It's a fact of modern life that archiving data is essential to prevent a data disaster. Still, something like one-third of computers are never backed up, according to 2,257 respondents in a recent Backblaze poll carried out by Harris Interactive. The survey came to the dismal conclusion that a scant 7% of users practice safe computing by archiving their systems on a daily (or nightly) basis.
"It's pitiful how few people protect their key data," says Dave Simpson, senior analyst at the market analysis firm 451 Group. "Once it's gone, it's gone."
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In place of the traditional technique of storing backups on an external hard drive, an increasingly popular remedy is to use an online backup service that saves the data on servers in the cloud. You don't need any extra hardware and once it's been set up, the system can automatically do the deed when the computer is idle.
"Online backup is a real alternative to local backups," adds Simpson. "It is a popular option to storing backups on a hard drive."
In the two years since we last looked at this area, a lot has changed. To begin with, there are now nearly four dozen companies selling online backup services. They have more automatic features; and, besides restoring files to the host computer, many (although not all) of the services now allow you to retrieve the stored files with a smartphone or tablet or to email them to a friend or colleague.
But while saving your files to the cloud is convenient and a good way to automate your backups, it has its disadvantages. First, the initial backup can be painfully slow, taking as much as several days, depending on the amount of data and the speed of your Internet connection. The good news is that only the first backup is this slow. After that, updates with new data take 10 or 15 minutes, on average.
Equally frustrating is that many online storage services only back up your personal files -- those you create -- and not those that the system requires to boot up, for example. This means that you're only partially protected.
With several dozen services out there, by far the hardest part is deciding which online backup service to use. I signed up for five of the most well-known online backup services: Backblaze, Carbonite, Crashplan, Mozy and Norton Online Backup. I tested them by backing up a desktop PC with Windows 7 Professional (some of these also work with Macs as well).
While all of the tested services do the same basic task -- saving your files to the cloud -- they exhibit a variety of features and pricing options that make it relatively easy to choose among them, depending on what your needs are.
To firefighters, a Backblaze is a fire that has been deliberately set to protect a forest by depriving the blaze of fuel. Computer users should think of Backblaze as a way to wall off their key files from all sorts of disasters.
The heart of the application is Backblaze's Control Panel, which can be started from a Task Tray icon. The interface puts key information up front, showing when the last backup was made and what files are waiting to be sent. There are buttons for backing up now, restoring data and changing the software's settings.
Backblaze offers unlimited storage capacity, but the service limits what types of files can be archived. Unlike the other services reviewed here, Backblaze specifically excludes a whole series of file types. By default, the service saves all user files such as music, photos and emails, but ignores system, program and Windows files, although you can put some file types back into the backup mix, such as Windows or program files.
You can set Backblaze backups to be continuous (where it's backing up to the cloud whenever your files are saved or changed), performed on a schedule or done on demand. Although the service can back up the contents of an external hard drive, Backblaze doesn't include the ability to back up the entire system to an external hard drive as three of the other services reviewed here can.
Unlike Mozy and Carbonite, Backblaze doesn't put a small colored dot next to file icons to mark files that have already been backed up or are ready to be sent. Archived files are available for recovery for up to a month after they've been deleted -- a disappointingly short time limit compared to CrashPlan's never-delete policy. And there is no way to share your files.
Another negative is that Backblaze colocates its servers at a single data center in the U.S. where the service keeps redundant copies of all backups, thereby placing all of your backup eggs in one basket.
On the positive side, Backblaze has an unusual security system that uses a 2,048-bit RSA Public/Private encryption key to secure a 128-bit key that encrypts the actual files. It's the most airtight security of the five applications reviewed here.
Other nice features include an upload speedometer that shows how fast data moved during the last backup and a tool that helps you find a lost or stolen computer by notifying the user of its location if it is logged on to the Internet (although Backblaze can't disable the computer remotely).
In tests using Backblaze's default settings, the service's archived 978MB of data in 1 hour, 42 minutes and 32 seconds. (Note: Because each application's default settings differed, the amount of data each archived at this point differed widely.)
At a Glance
Price: $50/year, $95/two years, $5/month
Works with: Windows, Mac OS X
Pros: Unlimited storage space; can help locate lost or stolen notebook; relatively inexpensive; will send DVDs or hard drive backups; fast restorations
Cons: Can't back up entire system; no smartphone apps; can't share files online
A 25MB incremental backup took 4 minutes and 31 seconds, roughly halfway between CrashPlan's 1 minute and 3 seconds and Norton's 7 minutes and 23 seconds.
Searching for a lost file took Backblaze 2.1 seconds, about the same time as the others. I was able to resurrect the file in a quick 25.3 seconds, the fastest of the bunch.
Rather than restoring files online, Backblaze will send a hard drive or a set of DVDs containing your backups for $189 or $99. This goes beyond Carbonite's Home Premium offer to send you a data-filled hard drive.
Backblaze has a two-week free trial. The service costs a reasonable $50 a year for unlimited storage, but extra computers cost $5 each to back up, something that Norton doesn't charge for. Backblaze offers client software for PCs and Macs, but not Linux computers, and unlike the others, the service doesn't have any companion smartphone apps.
All told, Backblaze can prevent a data disaster by protecting your most precious digital possessions, but it too severely limits what can be backed up.
Carbonite's fifth-generation backup software was released last November, yet it lacks some of the key features that its competitors provide.
Carbonite offers several different services. The basic Carbonite Home service ($59/year) offers unlimited backup for both Windows and Mac systems. The HomePlus service ($99/year) adds external hard drive backup along with the ability to create mirror images, while the HomePremier service ($149/year) adds a courier-recovery service where a copy of your backup will be shipped to you.
HomePlus and HomePremier are for Windows users only. A separate service, Carbonite Business, offers storage at higher rates for business users.
Carbonite's InfoCenter interface has a clear and easy-to-understand view of your backup status. A nice visual touch is that, like the Mozy software, Carbonite places a dot next to every file that will be affected: Yellow means it's ready to be backed up, while green shows that it's already been backed up. It lacks a log of its operations, though.
By default, Carbonite backs up only your desktop, music, document, photo, settings, email and video files. You can add other specific files, but Carbonite's software balks at including system, Windows and program files.
Carbonite can back up files continuously or on a schedule. The operation remains in the background; a progress bar slowly fills up, giving an estimate of how much time remains.
Once the backup is finished, any archived file can be recovered on the host computer or with a smartphone. Files remain accessible from Carbonite's online server for 30 days after they've been deleted from your computer's hard drive.
Carbonite colocates its server equipment at several data centers throughout the U.S. According to its site, the service uses RAID techniques on its server disks to make sure that a burned-out hard drive in their farm won't take your backups with it. The system uses 128-bit encryption for both online transfers and data storage; it's the least sophisticated security system of the five services I looked at.
When I performed an initial backup, Carbonite copied 655 files (135MB) and moved them to the company's cloud storage in 27 minutes and 31 seconds.
At a Glance
Price: $59/year (Home); $99/year (HomePlus); $149/year (HomePremier)
Works with: Windows, Mac OS X (Home); Windows only (HomePlus, HomePremier); iOS, Android, BlackBerry
Pros: Can use external hard drive; can have hard drive of backups (Home Premier); able to choose order of file restoration; colored dots show files to be backed up and those done
Cons: Can't back up entire system online; Home Plus and Premier services for Windows PCs only
It was able to incrementally back up 25MB of material in 1 minute and 9 seconds, just slightly slower than CrashPlan.
Searching for a lost file took 1.3 seconds and the file was recovered in 1 minute and 6.8 seconds, putting it in the middle of the pack. I also created a backup on a 250GB external drive, which took 3 hours and 16 minutes (the drive needs to be reformatted first).
Carbonite allows you to choose the order in which files are recovered so that you can keep working or playing while other files are downloaded. There is a 15-day free trial period.
I like the unlimited storage that Carbonite provides, and the basic service is inexpensive at $59 a year. However, the fact that you can't do a complete online backup (although you can mirror your files to an external drive) is disappointing.
A new cloud-based backup service called HiDrive, from German hosting company Strato, was introduced to the U.S. market after this article was written, and so it wasn't able to be tested. It could be worth checking out, if only because it offers 5GB of free storage space to users who want to try it out, 3GB more than Mozy gives.
However, once you pass the 5GB mark, its paid services can be a bit pricey. They include HiDrive 100, which provides 100GB of storage along with the ability to upload files via email and costs approximately $13/month (about $156/year). HiDrive 500 comes with 500GB of storage and the ability to share your data with others for about $39/month (about $468/year).
HiDrive works with Windows, Mac OS X, iOS, Android, and Windows Phone devices.
CrashPlan stands out from the competition in terms of the variety of options it offers users. To begin with, its client is available for a wide variety of computers, from Macs and Windows PCs to Linux and Solaris systems. There are also apps for accessing stored data for Apple iOS and Android devices, but not for BlackBerry phones.
There are also a number of different plans. The free version actually doesn't offer online backup, but instead allows you to back up to other computers -- for example, a system belonging to a friend, or a system at work. It's an interesting twist that can lessen the chances that your data will disappear, but might put it in too many hands. I'm not sure I'd want my data sitting on someone else's computer, although CrashPlan does encrypt it.
The paid versions allow you to back up your data to CrashPlan's online servers. The CrashPlan + service that I used offers unlimited storage for $50 a year; there's also a plan that limits capacity to 10GB for half as much, but both are limited to a single computer.
The unlimited family package gives you backup for up to 10 computers for $120 a year. The company offers a full-featured trial for 30 days.
CrashPlan has a central interface that shows the status of your backups and how many files are queued up; it also has places to click for restoring files, for determining where the backups will be stored and for making configuration changes. CrashPlan doesn't visually mark files for backing up as Mozy and Carbonite do. The software does have an excellent log that shows all tasks performed.
By default, the software gathers up key personal files like music, video and desktop files for backing up, but ignores Windows and system files. However, you can manually add any file type to the backup, including system files.
After its initial backup, CrashPlan continually looks for changes in your system's files and adds those that it finds to its next backup. CrashPlan does this behind the scenes as you use your computer; I didn't notice any slowdown of my system as a result. By default, the system will send backups every 15 minutes, but that interval can be changed; you can do an incremental backup at any time as well.
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