Off-Site Backups

It’s amazing how one thing will lead to another.

A few weeks ago there were some serious tornado warnings in my neighborhood for the first time since I moved here in 2001. The tornado alarms were going off, the AM radio stations were awry with the latest storm warnings, and Anna and I were hunkered down in the basement.

As we sat there listening to the radio and tweeting about the current weather outside, the thoughts that were going through my head were of those families just 2 hours south of us in Joplin, Missouri, who had lost their entire homes just a few days prior.

Thank God, our afternoon tornado scare never turned into anything more. But it left me thinking about the what if.

What if our home was destroyed and we lost all our belongings? Or what if someone were to break in and rob us? Apart from one another, the only irreplaceable things in our house are the priceless memories, work, and other information that we keep on our computers.

In short, if I woke up in the middle of the night and our home was on fire then I hope Anna and I would have enough time to put on some trousers, grab the external hard drive, and get outside.

But in moments like that the less stuff you have to think about the better, because what’s most important is staying alive and safe. And once we have kids that hard drive suddenly gets a serious demotion on the priority list.

If there ever were a situation where grabbing the external drive on the way out the door wasn’t an option, or if it were destroyed by a tornado, or if it were stolen, then we would lose years worth of photos and music as well as access to much of our livelihood, including the documents and passwords related to our business, finances, etc.

If what’s on your computer is important and irreplaceable, you should have an off-site backup.

When I was the Marketing Director for the International House of Prayer I kept an external drive at my work office. I would clone my laptop to that drive once or twice a week. However, when I quit my job as Marketing Director to write this site full time, my off-site backup came home with me.

My philosophy for backing up has always been this: keep it simple, keep it safe.

A backup system that requires very much personal attention will never make it in the long run. And a backup drive that isn’t safe is only slightly better than no backup at all.

I already have a system in place for keeping my current data backed up here at my house:

  • Using SuperDuper! I back up my laptop to an external Lacie hard drive every night.
  • I have a TimeCapsule that I run Time Machine to.1
  • I keep all my daily “working files” in Dropbox.

The above backup setup is actually quite common amongst the nerdy. As it should be. It is extremely simple to maintain, it is redundant, and at any given moment if my laptop’s internal SSD were to suddenly suffer a fatal loss of all my data I would like only lose 60 seconds or less of my work.

But, what if something broke beyond just my laptop? What if my external drives were destroyed or stolen? The only data I would be able to recover would be the the handful of files which are in Dropbox. And that is precisely why an off-site backup is a good idea.

Off-Site Backup Options

There are many people who, like I did, keep a 2nd external hard drive at another location. ‘Such as:

  • Rent a PO Box and store your 2nd external there
  • Rent a safety deposit box and keep it there
  • Keep the 2nd drive at a friend’s house
  • Keep it at your office

I used to have my off-site backup at my office, but like I said, now that I work from home that 2nd drive is here with me.

The idea of keeping it in a Post Office Box or a safety deposit box is clever but seems like far too much work. It may be safe, but it most certainly is not simple. It means, that the longer between visits to the bank or the Post Office the less up-to-date that off-site backup is.

Moreover, PO Boxes and safety deposit boxes are not free. If you’re going to pay to store your data somewhere else then why not pay for a more simple and useful solution?

Why not back up to a cloud server? That’s what I decided to do.

The way I backup now looks like this:

  • Nightly SuperDuper! clones of my laptop to an external drive.
  • Time Machine running to a TimeCapsule.
  • All “currently working files” stored in Dropbox.
  • Automatic cloud backups of all my irreplaceable documents, photos, music, and application support folders.

If all the hard drives at my home were completely destroyed, Anna’s and my most important and irreplaceable data would be safe.

However, as I have found out, not all cloud-storage backup services are created equal. Over the past several weeks I have looked into and used a few different options and services. Here’s a look at each of the off-site backup services I have looked into.

Backblaze

This all started — as most things do these days — with a poll on Twitter. I asked for suggestions for a cloud backup solution, and the two most popular recommendations were CrashPlan and Backblaze.

They each have their own unique pros and cons, but at the core they are pretty much the same: they run in the background on your computer and they back up files to the cloud, and they both offer unlimited storage for a monthly fee.

I decided to go with Backblaze primarily because it was the more popular recommendation and Backblaze has a native Mac app that runs as a system utility. (As you’ll see later, CrashPlan is a Java app.)

When I first installed Backblaze and let it begin uploading, I was surprised to see that it was only going to upload 36 GBs of data from my laptop. I assumed it would do a backup, similar to how SuperDuper! does, and “clone” my laptop to the cloud. I also assumed that if I ever needed to recover my data from Backblaze and I asked them to send me the hard drive with my data on it, then I would simply be able to restore from that drive as I could with the external drive I have sitting on my desk right now.

Instead, I discovered that what Backblaze copies is just about everything but your Operating System and your applications.

Certainly the documents, media, and application support files which are in your home folder are the most important files to back up — they’re the ones which are most the irreplaceable. However, even if I wanted to backup my entire computer I couldn’t. Backblaze will not allow the backing up of any of the folders in your root directory, such as /Applications/, /Library/, /Developer/, /System/, or /Users/.

In many ways this makes sense. In an ideal scenario you’ll never need to use Backblaze to restore your data. So why spend extra bandwidth and CPU cycles to backup anything but the most crucial files? But that doesn’t mean I don’t like to have the option.

Backblaze will also back up external hard drives. I keep my iTunes library and Photo albums on an external media drive, and Backblaze uploads that to the cloud as well.

Data Recovery from Backblaze

Supposing my computer and hard drives were destroyed or stolen, how would I get back to the way things were?

Well, I’d start with buying a new computer, syncing my Dropbox files to it, and re-downloading and authorizing my applications.

Then I would have a few options from Backblaze for how to get my data: (a) download it; (b) have them send me an external HDD; or (c) have them send me a DVD with the data.

To download it is free; to have a physical drive or disc sent costs money. Since I have less than 100 GB of data and media, downloading it would not be all that horrible of an experience.

Backblaze Summary

The disadvantages with Backblaze are that I don’t get as much control over what files get backed up as I’d like, and that it doesn’t provide the greatest level of security encryption. If you’re nitpicky and paranoid, Backblaze might not be for you.

The advantages to Backblaze are that it’s affordable, fast, and native to your Mac. If you want a simple and affordable way to make sure your pictures, music, documents, and application support files are backed up then Backblaze is probably perfect for you.

CrashPlan

The second most popular suggestion was CrashPlan.

At first I thought CrashPlan was an identical service to Backblaze. They both do off-site backups of your computer and they both offer unlimited storage for $50/year. Since CrashPlan is a Java app, I picked Backblaze because it’s native.

However, as I did some digging around with CrashPlan I learned that it has some very cool features.

For one, CrashPlan lets you upload any folder on your computer. If you want to upload the folders in your root directory you can.

Secondly, CrashPlan has several options for where you can back up to:

  • An external drive that’s connected via USB or FireWire.
  • The CrashPlan cloud servers.
  • A hard drive connected to a friend’s computer across town or across the world.

You only pay if you back up to CrashPlan’s cloud servers. This is obviously going to be faster and more reliable than backing up to someone else’s house, for some people they would much rather keep physical control of their data.

Backing your data up to drive connected to your friend’s computer is actually quite simple. They install CrashPlan onto their computer and then the app will give them their personal “backup code”. You enter that code into CrashPlan on your computer and then the two get linked. No fancy nerdery needed.

If your folks have a Mac or PC with a decent Internet connection, you could take a hard drive over next time you visit, plug it in, and convert their home into your off-site data center (something you never thought you’d say about your parents’ place).

Data Recovery from CrashPlan

If your data is at your folks house, you can just ask your dad to send you the drive. If you need to recover your data from CrashPlan’s data center they offer the same options as BackBlaze does: download, hard drive, DVD.

CrashPlan Summary

The advantages to CrashPlan are:

  • You only pay for it if you back up to their cloud servers.
  • You can back up any file or folder on your Mac, and you have complete control over picking those files.
  • You have several options for other locations to back up, and you can chose more than one options, which means you can use just CrashPlan to manage your on-site and your off-site backups.

The disadvantage to CrashPlan is that it’s not a native app; it’s Java. Though, to be fair, you rarely interface with the app itself once you’ve set up the folders you want to back up and where you want to back them up to.

If you’re going to go with an off-site backup service and use their servers, CrashPlan would be a fine choice. But if you are wanting to keep your off-site backup in a location you control (like your office or your friend’s house) then that is where CrashPlan would truly be ideal.

Arq

There is, however, another backup option which is new to me: Arq. The more I learn about off-site cloud backups the more I like Arq.

Arq is not an App + Cloud service like Backblaze or CrashPlan, it is just an app. You buy it and connect it to your own Amazon S3 account. There are advantages and disadvantages to storing your data on Amazon S3.

At first glance it’s easy to think that putting your data on S3 would be significantly more expensive than the unlimited storage options that Backblaze provides. However, since Backblaze only uploads certain documents, and the general consensus for cloud backups is that you only back up the most irreplaceable files, the cost differences are may not be as extreme as you think.

Of course with Amazon S3 you not only pay for data storage, you also pay for data transfer. Which means my initial upload of 36 GBs would cost me $5 to upload and then $5/ month to store (or $3.35/month using the Reduced Redundancy Storage). If I upload all my music and photos (another 60 GB) to Amazon S3 as well then my monthly storage costs would be around $13 (or $9 if I used RRS).

(You could use Amazon Cloud Drive to store my music and photos since those are mostly static files and the Cloud Drive storage is cheaper than S3 at only $1/GB/year. But you definitely wouldn’t want to use Amazon Cloud Drive to keep your backups because you have to manually upload everything to it.)

So yes, Arq and Amazon S3 are a little more expensive than Backblaze or CrashPlan, but you get quite a few advantages. For one, you have complete control over the security and selection of your files that get uploaded to Amazon. Unlike Backblaze where your data gets decrypted on their servers, Arq keeps the decryption local.

Moreover, Amazon has several world-class data centers. If you keep your stuff on their Standard Storage they could suffer a simultaneous loss of two centers without losing any data. On the less-expensive Reduced Redundancy Storage they could lose one data center without losing your data. (Backblaze has one data center, CrashPlan has several.)

What I also like about Arq is that it gives you very granular control over what does and does not get backed up. By default, Arq recommends that you back up your home directory not including your ~/Library/ folder. But you can add or remove folders as you wish.

The way Arq does backups is similar to the way Time Machine does. Meaning it only backs up files that are new or have changed and it keeps past versions of old files as well. You can set a monthly storage budget so that your version storage does not grow your S3 costs out of control. When you hit that budget, Arq will delete the oldest versions of files in your S3 account, keeping only the latest copies.

I also like how Arq handles the network preferences for adjusting upload speeds. You can chose between maximum transfer rate, automatic, or fixed.

CrashPlan lets you set a transfer rate cap depending on if you’re at your computer or not. And though Backblaze lets you set a cap, those speeds are independent of what you are doing on your computer. For example, if I chose a lower transfer rate in Backblaze then it will use that lower speed even if I am not doing any network heaving work on my computer. And the opposite is true: if I chose a higher transfer rate then it will fight for that rate even if I am doing a lot of network heavy work.

Arq’s automatic transfer rate however adjusts to your Internet usage, as it should. So if I’m downloading a movie, Arq throttles back; if I’m casually web surfing, Arq speeds up.

Data Recovery from Arq

Restoring from Arq means downloading from your S3 account. You can chose to restore individual files, folders, or download all of it.

However, since Arq works similar to Time Machine, you can go back and see versions of your files and restore individual files or folders. So it’s not just for catastrophe recovery.

Arq Summary

The only disadvantage to Arq is the price. Of course, for some people the superiority of Arq’s encryption and Amazon’s reliability may make the price worth it. And for others, depending on the amount of data being backed up, the price may be inconsequential if not equal to other services.

The advantages to Arq are that it’s a well-built Mac app. It offers very granular control, versioned backups, and it stores your data in Amazon’s reliable data centers.

Using Arq I feel much more in control and confident about what is getting backed up and just how safe it is. It even just feels more safe than the other services.

The short of it

All this to say, it is a good idea to have an offsite backup, and I recommend using a cloud-based service because it’s easy to set up and easy to keep up to date.

Backblaze and CrashPlan both work well and are very affordable. If you have lots and lots of irreplaceable data (more than 100 GBs) then you may want to use these guys because the monthly costs will be lower and they’ll send you a drive with your stuff on it to recover.

However, if you care about having granular control, better data centers, higher encryption of your data, and/or you don’t have that much to back up, then Arq is a great solution.

I currently have a one-year subscription with Backblaze, and I’m glad I do. But if I had known what I know today one month ago then I probably would have bought and used Arq instead.

* * *

Update, 2013-08-30: Since writing this, Backblaze has significantly improved their data encryption and added certain files to their backup list. It’s been a few years now, and I continue to use Backblaze and highly recommend their service.


  1. A note about TimeMachine, people complain that when it kicks in it brings your computer to a grinding halt. Well, that’s only true if you’re on an HDD. It does that because the needle is moving back and forth between the data that’s being read to be backed up to the drive and the data that’s being read for your use. With a Solid State Drive, read/write speeds are exponentially faster and you don’t even notice Time Machine kicking in.
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