Recently, the president of a local nonprofit community service organization asked me to review a proposal she had received from one of the prominent, heavily advertised, online backup services. The quote to provide automated backup services for all of the computers in the organization (about 10 computers) for a year was nearly $500. I informed her that while the price received was appropriate for the level and quality of service offered, there were better prices available from competitive services. I also showed her that there were some services that offered online backup services to both individuals and organizations for free.
Online backup service is relatively simple. Using a broadband Internet connection and a backup utility (usually provided by the online backup service), the computer automatically and transparently sends the data over the Internet on a secure encrypted connection to the online backup service, which then stores the data. When needed, the data can be accessed over the Internet either by using any Internet browser or the restore function in the backup software. The process generally reliable and often requires no human intervention in order to create and maintain a secured copy of critical data files. Many people prefer this remote online backup service over onsite backup, where an external hard drive or some other form of network attached storage (NAS) contains the backed up data.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both remote and onsite (home) backup. While both can be accomplished transparently, reliably and without additional intervention once the backup system is set up, the differences are in speed, security, cost and availability. At home, I use a commercial automated backup utility (NTI Shadow) that automatically creates and maintains the backups of the selected data folders on my hard drive by instantly copying any new data to a 1T (one terabyte) external USB hard drive. Since I am somewhat paranoid about having a current backup, I actually use two 1T external USB hard drives, periodically rotating between them, making sure that each has a complete data backup. I also use the external drives to store an image of my hard drive, which is also periodically updated such that in the event of a catastrophic computer failure, I can easily restore all of my programs and files. I never have more than one external drive attached at a time and store the other one in a locking, fire resistant box. When we evacuated for Hurricanes Rita, Gustaf and Ike, the first item I packed was the external drive with my most recent data and image backup. Onsite backing up via USB, FireWire, or network, is fast, relatively inexpensive (I purchased my newest 1T USB drive for under $60), and very portable.
The risk of onsite backup is the destruction or loss of the external drives due to fire, theft, flood or other disaster. Living in a region that sometimes appears to be a magnet for hurricanes, floods, wildfires and other physical threats, there may be some strong advantages of remote online backup services. The companies that offer these services typically are outside of our local area, and thus not subject to the same threats that could put locally stored data at risk. Most remote storage companies have redundant, multiple, geographically diverse locations where the data is securely stored, making it unlikely that these locations can be incapacitated at the same time, meaning the stored data is always available. Data backed up on the remote servers can be accessed from anywhere there is a Web connection, using an Internet browser, username and password. Alternatively, data can also be accessed directly utilizing the backup software provided by the online service. Remote online backup service is readily available for prices ranging from free, to a few dollars a month, to several hundred dollars per year.
The most common problem that many users face while using an online storage service is speed, or more likely the lack of speed. The controlling factor that determines the speed of creating and restoring online backups is the effective speed of the Internet access used to connect to the remote server. Many users are well aware of the advertised download speed of their Internet service, which may be used to restore data, but are often unaware that their upload speed, used to create the backups, is much slower, typically only being one-third or one-fourth the speed of the download side. I personally know individuals who use a popular broadband Internet service provider (ISP), and had a lot of data to back up (videos, music, and other large data files) that they wanted to backup online. Each user subscribed to a major online backup service, and it took several full days (24/7) of constant uploading in order to send their data to the online backup service. In terms of time and speed, a similar backup to an external hard drive would likely have been completed in terms of minutes, or maybe a few hours, but certainly not days. While this massive upload was taking place, their other, more routine Internet services (e-mail, Web browsing, downloading music, etc.) was seriously degraded (slowed) because the upload was consuming much of their available bandwidth (capacity). One user received a substantial surcharge on his monthly Internet bill for exceeding his allowed monthly usage. Another user, who has “unlimited” Internet access, had seriously slowed Internet service, as his ISP is one (of many) that slows the service (decreases bandwidth) once an arbitrary data limit is exceeded during the month.
Once the original backup is created, the upload volume only includes any new or modified data files, which reduces the bandwidth requirements. In order to help mitigate the speed problems, most of the software provided by the remote backup companies can compress (and securely encrypt) the data being transmitted, reducing the volume of data that needs to be sent. Power users and businesses that have large amounts of data might want to check with their ISPs to determine the real upload speed and any volume or bandwidth restrictions on their Internet access.
There are several services that offer online backup. Many users may not be aware that their current ISP often offers free online storage, often in the 2 gigabytes to 10 GB range. Locally, AT&T DSL offers, “ ... virtually unlimited e-mail storage; virtually unlimited photo storage; a master account, 10 sub accounts, each with 2 GB of storage space.” RoadRunner (safestorage.rr.com) offers 500 megabytes (half a gigabyte) of free storage along with automated backup, encryption, online access, and fast recovery; additional storage is available for a monthly fee of $1.89 for 1 GB and $7.99 for 5 GB. While possibly not enough to store a large collection of videos, this amount of storage can hold many thousands of music files, word processing documents, spreadsheet files, photos and other data files.
For those who enjoy the services of Microsoft, its SkyDrive storage service offers up to 25 GB of storage “in the cloud,” with a limit on individual files of 100 MB (explore.live.com/skydrive). According to Microsoft, “SkyDrive is your password-protected hard drive in the sky. That means you can use it to store thousands and thousands of files. Then you can get to them anytime you’re online.” Using compatible Microsoft software, including recent versions of Internet Explorer, Office, Hotmail, Bing, Silverlight and others, SkyDrive offers the user the ease of multiple simultaneous uploads and downloads, drag and drop file selection and other features. While SkyDrive is free, it does require the use of an existing Microsoft account for access, or the user can register for free access.
There are many other remote online backup services including Carbonite, Mozy, Ocster and Backify. Backify (backify.com), headquartered in British Columbia, Canada, is interesting in that it offers a huge amount of free backup space, as well as inexpensive commercial backup services. For users with a single computer, Backify offers a titanic 512 GB of storage for free, with automated backup, remote access, the ability to stream music and videos to mobile devices or other Internet connected computers, and strong encryption. According to Backify, “Your backups are private and secure in the cloud. Backify uses military grade encryption, and your files reside in our state-of-the-art data centers. Backify is SSL secured, and only you can access your data. Even the employees of Backify cannot access your data.” Backify can store up to 30 versions of each file, making it easy to restore earlier versions, and the proprietary automated backup software is available for both PCs and MACs. Backify also offers an optional “Briefcase” that can automatically synchronize files on multiple computers, ensuring that similar files are on all designated computers (paid subscription required). For those who desire to share files, photos, videos and other data with friends and family, or even make them public, this service allows for one-click file sharing. For those who may need more storage and have multiple computers, Backify offers unlimited storage for up to five computers for only $3 per month (paid annually), and $5 a month (paid annually) gets unlimited storage and a 512 GB briefcase (larger briefcase storage is available for an additional fee).
Other well known backup services are offered by Carbonite, Mozy and Ocster. Carbonite, with redundant data centers in Boston and Somerville, Mass., offers two basic levels of service; the Home & Home Office service offers unlimited backup for one and two-person homes and offices, for $59 per computer per year; businesses with three or more computers can get unlimited remote backup service starting at $229 per year. Mozy, headquartered in Seattle, offers its MozyHome service for one computer with 50 GB storage for $5.99 per month, and three computers with 125 GB storage for $9.99 per month. Additional computers are $2 per month per computer, and each additional 20 GB of storage is $2 per month, with discounts available for one and two year plans. MozyHome supports Windows 7, 2000, XP and Vista (32 & 64 bit), and Mac OS X 10.4 and later. Ocster offers a combination software backup package that also includes online storage. The Ocster Backup Pro software retails for $39.90 and is a full-featured backup product that can perform almost all types of backups and store the data on almost every type of storage media. If the user chooses to use the online backup service, 10 GB of secure online storage is $4.99 per month, and 20 GB is $9.99 per month, with discounts available for annual purchases. Additional storage up to 100 GB can be purchased for $49.90 per month or $499 per year.
My personal choices for home use are to use my external USB drives as my primary backup media, with the free 512 GB Backify online service being my alternative choice. While all of the above commercial (paid) online backup services are secure and reliable, if I were to recommend one of the paid commercial backup services to the nonprofit organization that asked my opinion, it would again be Backify, due to the large amount of storage as well as the low price.
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