Sunday, February 04, 2007

I joined the online backup revolution... you should too.

Those who know me in the business world know that I'm not a big fan of outsourcing. I only do it when it really makes sense... or when it saves me a lot of work.

Well, back almost 2 years ago I found an online backup product that worked in peer-to-peer mode called Vembu. It was a great product hampered by the limitations of configuration and maintenance. We still use it in our datacenters - where the environment is controlled and the bandwidth plentiful.

Once the per license prices of Vembu started going up, I started looking for something else that might fill the gap. That's when I heard about a handful of startup's making use of Amazon's hosted services web services APIs and outsourced data storage and processing services - known as Amazon S3. Using those web services and outsourced storage space dramatically reduce the cost of starting up and running a business whose purpose in life is to amass large quantities of data that doesn't get touched very often.

"Large quantities of data that doesn't get touched very often..." Hmm, doesn't that sound like the exact definition of computer backups? Absolutely. Since S3 is so well fitted to the online backup model, it's no surprise that 7-8 real companies are trying to make a business of it.

The first product I tried that made use of them was called Elephant Backup. Great idea... horrible software. Their software must have truly been written by engineers because it made no real sense to normal users. Even I, a tech guy, looked at a few of the ways they did things and went "Huh?"

So I've been on the lookout for companies doing similar things and testing the products. After more than a couple false starts and some hair pulling, 2 months ago I finally found an online backup product that works as advertised, required no manual intervention from me, and just did it's thing without pestering me in the process. That product is Carbonite Backup.

Cheesy name... great product. And yes, it literally does create a carbon copy of your data for backup purposes. The shining star of this product isn't their website (nice but who cares... you should never have to touch it if the product works right). Instead the real meat is their client software. It has smarts to figure out - with pretty good accuracy in all of my tests - what files to back up and what to ignore.

The Carbonite software doesn't fuss with trying to backup all your software installations, Windows files and other junk. It zooms in on the important stuff: documents, emails, photos and important settings. The biggest surprise for me was that it figured out I was using Mozilla Thunderbird as my email client and correctly chose all the Thunderbird mailbox files to back up. (This did create a slight problem. Keep on reading for details.)

For those who have never used online backup tools before let me give you a couple helpful hints to make things register correctly in your brain.
  1. Your computer has to be connected to the internet and able to actually access the outside world for backups to take place. If it's turned off or not online, nothing happens. So don't use online backup if you're seldom online or the machine spends more time turned off than it does turned on.

  2. The speed of backups and restores is limited by your connection speed. If you're on a 768kbps DSL line, forget about it unless you have next to nothing to back up (in which case, why aren't you just burning CDs instead?). On my 6mbps x 640kbps DSL line it took about 7 days to completely backup 29 GB of data.

  3. Carbonite is smart enough to not use up a lot of bandwidth when you're doing stuff. It waits for you to be idle. For me that meant my backup went much slower than it could have. I'm on my main PC 16 hours some days. "Normal" people won't notice it as much as I did.

  4. If you have VoIP in active use, set Carbonite to use "Lower priority" mode. I couldn't figure out why my VoIP calls (on all 4 of my terminal adapters) went to crap at night after I installed Carbonite. Come to find out I was using the phone at night when my PC had gone idle. So that meant Carbonite was running full bore and using up all my bandwidth trying to make that initial backup. Setting it to Lower priority mode not only limits the amount of data it will try to send at a time, it also makes the data it sends go in smaller chunks so it doesn't bottleneck your connection.

  5. Files get automatically re-backed up every time they change. For normal files this is terrific, however, as I mentioned Carbonite recognized my Mozilla Thunderbird email files as something it should back up. That meant every time I got a new email, Carbonite tagged my 680MB inbox file as something that needed to be backed up. I eventually had to set that one particular file to "manual" status so it wouldn't be backed up automatically. It was causing my whole backup to choke since it was constantly getting requeued.

  6. You can't reliably back up Outlook files unless you exit Outlook. This is Microsoft's fault, not Carbonite's. Outlook opens its files for exclusive use when it's running. Thus your marvelous PST file that really needs to get backed up will not be touchable while Outlook is running. This is quite easy to solve. 1) Close Outlook at night and leave your computer running. 2) Install the Outlook Back-up Add-in from Microsoft so Outlook will allow you to easily save a 2nd copy of your PST file somewhere periodically. Then backup that 2nd copy since it won't be in use.
Looking at the product Carbonite offers as a whole, I'd have to say my favorite feature is it's unobtrusiveness. It's one of those products you install and forget about - until you need it. The only reminder it's running in the background is occasional hard drive access (when it scans for new files) and a little green lock icon to let you know it's happy.

Since I'm a Carbonite user myself, I can give you something that they don't advertise. 1 free month of service. Use the link on the title or click here to try Carbonite for 15 free. If you go to their website without that link, you'll pay $49.95 for 12 months. Use my link and you'll get 13 months instead of 12. (Hey, have I ever mentioned that my lucky number *is* 13? No kidding.)

I suggest letting the 15 day free trial fully run its course. No credit card is asked for to start or required during the trial. They will back up everything except big movie files during the trial. If you like how it works, subscribe and smile at getting a free month. (Especially since *I* didn't even get a free month when I started using the service myself!) If you don't like it, uninstall and go about your merry way but don't forget to find another way to back yourself up!!

Remember, "Lessons not learned are repeated until comprehension." And one lesson most computer users shouldn't have to learn twice is to back up their data. So get going... go backup your computer RIGHT NOW. Mommy says you can't have your dessert until you do. :P