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Do Bulletproof Backups Require a Disaster-proof Drive?

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A reader of “Take Control of Backing Up Your Mac” wrote to ask my opinion of ioSafe hard drives for backups. I’d been fleetingly aware of the brand but didn’t know much about it, so I went to the company’s Web site, where I learned that ioSafe specializes in fireproof, waterproof, theft-resistant hard drives — drives designed to survive just about any disaster. For this extra protection, you naturally pay a premium. For example, a 1 TB USB 3.0 ioSafe drive retails for $299.99; a quick search on Amazon turned up tons of conventional 1 TB USB 3.0 drives for well under $100. So I wrote back to give my opinion: “Meh.” For the price, I could buy two regular drives, keep one offsite to protect it from those fires and floods, and have enough left over to pay for a year’s worth of cloud storage for all my data too. The economics just didn’t make sense to me.

Then, following an article I wrote about backups for Macworld, a representative from ioSafe wrote to ask if I’d heard of the company’s products. I said as a matter of fact I had, and told him that although the drives are undoubtedly great, I couldn’t work up any enthusiasm about them because of the cost. But he asked if he could send me a drive to try out, and I said sure. Now that I’ve been using the drive for a while, I want to offer a more nuanced opinion.

The review unit I got was the 1 TB ioSafe Solo G3, which has only a USB 3.0 connection. The company makes drives with many combinations of capacity, interface, and features, so keep in mind that some of my comments apply only to this model, not to the brand as a whole.

My first impression was that this is an absolutely gigantic object. The drive weighs 15 pounds and takes up a significant amount of desk space. It can be bolted to a desk or floor (you supply the hardware) or locked with a Kensington security cable, but because the USB cable is fairly short, you don’t have much flexibility with placement. On the other hand, the drive’s size and weight alone, even without being physically fastened down, is undoubtedly a theft deterrent.

A sticker on top of the drive reminds you that you must “activate” (that is, register) it within 10 days by visiting the ioSafe Web site. The drive functions fine if you don’t do this; what you’re activating is a data recovery service warranty. If the drive is damaged (for example, by fire or flood), you can ship your drive back to ioSafe. They will attempt to recover your data (at no cost to you), and if they can’t do it, they’ll pay up to $5,000, depending on the drive model, for an outside data recovery service to try. Either way, you’ll get a replacement drive containing your recovered data.

That’s a nice warranty, but during the registration process the site urges you to “upgrade” your data recovery service warranty from the standard 1 year to 3 years (for $50) or 5 years (for $100), with 5 years being the default choice. That upsell bothered me; if I’ve already spent three times as much on a hard drive as I might have, the last thing I want to do is make that four times as much.

Those details aside, the drive works perfectly well. Since I happen to have a newer Mac with USB 3.0 ports, I was able to take advantage of the interface’s zippy transfer speeds. I didn’t perform benchmark tests, but my subjective impression was that it was extremely speedy — certainly way faster than FireWire 800 or USB 2.0. (The company doesn’t currently sell any drives with Thunderbolt connections, which would likely be yet another notch zippier.)

What I noticed most, however, was that I never heard the drive in operation — it’s freakishly quiet. Largely this is because the device has no fan, but all the insulation that protects the drive from fire and water also blocks sound, and even when it was going full-bore I practically had to put my ear on the drive to hear even a faint whirr. I appreciated that, especially when doing audio and video recording in my home office.

Tempted as I was to set the drive on fire and then drop it in a bathtub, I observed the drive’s operation only on the comfort of my desk. I therefore can’t comment from experience on its robustness in protecting my data; I’ll have to take the company’s word on that.

But therein lies the whole problem for me — the one and only reason I would buy such an expensive or physically large drive would be for its data protection features, which I most likely will never need and whose effectiveness I have no way to judge unless disaster strikes. In other words, it’s simply an expensive insurance policy. Of course, what you’re insuring isn’t the drive itself — it would be silly to spend $200 to insure a $100 device — but rather your data. You’re gambling that you might at some point find yourself in a situation where crucial data is only on that drive, the drive is physically damaged, and the data on it is worth more to you than what the insurance cost.

If you have no backups at all, then sure, an ioSafe drive is a better choice as primary storage than your Mac’s built-in drive. But my well-known viewpoint is that good backups are a must. I already have multiple local backups (on media stored in different parts of my house) as well as multiple cloud backups. If a meteorite leveled my house and I didn’t happen to have a laptop with me somewhere else, I could still get all my data back. It might take a couple of days to collect the necessary hardware and restore a complete system to approximately its previous state, but it wouldn’t fundamentally be a problem. On the other hand, if I used only an ioSafe drive and my house were destroyed, I might have to wait weeks for that data recovery service to get my data back — if indeed it even succeeded at all. Spending that extra money on a more expensive drive wouldn’t benefit me, and it might even give me a false sense of security.

The ioSafe representative told me that their target customers include people who know they should have offsite backups but are unwilling to deal with the hassle of physically rotating backups offsite on a regular basis and don’t want to use the cloud (for whatever reason). Fair enough. I can imagine people for whom a drive like this would be ideal — for example, someone who lives in an area where broadband is unavailable or unreasonably expensive, and where there’s no logical place to store backups offsite. But I think most people would be better served by a combination of inexpensive hard drives and cloud backups.

The incongruity, then, is that ioSafe hard drives may in fact be among the most reliable destinations you can buy for local backups, not to mention fast and quiet — and yet I have no interest in owning one myself and wouldn’t recommend them for most people. Your mileage, needless to say, may vary, and I look forward to reading dissenting opinions in the comments.

Check out the Take Control ebooks that expand on the topic in this article:

Joe Kissell provides the advice you need to create a Mac backup strategy that protects your data and enables quick recovery. He compares backup software, services, and media to help you make the best choices. You'll learn to set up, test, and maintain backups, plus how to restore files after a calamity! Don't miss our new Joe of Tech comic!


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Comments about Do Bulletproof Backups Require a Disaster-proof Drive?

Kevin O Lepard  2013-01-30 17:38
I think the free functionality of CrashPlan that lets you back up to a hard drive of your own at a a friend or family member's home at a distant location is a good option.
Robb Moore  2013-02-01 13:43
Hi Joe-

I understand all your points and they’re generally well made. I’m a Mac user too so I have few comments directly related to your article. I have 2.6TBs at home so traditional cloud storage is simply not an option – both from a cost and speed perspective.

1. Swapping disks forces you to change your Time Machine target every time you swap drives. If you’re rotating media on/offsite once a day or week, this is a minor but persistent hassle every time you rotate the media. Just another thing in my busy life to remember. No thanks.

2. Humans are humans, rotating media on/offsite might save you $100 dollars short term, but what if disaster strikes while both media copies are onsite (in the middle of a rotation)? What if the disaster strikes 2 days after you’ve taken videos or pictures of my kid’s 1st birthday party and I’m on a weekly rotation?
Robb Moore  2013-02-01 13:44

3. If my house was destroyed and I had 2.6TB in the cloud – how long do you think it would be to stream that back to me? Drag and drop a 500GB to the cloud. 1TB to the cloud. It's like sucking the Pacific Ocean through a straw. It's possible but not very interesting to watch. It’s faster to FedEx hard drives across the country than streaming online.

4. The majority of our data recoveries post disaster actually happen onsite and don’t involve any shipping at all. It's typically hours, maybe days to recover for most events. Some recoveries we can perform by talking to the person onsite or remote login to the person's computer. Most disasters are not the natural type – but the human type. Our Data Recovery Service covers everything – no questions asked.

The fact is that data growth exceeds bandwidth growth. Over the last decade and through the next decade I've had the same problem I have today – bandwidth.
Robb Moore  2013-01-30 20:47

ioSafe is definitely not the only solution out there. Depending on your data storage, recovery, speed and compliance needs, ioSafe is meant to be layered into whatever works for you to help reduce the vulnerability of data loss. You can use it with or without any cloud/offsite vaulting strategies you happen to like.

If you have 20-30 GB of data and can use a straight cloud solution, you’re not an ioSafe candidate. If you have terabytes of vulnerable data, precious video, pictures or critical business data, you may be interested in incorporating ioSafe into your data protection strategy to help minimize risk.

There’s no other way I know of to get up to the second, plug and play, disaster protection for terabytes of data for so little cost.

Thanks for the write-up and being a part of the discussion.

Robb Moore


Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-01-30 23:43
Hi Robb,

Thanks very much for your feedback. Obviously we're coming at this from different perspectives, and I can only offer my own impressions. Personally, I have a couple of terabytes or so in the cloud. Seeding (up or down) can speed up transfer when you need to move a lot of data in a hurry, but it's exceedingly rare for one to have to restore everything from the cloud, all at once. I also use one of several services that offer unlimited cloud backup storage for a small fixed fee, so I don't worry about cost or space.

As for Time Machine, it's not the smartest tool out there when it comes to rotating media, that's true, but in Mountain Lion you can set up multiple destinations and it will alternate automatically; that helps a lot.

My feeling is that no matter how good an ioSafe drive is, it doesn't eliminate the need for offsite backups—that's playing with fire (so to speak). So there's always going to be some sort of cost involved, but that can be realized in different ways.

I do take your point about some types of data recovery being much speedier and available remotely; thanks very much for pointing that out!

ileneh  2013-01-31 23:21
I love that line about sucking the ocean through a straw. I can't imagine storing anything on the cloud. But, the size of your drive concerns me. I have a drive farm on my desk and not sure I could fit your device in my small space. I'm testing a number of drives here and I find that it takes about 6 mos to tell if a drive will really last. I find most don't measure up well though.
Robb Moore  2013-02-03 14:09
Just for the record, I'm not saying ioSafe eliminates the need to rotate media to stream data online. There's no one solution that fits everyone's needs.
"Vulnerable" data can mean milliseconds to a company like Visa. For the rest of us, data might be considered vulnerable if not backed up for hours, days or weeks.

ioSafe is about putting our hardware in place when you like to reduce your vulnerability for terabytes of data and might not have the budget, time or expertise to protect the data in other ways.

Robb Moore  2013-02-01 16:07
Hi Ileneh,

Yeah, the insulation does indeed make them bigger than standard drives. We do, however, have a NAS option that connects to a router either via wire or wireless (with a dongle) and so can be located away from the workspace.

Have a great weekend!

Hi Robb,

I also disagree with the cloud solution as in our small business situation it would NEVER satisfy our requirements for a backup solution unless leaps and bounds of progress has been made in regards to bandwidth. We have 40+ TB worth of data currently and need a backup solution. From a brief overview of your products it seems the largest size solutions you offer are limited at 8 TB. Do you have other products that may be more suiting to our needs? If not, do you have plans to support such large amounts of data or other suggestions?

Joe, you make some excellent points as well feel free to chime in with some alternatives for our situation as it is a unique one.


Robb Moore  2013-02-06 16:57
40TBs is a big chunk of data for sure. Rotating media offsite would require physically moving 12X 4TB
disks (RAID5) arrays! You'll need 3X 12disk arrays to do it properly. Not fun. Streaming that onto the WAN is of course impractical.

I'd recommend tiering or archiving the data as practical. Use an ioSafe N2 to image the server daily if possible for bare metal restore of the most current data.

We don't have any products that can backup 40TBs in one volume but we're constantly working on new products so stay tuned!


Thank you for the quick reply! It's always nice to see a CEO keep up with discussions such as these. I hope that continues as your company grows.

Some information that I should have included in the first post: The 40TB worth of data is currently in RAID 6 and is network accessible. Much of the data does need to stay this way though it may not always be accessed all the time. At any given moment we may need to grab something from a project that hasn't been touched in years. We have archives currently to free up space on the server on NAS devices in RAID as well, however their network speeds are unsatisfactory :/. These also need to be backed up. I thank you for the insight you have provided and prompt response and will definitely stay tuned.

Any other comments or suggestions are welcome from you, or anyone else who may have some helpful info.

Thanks again!
JohnB (SciFiOne)   2013-02-04 10:38
I'm retired. There is no offsite anymore except the cloud. But I want a finder format backup. So I am currently using and I/O Safe. In the future though, I think I will use regular drives and rotate one to a fireproof/waterproof safe. Any thoughts on that?
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-02-06 12:28
That sounds to me like a good plan!
Nicholas Barnard  2013-02-08 23:35
The one thing to be aware of is that most fireproof safes are fireproof for paper, but not necessarily for media. I'm not sure how a hard drive would deal with over 300 degree fahrenheit temperatures.

Media fireproof safes do exist, but are expensive.
Roger D. Parish  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2013-02-14 14:35
Another quality to look for is waterproof-ness. Not all fireproof safes are necessarily waterproof. It would be a shame for your fireproof safe to survive the fire, then have its contents spoiled by the water used to put out the fire!
James Mitchell  2013-02-04 19:15
I can see how this kind of drive plus a secured rotating off-site drive might be the best option for those of us who have to comply with privacy law requirements which make cloud storage problematic and record storage requirements which make losing patient or client data a big deal.
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-02-06 12:31
Yes, privacy laws do make cloud backups problematic for some people. I saw a couple of products at Macworld last week designed to address this issue—basically self-contained, self-replicating backup drives that you can store in any secure place you choose but keep under your control at all times. You can access them over the Internet if you like, but your data is never in the cloud as such—it's always on your drive(s). I haven't used these devices yet, but it seems like an interesting approach.

Robb Moore  2013-02-06 17:09
Creating secure private clouds is what the ioSafe N2 is all about. The N2 is powered by Synology DSM which has all the provisions for syncing data over the WAN to dual N2's (or one N2 and virtually any other network target) if you like.

Of course, pushing massive data over the WAN or using what I'd call "infinite incremental" backups have issues. Full, fresh, complete snapshots of the entire data volume are the safest but involve the most inefficient storage of data.

Be sure to test your backup plans periodically to make sure you're actually protecting the data and recovery is possible.

People regularly "think" they're backing up when in fact they're not able to perform a complete restore. The time to test your backup/DR strategy is NOT during a real crisis :)

David Grant  2013-02-05 08:09
No comment on the ioSafe itself but rather one on the company. I find it really refreshing to have the CEO monitoring the conversations and making intelligent, non-salespitch responses. Wish more did the same.
Robb Moore  2013-02-06 17:11
Thanks! I love being connected to real people struggling with the same issues that I've struggled with over the years. Thanks for your comment.

Robb Moore