J. Peterson's Writing About Electronics, Reviews, 3D Modeling, etc.

Backup Software

I started working with computers when they were much less reliable than they are now.  Old operating and file systems frequently lost or corrupted your data, teaching you the importance of a backup copy.  Then the fire at our house reinforced the importance of offsite backups.  The $50-150 a year cost is cheap insurance against losing all your creative work, financial and (ahem) insurance records.

A few months after the fire I set up our computers with CrashPlan. We used it at work, and it worked very well at home. But this summer CrashPlan announced they were pulling the plug on home usage, and their commercial offerings weren’t very economic for few home PCs.

CrashPlan gave plenty of warning their home service is discontinued, but watching smoke roll in to Silicon Valley from the 2017 North Bay fires was a grim reminder. To my surprise, it took a few tries to get find a reliable replacement. Here’s my experience.

IDrive logo

IDrive was my first choice: lots of features, reasonable price. Installing it on Windows though, left me feeling a little queasy; there was just something a little over-engineered about the look and feel of the product. It’s difficult to describe, but as a long-time software developer, you can just sense when something’s a little off. But it still looked worth a try.

When I first deployed it, the backup failed with the cryptic message: Scheduled backup has been skipped because Interactive backup is in progress. Huh? When I tried to re-launch the app to find out why, I couldn’t launch it. Start Menu > “iDrive”…nothing.  Notification tray > iDrive lock icon > pop-up menu > “Start iDrive”…nothing. The app folder was a jumble of .exe files, clicking on a few wouldn’t start the app either.

A support ticket and a couple re-installs brought the app back. But the first unsupervised backup also failed. Patients exhausted, I dumped iDrive.

BackBlaze logo

Next up was BackBlaze, a well-reviewed service. Their home pricing is a bit different, charging per-computer rather than per-customer, but for our situation the cost is comparable to the other services. In contrast to iDrive, their app was much cleaner and smoother. And it launched reliably.

There were a few minor issues; for example in BackBlaze you define folders you do not want backed up, and trust it finds everything else you want to save. I set this up, and started the backup.

When I checked back a while later though, it was behaving strangely. The “files to back up” bounced around from over a million to several hundred thousand, rather than steadily decreasing. When I clicked on the app’s link for “how long will your first backup take?”, the web page said “108 days” Seriously?! A support ticket and re-install later, the backup seemed a bit better behaved. But a day later, nothing was showing up as saved when I logged into the BackBlaze web page. At this point, my “this is broken software” alarm went off, and it was time to try another solution.

Most online backup services sell the service of storing your files, and the software is provided “free” as a means to access the storage. By contrast, Arq sells the software for doing the backup, and leaves renting the storage for your backup up to you. They provide a variety of suggestions and pricing plans from the usual suspects (Amazon, Google, DropBox, etc.) to help make selecting a provider easy. Other than the initial cost of the software ($50) the overall expense is similar to the other backup services. The format the archive is stored in is openly documented, so (in theory) you can recover your data even if their software goes away.

The Arq control panel is straightforward to use, but with one quirk: If you want to adjust parameters like when the backup runs, you need to go to File > Preferences > Destinations, and double-click on the entry you’re uploading to. I couldn’t find this until a colleague at work pointed it out.

Since I already had a 5GB Amazon Drive account with my Amazon Prime membership, I simply extended that to 1TB for about $60/year.

Unlike the first two apps, Arq actually works for me.  It took about four days to back up a quarter terabyte of data, and I was able to successfully retrieve a sample, verifying it works.

Overall backup strategy

Having the off-site backup serves two purposes. It provides last-resort access to your files in the house-burned-down scenario, and the incremental backups provide convenient access to accidentally deleted files. There’s a third case though, and that’s hard drive or SSD failure. For this, the best solution is a bootable whole-volume backup. For my Mac OS boot volume, I use Super Duper to make a bootable drive copy on an external hard drive. My Mac actually runs Windows most of the time, and to back up the Windows boot volume, I use WinCloneNote: If you want to make a backup of a Boot Camp Windows boot volume attached to a Macintosh, WinClone is the only game in town. Using regular Windows utilities to back up the boot volume does not create a bootable copy.  I make these full copies 4-6 times a year. External backup drives are incredibly cheap – a terabyte is under $60 now.

I also routinely run a Windows script that syncs files to an external hardrive, just because its handy and quick.

“But my stuff is already in the cloud…”

I’m aware readers from this century might roll their eyes at all this bother, and wonder why anybody takes the trouble to back stuff up. After all, you can just leave your stuff on iCloud or GDrive or OneDrive or whatever, accessing it from any handy device. Their massive, redundant data centers surely won’t lose anything.

I have two words for you: Account Disabled.

Remember, for large web companies, you’re generally not the customer – you’re the product. Their customers are the large advertisers harvesting your data. If for whatever reason Google/Amazon/Apple/Microsoft/Facebook decides to pull the plug, you will find it’s awfully hard to get back in, particularly if you’re not a journalist or celebrity.

Other views

Outlined above is just one strategy. There are many others; e.g. Time Machine backup to a pair of local drives, with one taken to your workplace every few weeks. JWZ provides an example. Jeff Atwood comments.

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  1. Note: Amazon’s consumer storage product no longer supports backup data storage.

    I’ve since shifted my storage to Google Drive, about $100/Yr for two terabytes of storage.

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