Series: Internet Backup
Make your network connection an effective part of your backup strategy
Article 1 of 2 in series
With the growth of the Internet over the last few years, there's been added interest in backing up data over the Internet. It's been on my mind for a long time - as far back as 1992, I wrote an April Fools article in TidBITS-114 about a fictional company doing something along these lines. Fast forward to 1998, and several companies have products that enable computer users to back up files over an Internet connectionShow full article
With the growth of the Internet over the last few years, there's been added interest in backing up data over the Internet. It's been on my mind for a long time - as far back as 1992, I wrote an April Fools article in TidBITS-114 about a fictional company doing something along these lines.
Fast forward to 1998, and several companies have products that enable computer users to back up files over an Internet connection. They don't back up everything, only selected files, and files are encrypted for security reasons. Restoration happens over the Internet, or, if the amount of data is too large, via a CD-R sent to you overnight. Internet-based backup is perfect for a few important files, especially if you aren't comfortable with your offsite backup situation. On the downside, many people on TidBITS Talk said they were uncomfortable relying solely on encryption for security, and to my mind, an Internet backup strategy falls into the Minimal Backup camp, making it most useful as an off-site adjunct to a more comprehensive backup strategy.
One-Eyed Jacks -- The only Internet backup service currently available for Macintosh users is the just-released BackJack from Synectics, although I've heard rumblings about several other services that might appear soon. I've been playing with BackJack for a while now, and it has proved easy to set up and reliable so far.
BackJack's interface provides simple backup and recovery capabilities, which contributes to its ease-of-use, but the first version of the software lacks flexibility. It's clearly a first effort, albeit a functional one, and leaves room for future enhancement. For instance, to back up files, you select the folder that contains them, but there's no way to exclude specific files in that folder, and if you create a folder of aliases, BackJack doesn't resolve them and back up their originals. The company said it plans to address these issues soon in revisions to the free software.
BackJack does sport many basic backup features. You can create multiple sets of folders to back up, and each set can contain multiple folders. Each backup set can have a different automatic backup schedule, and BackJack has successfully kicked in every night and backed up my changed files. BackJack logs everything it does, plus it sends you an email report after each session. You can set how large the log grows, and other options enable you to determine how many revisions of a document are kept online and how long backed up files are kept online after being deleted locally. This functionality is tremendously important, since it enables you to revert to earlier versions of files and to recover if you delete a file without realizing.
The actual backup process is a bit slow, in part because of the transmission over the Internet (I have a 56K frame relay connection; those people with dialup Internet connections will obviously see somewhat slower transmission performance, plus they'll have to let BackJack dial out automatically). Speed isn't much of an issue though, since backups will usually take place unattended in the middle of the night. Another performance hit comes from the fact that BackJack compresses files using a built-in version of Aladdin's StuffIt technology and then encrypts them using a 128-bit key that you generate during setup. No one has broken the 128-bit encryption scheme BackJack uses, so security is high. However, be careful to store the extra copy of your encryption key off-site on a floppy; in case of a disaster that wipes out your computer, you won't be able to retrieve and decrypt your files without a copy of that key. The BackJack folks are investigating ways of avoiding that situation without compromising the security of the system.
Restoring a file from your backup over the Internet is easy - the Recover window provides a hierarchical view of your stored files, including any earlier revisions. The same interface enables you to enter dates for specific files to be deleted if you want to remove them from your backup. Although BackJack enables you to mark and unmark all the files, it lacks any way to retrieve just the latest versions of files or to find and mark specific ones through a search mechanism. If you back up a relatively small number of files that won't prove problematic, but it might with hundreds of files. The company has plans to offer a service that sends you all files on CD-R if necessary to avoid downloading all your data in the event of a complete recovery.
BackJack's documentation is available online and can be downloaded in HTML format. It's quite well done, although relatively basic, if mainly because the BackJack application doesn't have much depth. The documentation is good about answering the "Why" questions that always arise.
Ante Up -- Pricing is a little complicated, since BackJack charges based on the amount of data you back up, the time of day you send it, and how much storage space you use on the BackJack servers. There's a $17.50 one-time setup fee, a $3.50 monthly administration fee, plus data transfer and storage fees. BackJack's transfer fees are 14 cents per megabyte from 11 PM to 9 AM and 35 cents per megabyte from 9 AM to 11 PM. (Times are always your local time.) In addition, BackJack charges less than half a cent ($.0035) per megabyte per day for storage. Recovering data is always free, and you can use BackJack on multiple computers with same account for no additional charge.
You'll usually want to schedule BackJack to back up in the middle of the night, and you should be careful with what you choose to back up, avoiding applications and system files and, for instance, Web browser cache files if you plan to back up your Preferences folder.
In a sample situation where a user backs up 75 MB initially and then about 1 MB per day afterwards, the first month (including the setup fee) would cost about $45 and each subsequent month about $17. That pricing is in line with two popular PC Internet backup services: Atrieva charges $14.95 per month for up to two computers, and Connected Online Backup charges $19.95 per month per computer for up to 10 machines. Neither charges transfer or storage fees. They're probably betting that most people don't have the bandwidth to back up large quantities of data, plus they're counting on the fact most people won't back up Windows system files or applications because it's so difficult to restore them to a working state without doing a clean install.
In response to my comments about pricing, the BackJack folks noted that they felt uncomfortable using a flat rate pricing model that would in essence charge low-end users more to subsidize the high-end users who use far more of the system's capacity. That's a laudable goal, and I hope the pricing model doesn't dissuade people who are uncomfortable not knowing precisely how much they'd be paying.
These concerns aside, I'm quite impressed with BackJack as a first effort, and it's well worth a look for anyone interested in Internet backup, particularly those people planning on buying standalone iMacs immediately when they're released.
Article 2 of 2 in series
With the recent release of Dantz Development's Internet-savvy Retrospect Express 4.1, which joins Retrospect 4.1 and the BackJack Internet backup service from Synectics Business Solutions, I think it's safe to say that Internet backup has become a field - a step up from a trend, more stable than a fad, and nowhere near as big as an industryShow full article
With the recent release of Dantz Development's Internet-savvy Retrospect Express 4.1, which joins Retrospect 4.1 and the BackJack Internet backup service from Synectics Business Solutions, I think it's safe to say that Internet backup has become a field - a step up from a trend, more stable than a fad, and nowhere near as big as an industry. I've been using these programs for a while now and have come up with some suggestions for how you can integrate Internet backup into your backup strategy. What will work best for you relates to how much storage space you have (or are willing to pay for) and how fast your Internet connection is.
Advantages of Internet Backup -- First off, let's briefly look at the advantages of backing up to a server on the Internet.
No need for additional hardware (although, unless Internet backup constitutes your entire backup strategy, you still need appropriate hardware for local backups).
Guaranteed off-site backup, which protects your files in case of fire, burglary, or natural disaster.
Integrated backup strategy for businesses with off-site employees.
Access to your encrypted backups wherever you can access the Internet (this might be useful to heavy travelers).
The main reasons suggested on TidBITS Talk for why people have decided against Internet backup are concerns about the reliability and longevity of an Internet backup service, the safety of sensitive information, and the length of time necessary to back up a large hard disk even over a DSL or ISDN connection.
Several Megabytes Available -- Most Internet service providers offer a few megabytes of disk space with your Internet account. Often people use this space for publishing Web pages. As long as this storage space is accessible via FTP, you can use Retrospect 4.1 or Retrospect Express 4.1 to back up a small number of important files to your Internet account. In this case, backing up only a few files via the Internet cannot form your entire backup strategy; you must perform backups to removable media as well or risk losing everything other than a few of your most important files. In addition, some ISPs don't back up their FTP servers, so they prefer that you don't rely on them for secure data storage.
Retrospect and Retrospect Express try to be too helpful in this situation. By default, both add new versions of files to your backup set, which is great with removable media, but which can quickly fill up a small FTP disk space allocation. My solution is to have Retrospect Express perform a Full Backup every other night. In Retrospect parlance, a Full Backup resets the storage set, replacing the previous contents. So, by doing a Full Backup every other night, I ensure that my backup set cannot grow significantly larger as I modify files. The drawback is that I may have only the most recent version of each file backed up. You can check the amount of space used by viewing the StorageSet summary in either program.
50 to 100 MB Available -- Let's assume that you have more disk space available. It's possible your business provides it, your ISP doesn't care how much you use within reason, or you're paying a backup service like BackJack or one of the Dantz Certified Internet Backup Sites (currently including Committed to Memory, Recover-iT, and Portland Communications, which is located in Europe). The fee-based Internet backup sites all currently charge by the amount of disk space you use; although the details vary, the rates are generally comparable. You can estimate between $15 and $25 per month to store 100 MB.
For most people, that much space will be roomy enough to store backups of all of your documents, preferences, macros, email, and other files that you can't easily reinstall. There's less need to back up large system files or applications, since you should have master disks. You could rely on Internet backup entirely in this situation, which makes sense for iMac users or people who don't create large files. In short, this level of Internet backup is perfect for most home users, who should look at either BackJack or Retrospect Express 4.1 (the full-fledged Retrospect is overkill).
The choice between Retrospect Express and BackJack is one of trade-offs. Retrospect Express is inexpensive and much more flexible and powerful than BackJack, but BackJack is free and easier to use because of its lack of selection flexibility. In Retrospect Express, you'll want to perform a Normal Backup most nights, but once every week or two, you should perform a Full Backup to reset the storage set to use less space. BackJack handles this situation more elegantly, since you can set how many versions of a file to keep and how many days to keep a file after you've deleted it. These BackJack features, in combination with built-in StuffIt compression (which is probably tighter than Retrospect Express's compression), help reduce the amount of data you're storing.
If you ever want to back up to removable media as well, Retrospect Express is a better choice, since BackJack can only back up via the Internet. But if you're hyper-concerned about the security of your data, BackJack's 128-bit encryption is significantly stronger than Retrospect Express's SimpleCrypt encryption.
You need at least a fast modem connection to the Internet since transferring this much data takes time, and you definitely want to run backups at night.
Unlimited Space Available -- Corporate users or people at large universities may have access to FTP servers with essentially unlimited amounts of space. In this case, you probably also have at least a 10 Mbps Ethernet connection to the FTP server, if not a 100 Mbps connection. The combination of massive space and fast network connection (anything less than a 1.54 Mbps T1 connection probably wouldn't work) means you could back up everything to the FTP server via Retrospect or Retrospect Express. In essence, the Internet backup set would act just like a tape backup set, and it would make a great off-site backup for a student (dissertations and similarly important projects should be backed up in numerous different places). You probably wouldn't want to pay to use BackJack or one of the Internet backup services because of the high cost.
In an organization large enough to have this kind of FTP space available, there might already be a centralized backup procedure in place that could include Internet backup. For instance, it might make sense to back up an entire department to a large FTP server using Retrospect, because Retrospect is smart about storing only a single copy of identical files on multiple machines. Thus, adding more computers to the backup (Retrospect can also back up Windows machines) might not significantly increase the size of the storage set if everyone uses similar applications.
Even if your files are being backed up already, it might not happen every night due to the sheer volume of data that needs to be backed up. In that case - especially if you don't trust the person or group doing the backups - you might consider your own Internet backup as a secondary backup, perhaps handling only files you can't easily reinstall on your own. An added advantage of your own backup is that it may be easier to recover a file from it than from a centralized backup.
Give It a Try -- I think Internet backup is here to stay. It might be a way for some home and iMac users to avoid buying an additional backup device and dealing with physical media, or it might prove to be excellent secondary backup of important files; either way, Macintosh users can now add it to their backup strategies. For a more detailed discussion of backing up in general, check out my article series on backups.