From Google’s Gmail and GoogleDocs to Microsoft’s Windows Live and Adobe’s Acrobat.com, more and more personal computing is taking place in “the cloud.” PC users are increasingly growing accustomed to mobile computing from their smartphones and tablets – and cloud computing is an essential element in this growing mobile adaptation. From online data sharing, email, social networking, and file creation (and editing), cloud computing is a very good fit for the on-the-go, work-from-anywhere crowd.
With the convergence of several trends, including fast CPUs able to run background processes without getting bogged down, to breakneck broadband Internet connections, and powerful end-to-end encryption (to assure that nobody but you can view your backups or restore them), backing up data to the cloud is an idea whose time has come. All of these features are widely available today, and you have several choices in cloud-based backup. We’re going to break down all the elements of cloud-based backup - from how it works, and what the leading players in the home market offer, to helping you determine whether cloud-based backup should be on your “must-have” list of online services.
UPDATE: It was brought to our attention that several of the services initially mentioned in this article have changed their services, availabilities and pricing, so we've updated the article (as of April 2011) in order to better reflect available choices!
All cloud-based backup services include a few basic elements: a client program that runs on your computer; an encrypted connection to and from the Internet; and secure online storage. Generally, in a typical cloud-based backup situation you install the back up client, log into the service, choose your options and select what to back up. Then the program will run in the background, transmitting files over the encrypted Internet connection to secure online storage.
The progress of the backup is usually displayed in a notification area. Initial backups can take several days, depending upon the size of the backup and the speed of your upload connection.
As backed-up files are updated and changed, the new files are backed up as well. Depending upon the backup service, they might either replace previous versions or be available for restoration for a limited time.
It’s important to note that cloud-based backup services cannot provide disaster recovery image backups, because they are designed only to back up data files or other files that you specify. So, while you can use cloud-based backup as part of your personal or business backup strategy, do keep in mind that you will still need to choose a program that works for disaster recovery.
A Quick Note on Cloud-Based Restore
The client program installed by the cloud-based backup program is also used to start and manage the restore process. Depending upon the service selected, there might also be provision for restoring data to mobile devices. Generally, the process is pretty self-explanatory: you install the backup client onto the device where you want to restore files, log in, select restore, the files you need, and the location you want them and bingo! You’re back in business.
Unlike backup to local drives, which can sometimes take less than an hour if an image backup is being performed, cloud-based backup can often take several days to complete. The speed of online backup is affected by several factors, including the upload speed of your Internet connection and the priority you assign to the backup task - some backup clients allow you to specify the priority of the backup process, or even allow you to specify different priorities based on when the backup process is taking place.
With typical home DSL or cable Internet services, your upload speed is a small fraction of your download speed. For example, with a 10Mbps (download) cable Internet service, your upload speed is typically about 1Mbps. (A 3Mbps DSL service typically offers a 512Kbps upload speed.) Keep this in mind when choosing what to put in your cloud-based backup.
Although the best-known players in cloud-based backup include Carbonite Online Backup and Mozy Home, there are plenty of other services worth considering. In the original version of this story, we also evaluated Acronis Online Backup, IDrive, and SugarSync. We’ve decided to take a second look at this category because of Mozy’s recent switch to a capacity-limited service and because our readers suggested additional products, including BackBlaze, CrashPlan+, and Updatestar. We got the goods on each one below.
Carbonite performing an initial backup
We used Carbonite Online Backup’s 15-day free trial for this review. Using its default settings, Carbonite will automatically back up documents, pictures, email, settings, contacts, presentations, spreadsheets, and music (music with paid subscriptions only). Video files, program files, and individual files of any type larger than 4GB are not backed up by default.
Note: Carbonite will not back up files on an external hard disk or network share, even if they are part of a Windows 7 library. To determine if a file or folder can be backed up by Carbonite, right-click the file or folder. If Carbonite is not listed in the right-click menu, Carbonite cannot be used to back up the file.
Because Carbonite has built-in rules that determine the files it backs up automatically, it’s very important that you verify exactly what files are being (or will be) backed up. During the backup process, Carbonite’s InfoCenter displays information about the backup process, but when you open Windows Explorer, you can also determine the backup status of individual files by opening Windows Explorer or by opening the Carbonite Backup Drive (listed in My Computer) which will display files that have been backed up as well as those awaiting backup via a yellow or green colored dot.
Folders are also marked with yellow and green dots, as well as green circles, with a yellow dot indicating that the file (or all of the files in the the folder) are awaiting backup, and a green dot indicating that the file(s) or folder(s) have been backed up. A green circle (aka "green donut") means that some (but not all) of the files in the folder have been backed up.
Windows Explorer displays Carbonite backup status
Restoring deleted files with Carbonite is similarly easy, just open the Carbonite Backup Drive and navigate to the folder where the files were located. To save time, right-click the folder and select Open Folder in Carbonite Backup drive. Files that have been backed up but are no longer in the folder are listed.
From the right-click menu, you have options to restore the file to the current folder, restore the file to a different folder, restore a previous version (if any), or discontinue backup of the file. To restore multiple files, select them with Shift-Click or Ctrl-Click. A restore progress dialog appears, enabling to cancel or pause the restore if desired. Click Done when the restore is completed. You can also close the restore dialog and the restore will continue.
For what it does, Carbonite is a very easy-to-use and powerful backup program. It does an excellent job of keeping you informed about what’s happening. However, if you use external drives or network storage for storage of important files you want to back up, Carbonite isn’t the service for you because of its limitations.
Mozy Online Backup (Mozy) isn’t particular about file locations so you can use it to back up files on external drives, unlike Carbonite. However, Mozy is no longer an unlimited backup service. Instead, it limits you to 2GB in its free version, 50GB (one computer) for $5.99 a month, or 125GB (up to three computers) for $9.99/month. For this article, we used the free 2GB Mozy backup service known as MozyFree.
Selecting files and folders to back up with Mozy
The MozyHome setup wizard starts out by offering preconfigured backup sets: email and contacts, music, documents, financial, photos, browser favorites, databases, and videos. In the next dialog, you can adjust backup performance and other options by clicking Settings.
Use the Backup Sets tab to select which backup set(s) to use. You can specify one or more backup sets in the split screen display’s left pane, and the right pane lists the files selected in the backup set. Mozy warns you if you are over your quota and tracks changes as you select and deselect files and backup sets. To specify files by folder, click the File Systems tab and choose the files and folders desired.
Unfortunately, Mozy doesn’t permit selecting multiple files at once so keeping a backup below 2GB requires deselecting files individually, which was a bit tedious.. Another Mozy minus? There’s no smartphone feature, although Mozy is developing smartphone support for iPhone/iPad (iOS) devices and Android devices, as well as file synchronization services.
Mozy’s many options help to make it more powerful and flexible. To fine-tune backup locations, performance, and other settings, use the Options tab to access additional tabs for Scheduling, Performance, Local Backup, General and Advanced.
The General tab allows you to turn on a backup status icon for files (a green checkmark) and to enable an alert if you’ve exceeded your quota or if you’ve missed backups for a specified number of days, while the Performance tab lets you fine-tune the balance between backup speed and computer performance, and the ability to specify whether and how much to use bandwidth throttling.
Scheduling enables you to specify idle times for backup, the total number of backups per day, at what CPU load to stop backing up, and whether (and when) to run scheduled backups instead of automatic continuous backups (along with an option to suspend backup).
Local Backup provides the option to automatically perform a backup to a specified local hard disk (internal or external) while the normal online backup is running. The local backup is stored in a folder called mozyLocalBackup\computername\ and it replicates the folder structure used by the files being backed up. The files in the mozyLocalBackup folder do not need to be restored; they can be opened directly from the folder.
Other options, such as displaying the virtual drive in Computer (My Computer), a right-click restore option in Windows Explorer, backing up open files, backing up EFS encrypted files, and, perhaps most importantly, showing advanced backup set features (which enables you to select specific files and folders) are available in the Advanced tab.
Quick Note: To enable features such as backup of EFS encrypted files, click the Change Settings That Are Currently Unavailable button to restart Mozy with Administrator credentials.
To restore files, you can use the Windows Explorer-like interface to select files to restore, or use search options to help you find files more quickly. You can restore all backed-up files on your computer, by clicking the checkbox next to Computer. You can also run the restore process from your web browser (which we recommend for restoring large numbers of files).
Restoring Files with Mozy Home
By default, restored files are restored to their original folder path but you can change their destination by using the Browse button. You also can specify whether to overwrite existing files or rename files to prevent overwriting with restored versions.
Backblaze provides truly unlimited file backup for any local hard disk connected to your computer and, thanks to its cross-platform (Windows and MacOS) design, can restore Windows files to a Mac, or vice-versa. For this article, we used the 15-day free trial.
Backblaze automatically locates documents, photos, music, movies, and other important files and selects them for backup. By default, it skips system files, temporary files, MSI, EXE, backup files, and any files over 4GB in size. However, you can increase the maximum file size to 9GB by using the Backblaze Preferences’ Exclude from Backup tab. You can also select the drives to exclude from backup.
Backblaze displays the files and total capacity it will back up before it begins.
It takes a few minutes for the Backblaze backup to start, and you can pause the backup as needed; it will continue after it is unpaused.
Backblaze offers three options for restoring files: you can download ZIP compressed versions for free, or if you’re in a real hurry, you can order a DVD with up to 4.7GB of backups for $99 including shipping or an external drive with up to 400GB of backups for $199 including shipping. You don’t need to install a restore client, as Backblaze uses the standard ZIP archive format for backup files.
To select the files you want to restore, sign into your Backblaze account online, select the restore method you want to use, and use the Windows Explorer-like interface to select your files. If you chose the download feature, Backblaze bundles your files into a ZIP file and sends you an email with links to your files. Click the link, then click Download to receive your files.
To restore your files, download the ZIP file to your computer and use copy/paste or drag and drop to replace the files. Backblaze uses the same folder structure for its restore file as the drive they were backed up from, using the drive letter as the top-level folder.
Restoring files to the Windows Desktop from a Backblaze ZIP backup.
If you need to back up multiple PCs at home and can live with capacity limits, you might prefer to look at other backup solutions. We checked out Acronis Online Backup, iDrive, and SugarSync for features and useability. Acronis Online Backup can be used as a standalone product - or can be integrated with Acronis True Image 2011, enabling you to perform local image-based disaster recovery backups, local file backups, and cloud-based backup at the same time. For this article, we used the 2GB free trial version.
Preparing to select items to back up with Acronis
We had an out-of-the-gate issue with our Acronis trial that required us to update the Acronis Scheduler, even though we were using the most recent version of Online Backup. Not such a promising start.
Acronis uses a three-pane window to specify what to back up. While it offers categories such as Documents, Finance, Images, Music, and Video, Acronis provides information overload-for example,when you select a category, a long list of file extensions for each category makes it appear that you’re required to specify the extensions to back up. However, the list is actually specifying extensions that are already selected: click the X next to an extension to remove it from the list. Unlike with other capacity-limited programs, Acronis didn’t compare the space required by the items selected for backup to its capacity; it allowed us to select over 150GB of files, even though we were using a 2GB plan- a major oversight in our opinion.
The Acronis Options dialog provides for a lot of flexibility, including the ability to specify the number of connection attempts, maximum transfer rate (Storage Connection Speed), when to delete old versions and how many store (Storage Cleanup), backup priority-- and a few unique options: email notification and the option to run programs before and after backup (Pre/Post Commands)
Fortunately data restoration with Acronis was a little more straightforward: just use the Acronis client to find the location of the files you want to restore and right-click the file or folder to restore.
Preparing to restore a file with Acronis
Acronis opens a Browse for Folder window and highlights the original location by default. If the folder already exists in the destination location, a Replace Folder warning appears (Acronis will merge the restore folder with its counterpart on the system).
Acronis Online Backup offers a lot of flexibility and customization, but the well-intentioned option to exclude file types is confusing, and the glitches we experienced were disappointing. Likewise, the program’s inability to compare selected backup files to available space was also troubling. With easier and better solutions on the market, this is best suited for those who are already using Acronis True Image and want an integrated online component.
IDrive offers a free 5GB Basic plan and a variety of tiered plans in its IDrive Pro family. IDrive has a full stable of features including backup of locked files (files in use), back up external hard disks and logged drives, drag and drop file restoration, search and restore, versioning (up to 30 versions – and only the current version counts against storage limits), browser-based restore and backup management, and can even wake up the system for backups and shut it down afterwards (our personal favorite). IDrive also enables you to back up more than your plan allows for by charging you .50/GB per month. We took the free 5GB Basic Plan out for a gallop.
By default, IDrive is configured to back up data (up to the plan limits) from your desktop, as well as selected documents, music, pictures, and video folders. If you change your files frequently, you can enable continuous data protection to back up your files (up to 500MB) in real time. Otherwise, your files are backed up on a schedule you set with the Schedule Manager.
Selecting files and folders to back up with IDrive
Schedule Manager will edit existing backups or add new backups; to make changes, just click the Edit button. From the main Scheduler dialog, you can enable auto-pause and make other minor adjustments, set up email notifications, and access the program’s Preference tabs (click the “Under the Hood” button to see them).
IDrive’s Schedule Manager
You can manually adjust throttling, specify prompts for the destination folder, disable open file backup (enabled by default), and select various advanced scheduling options in the General preferences tab. The Exclude Files/folder tab displays currently-excluded folders and filetypes; you can right-click in each category to add additional file or folder types.
Because IDrive is not an “all-you-can-eat” backup service, it requires you to specify where you want to restore files, rather than assuming that you want to use their original locations for restoration. To make restoration easy, IDrive recommends you install and use the the IDrive Explorer plug-in. (Note: the plug-in should be installed after installing IDrive Classic and restarting).
The rest is cake: IDrive Explorer opens a Windows Explorer session with the drive(s) you have backed up in the main pane. To restore files or folders, just select and drag to the preferred location in the left pane. During the restore process, a progress dialog appears. Just as with Windows Explorer, you can start multiple drag-and-drop file copying processes.
IDrive offers a good balance of features and simplicity; you won’t need to make changes to the basic configuration to perform most tasks. It also provides good guidance for getting started, although like Acronis above, it also lacks smartphone capabilities.
SugarSync is more than just an online backup service; it’s designed to help you share digital media among your PC and mobile device with both Windows and MacOS X versions. On the mobile side, SugarSync plays well with a huge range of devices, including Blackberry, iPhone, Android, Symbian, and Windows Mobile. We tried out the free 5GB plan.
SugarSync will initially ask you to select from a variety of icons to help identify your computers. An important note: while the default Express Setup selects the most common folders (desktop, documents, pictures, music); you’ll need to choose Advanced Setup to back up video files or other folders. To start the backup process, click Add Folders from This Computer, and select the folders to backup. To display this dialog later, click the Manage Sync Folders button from within SugarSync File Manager.
You can set up file synchronization, or access on additional computers, by installing the SugarSync Manager on that computer then logging in. As you add computers to your account (there’s no limit on the number of devices), each additional device is listed in the “Other Computers” portion of the dialog. To sync a particular folder to a particular device, just click the folder name, click the Sync button , and select the destination computer. For automatic syncing between computers, use the SugarSync Magic Briefcase which is a folder that is created on each computer: to instantly sync a file, copy, drag, or paste the file into the folder.
SugarSync Manage Sync Folders
To determine the status of file backups and to retrieve files, open SugarSync after starting the initial backup and the SugarSync File Manager (SSFM) appears. By default, it displays the status of the local device, but you can check the status of other devices.
SugarSync File Manager displaying backup status
Restoring selected files, is as easy as selecting them, chosing Export/Save As and a location. An added bonus: you can also use the My SugarSync website for folder and file downloading, photo sharing, and photo publishing to Facebook.
SugarSync’s other features can be use to share files through time-limited public links, synchronize devices (even when they’re offline), and set up your mobile device to automatically sync camera phone photos.
SugarSync offers an almost overwhelming number of ways to share and synchronize files between devices and it’s file synchronization and sharing, rather than a simple “set and forget” backup, that SugarSync does best. It also costs more than other subscription services, but the combination of cloud-based backup and multiplatform device synchronization may be worth it if you want easy access to your media no matter where you are or what device you use.
CrashPlan offers amazing flexibility for backup destinations and locations – for free! You can back up to your own external hard disks and friends’ computers (and they can back up to your computer), and you can select multiple destinations for the same backup for great redundancy. For this article, we used the 30-day free trial of CrashPlan+, which adds online backup, support for multiple backup sets, and better management.
CrashPlan offers a choice of destinations.
CrashPlan automatically selects your Windows user folder for backup, but you can add additional drives, files, and folders, including removable media, to your backup. Note: you must specifically select where you want to store your backups, even during the CrashPlan+ free trial: if you don’t specify online storage as a destination, CrashPlan+ will ignore it. Use the multi-tabbed Destinations part of the CrashPlan dialog to choose external drives, folders, and so on.
CrashPlan’s Settings tab enables you to tweak CPU usage, enable your friends to use your computer for backups, adjust network throughput, configure versioning, and customize backup security settings.
To restore data with CrashPlan or CrashPlan+, select Restore from the Crashplan program menu. A Windows Explorer-like dialog opens, displaying your backed-up files. By default, CrashPlan restores files to the Desktop. However, click the options located below the folder tree to select the original location or a folder on the desktop; you can also choose an older version of the file by date, and choose to overwrite or rename existing files with the same name. To see only deleted files, click the checkbox. Click Restore, and your file(s) are restored to the location you specified.
Restoring a file with CrashPlan.
UpdateStar is better known for its driver update services, but it also offers unlimited online backup service for home ($69.95/home, $169/business per year). See the Promotional page for competitive upgrade pricing for former users of other services including MozyHome, MozyPro, Carbonite, SOS Online Backup, Norton Online Backup.
UpdateStar supports backups from external drives, and offers a 30-day trial here.
With several distinct flavors of backup services to consider, as well as various options and features, start weighing the importance of various features – does your cloud backup have to have an option for your smartphone? Be easy enough to explain to Grandma? Provide really unlimited backup?
Unlimited backup plans provide the best deal for the money, but there’s a lot of variation in what you get as well as what you pay:
If you want the fastest data recovery possible (and don’t mind paying for it), we suggest Backblaze. Just keep in mind that restores require drag and drop or copy and paste extraction from ZIP files.
CrashPlan provides the greatest flexibility in backup destinations in its free service, and offers the bonus of cloud and local storage at a flat rate.
UpdateStar’s basic pricing is higher than BackBlaze or CrashPlan+, but its competitive upgrade offer makes it very competitive with others.
Carbonite offers access via smartphone and a very easy-to-understand user interface, but its limitations on drives and file selections mean that it, rather than you, are in control of your backup.
If you prefer a metered plan, here’s what we liked (and didn’t like)
SugarSync offers two programs in one with its support for cross-platform (Windows, MacOS, and smartphone) file sync as well as backup.
Although Mozy’s current pricing seems very steep compared to others, it provides free local backup.
IDrive offers email notification, but for easiest restoration, be sure to use the IDrive explorer.
Acronis Online Backup is a good supplement to True Image, but needs some debugging.
No matter which service appeals to you, be sure to take full advantage of the trials offered by each vendor. With so many choices, you’re sure to find one that works for you.