The backup dilema

If you do anything on your computer besides checking your Gmail account, reading CNN and shopping at Amazon you need to backup your computer. Be it your picture gallery, your Quicken file, your letters, your novel, etc. If you don’t want to loose it, you need to back it up. As advanced and prevalent computers are these days, they still break, hard disks, die, etc. Having just one copy of a file in one location is asking for trouble. For anyone familiar with Murphy’s law you’ll know that the chances of something happening to a file is in direct portion to the importance of the file and inverse portion to the number of backups. If all you ever use is Opera, Firefox, Chrome or Internet Explorer likely the only thing stored on your computer are your internet site favorites. If you’re a chrome user (I’m not familiar enough with Opera and Firefox to know if this holds true for them or not) your favorites can be configured to be backed up to your Google account. So if Chrome is the only application you ever use you probably have nothing to worry about. However most computer users do not fall into that category. If you don’t care if you loose everything you’ve got stored on your computer (pictures, files, emails, contacts, etc.) you don’t have anything to worry about either, again very few folks fall into this category. If you don’t read your email in an web browser, instead use an application like Thunderbird, Windows Live Mail, Windows mail, Outlook express, Outlook, etc., chances are all your emails and contacts are stored on your computer and without a backup you risk loosing it all.

Generally speaking I would say there are three types of users when it comes to backup volume: light, medium and heavy. This is how I would define each category.

  • Light users has less than 2 GB of files to backup
  • Medium user has less than 20 GB of file to backup
  • Heavy user has more than 200 GB of files to backup

A novice user may be asking what a GB is. In simple terms it is a measurement for a size of a file, kind of like the metric system. It is difficult to explain how big it is in manner that gives an accurate perspective as files can be any size. It’s like trying to explain how many cups are in a liter or a quart without first defining the size of the cup. Generally speaking though you can store about 1000 low resolution pictures or about 250 MP3 songs in 1 GB.

For a light and medium users there are a lot of viable options for backing up online for reasonable price. For light users there are even free options available, here are few options:

  • My Other Drive offers free backup for up to 2 GB, the catch is that if you go over 2 GB you’ll start to pay.
  • Drop box Also offers free backup for up to 2 GB with subscription over that.
  • OffSiteBox Offers fee backup for up to 1 GB with subscriptions over that.
  • iDrive Also offers free backup for up to 2 GB with subscription over that

I haven’t tried any of these services as I’m a very heavy backup user (I have close to 2000 GB of files I want backed up) but they all look like a good solution for the right scenarios. One thing to be aware of is overseas companies offering online backup solutions. These might all be great companies but the problem is that network connectivity overseas is a lot slower than domestically. It’s a simple law of physics that it takes longer to go 6000 miles than 2000 miles, even when traveling at the speed of light as in the case of internet connectivity. Therefore I would stick with companies in the same continent as you are (so in the US for those of us in the US) for this purpose. The only overseas company I’ve come across offering backup service is Live Drive which is based in London England. Unless they have established a presence in the US (as in US customers data is backed up to a servers in the US) I would stay away from them (unless of course you live in Europe), simply for performance reasons. As an example when I measure the transit times from my computer in Kirkland WA to the iDrive servers the average result is 36 milli seconds where as to the Live Drive servers the average is 181 milli seconds. This means that it would take me 5 times as long to backup or restore the same amount of files to Live Drive compare to iDrive.

There are two other options for either light or medium users that claim to offer unlimited backup for one flat monthly fee, but I would not recommend these for heavy users. These are called Mozy and Carbonite. While the promise of unlimited backup can be enticing there is usually a catch to those offers. I haven’t tried Mozy but I did try Carbonite and I can not in good conscience recommend them. If you want an unlimited plan I would try Mozy simply because they aren’t Carbonite.

Generally speaking there is a gotcha’s when it comes to unlimited backup plans in that the company may have a desire to keep their space use down by limiting the number of copies they store and how long they store it. Say for example your Quicken file gets corrupt and you can’t open it, your backup file is most likely corrupt too so unless you have at least couple of different versions your backup can’t help you out. This is why it is important to keep few revisions of a file and any good backup solution will do that for you automatically. Another scenario is you accidentally delete a file of your hard drive, the backup company could decide to delete your backup too which defeats the whole point of a the backup. What if they keep it for a month and then delete it but it takes you six weeks to notice it is gone. These are the dangers of an unlimited backup plan. When you pay for the space you use it is in the companies best interest to keep many version of your backup and never delete files from the backup until you explicitly delete it from the backup as this increases the space you use. If you backup 10 GB of files and keep three copies then you’re paying for 30 GB backup.

My issue with Carbonite is I feel they are deceitful and unreliable. They claim they give you unlimited backup but they neglect to tell you that if you attempt to backup more than 35 GB you’re backup becomes so slow that it becomes unusable. They burry this information deep in this support article where they outline that if you exceed 35 GB that your backup speed will be cut by a fourth, and if you exceed 200 GB your backup speed will be one twentieth of a user that has less than 35 GB backed up. At that speed it will take you years to backup just few GB, so in practical terms you really can’t backup more than 200 GB. When I contacted support to complain about my backup speeds they gave me the total run around, blaming my internet speeds, telling me stories about how some users have really slow connection and basically just telling me bunch of stories. At no point did they actually fess up on how to they were set up, I found that support article by digging around their knowledge base system. They would never attempt to do any troubleshooting or do anything beyond providing irrelevant canned answers. I complained loudly to every contact at Carbonite I could find, including support and sales with no results. Then I found them on Facebook and told my story on their wall, initially they just deleted my posts but after I persisted awhile I was actually contacted by their VP on Support who apologized for the run around the support gave me and tried to justify their policies. He offered me a refund which is the only reason why I’m still a customer. I have no intention of ever paying them, but as long as they keep giving me free service I might keep them around. In the time I’ve had them I’ve gotten couple of automated emails saying that the computer hasn’t contact their computers for over a week and to please turn the computer on connect it to the internet. I contacted Carbonite support asking for explanation and told them that this computer is never turned off and always connected, even supplied proof of that. No response from support in any fashion. I’ve also found a lot of complaining on other blogs about Carbonite loosing peoples files so when they went to restore, there were files missing or in some cases their entire backup.

For heavy or very heavy users (like myself) the options are much more limited. All the online backup options are prohibitively expensive, for example OffSiteBox charges $164.95/month for 500 GB. Amazon Web Services seems to charge $75/month for the same amount. My Other Drive seems to be considerable cheaper as their ads talk about $240 per year for twice that amount. What I opted for was to maintain a local backup as I find it much more cost effective. I purchased few external USB drives and file synchronization software. For one time investment in hardware I had myself a backup solution with only thing missing was an off-site option.

There are a lot of options when it comes to file synchronization software, I ended up going with a program called Goodsync and I have been very happy with it. The license for it $23.95 and it provides a lot of flexibility. A good backup solution though needs to have an off-site option to protect against things like fire. My solution lacks this right now. One option would be have extra hard drives and trade drives with drives off-site, either your office, safe deposit box, etc. Another option is to put the second drive into a fireproof data safe.