There are no good online backup solutions out there.
Back in 2004, I lost all of my data because of a fried motherboard. Back then, I was fledgling through high school, high-speed internet had just become widespread in Switzerland and Facebook was still a college-only network.
I didn’t try to recover my data from the hard drive. My “computer was broken”, so I threw it away as a single entity. Luckily, I didn’t have many pictures, as digital cameras were just getting traction. In other words, I didn’t care much. If the same thing were to happen to me today, though, I’d be devastated. More than 10’000 pictures, a legally bought iTunes collection of over a thousand songs and a lot of important documents in my paperless filing system. Backups were needed.
I worked for an organisation of roughly 40 people, being in charge of IT systems. We ran a simple backup strategy: Hourly backups of the most critical and dynamics data (our CRM system), daily backups to hard drives on a separate server of all data, and weekly/monthly backups of all data to LTO Tapes. We also shipped off the monthly tapes to a safety deposit box at a local bank. Seemed like pretty advanced stuff for an organisation that small. The major flaw in this system was the lack of continuous off-site backup.
I believe it to be so vital to have a proper backup strategy, as it helps keep a peaceful mind, especially in a disaster scenario. Countless friends and family members have not only lost valuable data, but totally freaked out about it. I don’t need that kind of stress in my life.
For my private backup strategy, I needed to clarify three things:
- What data do I need to back up?
- How often do I need to back up?
- What are the required restore scenarios?
The toughest part in devising such a strategy is figuring out where all your data is. I have data on an iPhone, an iPad, the Mac, and a lot of places in the cloud. I needed to gather and consolidate this mess. My first move was to move completely to Mobile Me. I consolidated calendars, e-mail and contacts completely to Mobile Me. And since Mobile Me integration with my Mac is great, all my Mobile Me data was available on my Mac locally as well.
Second, I bought docks for my iOS devices. Because without docks, I don’t remember to sync my devices with the Mac. Now, I sync them every day, as this is where they charge and … well, look nice on my desk. This ensured that I had full backups of the iOS devices on my Mac.
A third strategy for gathering data was more of an effort in housecleaning. I went through my deleted e-mails of the past week and waded through old accounts and newsletter subscriptions, canceling and deleting all those I didn’t use anymore. Now I do this with any e-mail I get: I just cancel all accounts, ensuring control of my data. Not directly essential to backups.
Having corralled all this data, I had made sure that everything that mattered to me was on one hard drive, inside my computer. Going further, the data on my hard drive was structured as follows:
- Documents, Pictures and Music (in the default OS X folders)
- Critical App data
- Calendars, contacts, e-mail
- Things database
- 1Password database
- (Think of all your critical apps - Yojimbo, Omnifocus, Evernote etc. Look at your dock right now for a quick idea about “critical apps”.)
- Applications and Settings
- OS X and all the overhead I don’t care about.
Some clarifications: The documents folder contains anything from PDFs to text files, my papers, any research and so on. By backing up my pictures folder I just make sure I have iPhoto safe, and analogously my music folder contains the entire iTunes database.
Here’s where the paranoia sets in. The real question is: How far can I afford to fall back if my computer just blew up completely? The answer varies depending on which data you look at. You also need to gauge how often your data changes.
The most common scenario, Scenario 1, is that a file has gone missing, or deleted by mistake, and needs to be brought back. This should be supported by a fast, simple and stable system.
Scenario 2 involves a disk failure. When your hard drive fails, you need a fresh drive with all your data on it.
Scenario 3 is disaster. This means that the primary location of my data has undergone some sort of wipe-out by a natural disaster, burglary, etc.
The Tools, and Why Online Solutions Simply Suck
I already pointed out that all my data was on my Mac hard drive. This enables me to use Time Machine for full, continous backups. And it works like a charm. I encourage everyone to use it, and to not read further before getting a drive and activating Time Machine. I personally use a very nice LaCie Starck Mobile Hard Drive. Looks great on a desk, and it’s really small and quiet. Its USB cable is a bit short, and just about reaches the iMac port, but on the upside, it doesn’t have an extra power cord. This little drive, with Time Machine, covers Scenario 1.
For Scenario 2, disk failure, I clone my disk with Super Duper once a week. Beyond that I use Apple’s still-existent, updated and supported MobileMe Backup software for making daily backups of my Documents folder to MobileMe. And, I have Dropbox installed with a Symlink to my documents folder. I only use DropBox because it offers a user-friendly way to access your data on the go; it’s not a real Backup system, rather than a file system in the cloud.
Scneario 3 is where I’m undecided. Personally, I feel the most economical way would be to have another Super Duper Clone that I take to my friend’s or parents’ place each week. Again, drives are handeld by me and may fail in transport or otherwise. Online solutions seem to have a major selling point here, in that they use high-redundancy data centres, automate the process for you and offer a variety of restore options.
I have some issues with these services though. I’ve tested SugarSync, CrashPlan, BackBlaze and DollyDrive.
Sugarsync’s Mac client is hideous and unusable. I have a real problem with SugarSync’s approach: It tries too hard to be both a backup solution as well as a file sync service, very much like Dropbox. Unfortunately, it falls short on both ends. The web interface of Sugarsync is fair, but not as good as Dropbox. The native clients are really unusable and badly implemented. Beyond that, SugarSync doesn’t feel like it’s designed as a backup solution from the ground up; the focus on flashy features such as online galleries and a “Magic Briefcase” doesn’t let me trust SugarSync to handle my backups.
CrashPlan, similar Sugarsync, has a unversal client that runs on Java, and works quite well. It isn’t a completely native experience, but does a good job and offers a number of unique backup options, such as backing up over the internet to another computer, being your own or a friend’s. Truly, Crashplan is purely a backup solution, and offers a variety of features built for that single purpose. Pricing is around USD 5 a month.
Backblaze is, in my opinion, the best solution out there. The native client lives within System Preferences on a Mac, and you can easily control which files are backed up. You can even throttle the bandwidth used.
Both Crashplan and Backblaze offer the option of sending you a USB drive home in case of disaster, for a fee of slightly above USD 100. Crashplan only ships within the US.
Dollydrive has a different approach altogether: You configure Time Machine to use a network drive provided by Dollydrive instead of a locally connected drive. Your local drive is then used for a bootable disk clone, much like SuperDuper. Unfortunately, networks aren’t perfect, and having my primary, most continuous and easiest to use backup system rely on my internet connection is not only a risk in itself, but it didn’t work for me while testing. Dollydrive kept losing its connection and my initial backup would have taken months at the rates and reliability I was seeing.
My issue with all of these solutions is that none of them offer proper restore abilities. Backup drives sent home are not bootable drives; you will need to use another computer to recover this data. It’s a hassle. Restores across the web fail miserably as well in most cases: If I lose my photo library, it would take ages to restore via the web. Before that, I have Time Machine and a SuperDuper clone that would both have my data. And, if I want to restore a single image or a set of images from within my iPhoto library, I’m completely lost: iPhoto’s library folder is practically unnavigable1.
A second argument to conclude a point is, that for single item restores, not only do I have two physical backups at hand, but also use Dropbox for all my documents except music and photos.
So, here’s my point: online backups only make sense if I use them for a full restore. And this scenario is (a) extremely unlikely (b) only relevant for my photos and music, as documents are in Dropbox, and (c) expensive at USD 5 a month plus the cost of shipping a USB drive.
There are better (offline) options.
There is no compelling reason to use online backup systems. They charge monthly fees, suffer from dependence on network speeds and offer abysmal restore options. Intended as a last line of defense, you will probably never make use of it. Invest the money in making sure your house doesn’t get burgled or catch a fire. Reduce your insurance premium by reducing your risk in the first place.
Before I go for online solutions, I would opt for a Drobo, which uses a RAID-like system for data redundancy (in English: It spreads your data over many drives so that if one fails, it can automatically re-puzzle your data using very cool mathematics) and I would take my SuperDuper clones offsite every week, testing their bootability once a month.
The initial investment in local backups is that of a few drives. Not costing the world, it’s a better feeling to have the data in your hand rather than relying on a data center, however secure, that’s far away and at someone else’s mercy.
1. Granted, this is Apple’s fault. But as it stands, there is no suitable backup solution except for Time Machine.