2011-02-02

Evaluating Online Backups

I’ve discussed my backup strategy before:

I have a working copy [of my sourcecode] on my MacBook, the repositories on my MacMini, backups in their Time Machine databases, and a copy of the repositories in a SuperDuper image on a NAS. Unless the house explodes I’m pretty sure I’ll never lose anything important.

I’ve been working to remove on that final caveat by backing up all of my important files to the “cloud” (ie. an offsite backup to someone else’s hard disk). Here are the essential features I need:

  • Must be cross-platform. I use OSX; my SO uses Windows. I’d rather not have to pay for two backup systems.

  • Must have unlimited storage. My other half needs to back up the 70GB of photos that she’s taken during the past 9 years. I want to back up around 25GB of photos along with around 5GB of documents, Mercurial repositories, SVN repositories, etc. Being able to backup my iTunes database would be good too, but not essential.

  • Must have a reliable restore process. Backups that can’t be restored are less useful than piping everything to /dev/null. They take longer but achieve the same effect. That the restore process be reliable implies that the storage be reliable, too.

  • Must be able to back up more than one computer. I have three Macs to back up, whilst the other half has a Windows laptop. I’d prefer to be able to backup all four computers without needing to pay for extra licences.

  • Must have a monthly pay plan. If I discover after two weeks that the service is awful, I don’t want to have paid for an entire year of it.

  • Must have a free demo. If I’m going to pay for it, I’d like to know that it works first.

  • Must have a reasonable level of encryption. If I’m going to upload personal documents, I’d rather they were encrypted with something sturdier than 128-bit encryption. 256-bit is OK. 448-bit is better.

Other than that, here are some of the features that I’d like to have:

  • Well designed client. I’d like the client to be easy to use. I’d like to be able to restore from the client. It’d be great if the Mac version of the client looked like a Mac application rather than a Windows application with a different window border. Clients that suck up massive amounts of memory or CPU time really need to be attached to a kickass backup service for me to even consider them.

  • User-defined encryption key. It’d be nice to be able to define my own encryption key, so that employees of the backup service can’t snoop around in my files.

  • External drive backup. My iTunes database sits on an external drive that is connected to an old PPC Mac Mini. If I can’t backup external disks, I won’t be able to backup my music.

  • Must not be expensive. The average price of online backup systems seems to be roughly $5/month per computer. I’d rather not pay much more than that.

A lot of the potential backup services fail to fulfil even the basic requirements. I rejected these without even trying them:

Carbonite

  • Requires a subscription per computer.
  • Yearly pay plan only.
  • Can’t backup external disks.

BackBlaze

  • Awkward restore system that involves downloading a zip file or paying to have a disk shipped.

SOS Online Backup

  • Windows only.
  • Storage capped at 50GB.

iBackup

  • $1/month per GB makes the service horrendously expensive.

KineticD

  • $2/month per GB makes the service doubly as expensive as iBackup, which is already astonishingly unaffordable. Seems to be aimed at businesses.

BackupDirect

  • $3/month per GB. Definitely aimed at businesses.

BackupRight

  • $99/month for 250GB makes the service far too expensive.

iceBackup

  • £59/month for 200GB makes the service slightly more expensive than BackupRight.

iDrive

  • Cross-platform support, but Mac is a second-class citizen.

MyOtherDrive

  • 128-bit encryption.

After whittling down the list of potential backup providers a little, I tried four of the remaining options.

Mozy

Mozy seem to be the most famous of the online backup companies. They recently upgraded their Mac client to version 2 and it integrates into the OS very well. It finally offers a user-defined encryption key for both Mac and Windows. The client is easy to use and, during my testing, worked flawlessly.

However, Mozy is also the most infamous of the online backup systems. Here’s a selection of quotes from MacUpdate about Mozy:

“In short, still the same slow, bloated mess. Find something else would be my recommendation - it’s clear to me that whoever is developing this software cannot build a product that runs well on Macs.”

“Program failed to backup the files and froze frequently. Terrible program!”

“My experience with Mozy was terrible. It constantly lost its configuration, the handling of caches was corrupt all the time resulting in endless loops of rebuilding and the support was the worst.”

“Whoever owns Mozy today ought to just take it out back and dump it in the toxic waste barrel - put it out of its prolonged misery.”

Googling for Mozy problems reveals hundreds of similar accounts. Mozy’s reputation is awful: the client is slow, backups fail, restores don’t work, support is non-existent, etc. A reliable service is one of my essential criteria for choosing a backup provider. Things aren’t looking good for Mozy.

What really convinced me to ditch the service was their recent decision to switch to a 50GB cap on their previously unlimited storage space. That is of no use to me.

Pros:

  • Backup and restore seemed to work for me.
  • Cross-platform support.
  • Very Mac-like OSX client.
  • User-defined encryption key.

Cons:

  • Appalling reputation for all aspects of the service.
  • New storage cap makes the service considerably less useful.
  • No ability to backup external disks.
  • Each computer costs an additional $5/month to backup.

Spideroak

SpiderOak was the first backup service I tried. It works in both Windows and OSX and allows multiple computers to backup using the same account. None of Mozy’s “$5 per computer” shenanigans here.

Trust issues arise almost immediately, however. Both the SpiderOak website and client feel clunky. The client apparently uses Flash as its UI, which - although cross-platform and possibly a clever idea - doesn’t inspire confidence. The company feels very much like a FOSS startup. Can I trust them with my backups?

Their pricing structure is rather unusual: $10/month per 100GB. As I estimate I’ll be backing up approximately 150GB initially, that means that the total cost will be $20/month. This is the same price as Mozy’s original “unlimited” service, but it will become more expensive as time goes on.

Pros:

  • Multiple computer support.
  • Cross-platform.
  • Unlimited storage.
  • Backs up external disks.
  • User-defined encryption key.

Cons:

  • Increasingly expensive.
  • “Quirky” client.
  • Dubious reliability.

JungleDisk

JungleDisk is the mirror image of Mozy. It’s not particularly famous, but every mention of it online is overwhelmingly positive. Its storage is provided by either Rackspace Cloud Files or Amazon S3 (depending on user choice). It has a glowing reputation for reliability and for the quality of its support. It will backup multiple computers on the same account, provides unlimited storage space and will backup external disks. It even has a DropBox-style syncing service and allows its backup storage space to be mounted as a network share. Though its client is considerably more complex than Mozy, it is not unusably so.

I paid for JungleDisk for a few months and didn’t experience any problems. However, I did find that the service rapidly became expensive. The “desktop” version of the service is $3/month plus storage costs. On Rackspace’s “Cloud Files” storage option, those costs are $0.15/month. It doesn’t sound like much, but I quickly found that I was paying $20/month and still had a large number of files left to backup.

Some of the features are of limited use. The DropBox-style file syncing functionality is more complex to use and less well implemented than DropBox itself. I’d suggest getting a free DropBox account for that purpose instead. The network share option never seemed to show me the files I was expecting, so I’m not entirely sure what its purpose is.

Pros:

  • Multiple computer support.
  • Cross-platform.
  • Unlimited storage.
  • Backs up external disks.
  • User-defined encryption key.

Cons:

  • Complex, un-Mac-like client.
  • Features such as file syncing are less useful than expected.
  • Per GB cost results in the service becoming very expensive very quickly.

CrashPlan

After realising that JungleDisk was becoming uneconomical, I looked instead at CrashPlan. CrashPlan is very unusual. It can backup to “CrashPlan Central”, the company’s own cloud storage system, or it can backup to an external disk. It can even perform a peer-to-peer backup to other computers that run the CrashPlan client. Unexpectedly, the client is free. That means backing up to external disks or other computers won’t cost you a penny.

The cloud storage option is surprising, too. The “CrashPlan+” option allows up to 10 computers to backup on the same subscription. Storage space is unlimited, yet it only costs $12/month.

The big problem with CrashPlan is its client. It is very easy to use, but it is written in Java. Its memory requirements are huge. After finishing the initial backup of my Mac Mini, it was using 400MB of virtual memory and 150MB of physical memory. The computer only has 1GB of physical memory in total. The CrashPlan client dwarfs everything else running on the computer combined. I’d like to think that this will be fixed in the future, but it appears to be a long-term problem.

Pros:

  • Cross-platform.
  • Up to 10 computers on the CrashPlan+ option.
  • Unlimited storage.
  • Relatively inexpensive.
  • Backs up external drives.
  • User-definable encryption key.
  • Backs up to external drives/other computers for free.
  • 448-bit encryption.

Cons:

  • Amazingly memory hungry client. Java hungers for your RAM.

Summary

In summary, Mozy has a reputation for being unreliable, and its newly-capped 50GB service isn’t very useful. JungleDisk has a reputation for greatness, but it is overly-complicated and expensive. SpiderOak feels like it was developed by Linux enthusiasts: admirable goals saddled with a ropey UI. CrashPlan fulfils all of my requirements and more, but its client has major memory problems.

For the moment, I’m giving CrashPlan a try.

Comments

joe on 2011-04-28 at 22:54 said:

Try Oxygen Cloud

Ant on 2011-04-29 at 06:39 said:

Oxygen Cloud looks more like a competitor to Dropbox than Crash Plan. It’s a cloud-based file syncing tool rather than a backup system.

I can’t find a price anywhere on the site. That, plus liberal use of the word “enterprise”, suggests that it’s so expensive that the company can’t disclose the price without a salesperson to soften the blow.

Backups and Dead Disks | ant.simianzombie.com on 2011-08-06 at 15:30 said:

[…] me that I’ve been meaning to write about my backup strategy. I’ve discussed it a couple of times, but it’s changed recently. I’ve dumped SuperDuper! and replaced it with Crash […]