one.

Ever tried to use WiFi in a dorm? It is nearly impossible. Everybody likes to bring their own wireless routers and access points, flooding the spectrum, making it practically unusable.

If you do decide to use it, put it in bridge mode and plug it in. Don't use WiFi and expect it to work all of the time, and at any decent speed.

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A lot of it depends on how the network is configured, but most likely it will not work. You also might not want to do it, because the connection may or may not be encrypted, so other users on the network would be able to sniff all the files being backed up to the device. The best bet would probably be to use something like Dropbox if there are not gigs of data to be saved.

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It will work. Time capsule is a base station, it is not a client station. Your kid can sign on to the college wifi and time capsule separately.

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This defeats the "ease of use" just as she would have to connect an ethernet cord, switching networks is one more reason not to have backups happen automatically. –  bmike Aug 15 '11 at 22:56

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