Cloudy with a chance of backups

— 10:44 AM on September 13, 2011

You've probably been there before. You just realized that you've overwritten an important file and have no way of getting it back. Last month's backup is too old to be of any use, because what you want recovered was written two weeks ago. Insert lame Vader scream here. You cringe, facepalm, hiss and pout, maybe shed a couple of tears, put on some Nick Cave, and get your butt to work on overtime you'll never see a dime for.

So yeah, this might be a blog post about backups (I bet the intro didn't give it away, eh?). More specifically, this is a blog post about a newfangled backup scheme that's full of goodness—cloud backups—and about a specific cloud backup service called CrashPlan.

I'll be the first to admit that I haven't yet tried other providers. I read the blurb on CrashPlan's website, did a little digging of my own, and found a lot of people switching to CrashPlan from other services. Even though fashion is fickle, this is a backup service, so its popularity seemed like a good sign. Seeing the promise of unlimited storage (as "unlimited" as any terms of service define it to be) and impressively low pricing, I coughed up five bucks and gave it a whirl.

If your needs are modest, CrashPlan offers a 10GB plan for $2.5 per month. However, the real fun starts at $5 a month for unlimited backups from a single PC or Mac. There's also a family plan available for 2-10 computers, once again with unlimited storage, for $12 a month. All plans are eligible for heavy discounts if you sign up for one or more years, which I ended up doing. "Pro" and "Pro-e" services with different features and pricing are also available, but this blog post will focus on the vanilla service, CrashPlan+. (Full pricing details can be viewed here.)

I should note that CrashPlan provides its client software free of charge, and you can use that application to save local backups (in what looks to be a proprietary file format) without having to subscribe to an online plan. The idea is that you install and use CrashPlan, and then optionally rent online storage space. The client software works on Windows, OS X, and Linux, and it serves up all sorts of goodies even to non-paying users.


Smooth operator
The CrashPlan client is a small download, weighing in at 30MB and change for the Windows x64 version. Installation is quick and relatively painless. It adds a new background service and an extra tray icon, which lets you pull up the user interface or quickly perform certain operations, like disabling automated backups.

The first thing you should do is pick the files and directories you want to back up, and then select their destination. That destination can be a directory on your hard drive, another computer running CrashPlan, and of course, the grand conjuration: CrashPlan Central. You can save your backups to a friend's computer—just enter your friend's backup code (a string of random letters) in CrashPlan, and his computer will pop up as a valid destination. You can have as many computers tied to your account as you wish, although the online plans are kept separate.

Here's what's pretty amazing about CrashPlan: it works so smoothly that you stop noticing it. On my main box, a Core i5-750 desktop with a WD Caviar Black, I haven't witnessed a performance drop since I started using the service. CrashPlan ties into Windows' Volume Shadow Service, which lets it manipulate open files. So, outside of some very rare occasions (like when you try to delete a file that's being backed up), you can keep on working and CrashPlan will go about its business, invisible in plain sight. That's just the way I like my programs.

If you want more control over how CrashPlan works its magic, you can tweak it to your liking. Settings for maximum processor utilization, maximum bandwidth utilization, buffer sizes, and packet QoS are all available. You can even set different CPU and bandwidth utilization limits depending on whether your system is in use or at idle. Also, you can adjust the schedule and frequency of backups—something that should come in particularly handy, since the service saves multiple versions of your data. By default, CrashPlan retains backups from every 15 minutes in the last hour, every hour in the last day, every day in the last week, every week in the last year, and every month in previous years. That ought to enable some serious time travel, sans DeLorean or lightning.

Additional niceties include automatic alerts and backup reports, which can be sent periodically to your e-mail address or Twitter account. I get a weekly report by e-mail detailing how much data was backed up and transferred, but I haven't tried the Twitter integration yet. (I actually have a life, and it doesn't fit in 140 characters.) The online documentation is also surprisingly comprehensive—and, amazingly, it appears to have been written by humans. Humans with a solid grasp of the English language, too.

What goes up...
Since this is an online backup service, one has to understand that, for the most part, you're limited by your Internet connection's upload speed—and any bandwidth caps or quotas your service provider may inflict. A 3G cellular connection isn't quite the best choice, then.

The good news is that CrashPlan is actually quite smart about minimizing data transfers. It includes a series of algorithms (think rsync) to upload only the difference between old and new data. The software tries to compress that difference data as much as possible before sending it out, further easing the pain. CrashPlan also lets you prioritize different file sets. For example, you can have your most important files first in line and backed up to the cloud, with your music collection set to a lower priority and saved to a local folder. You can mix and match as you see fit.

The bad news is that your initial backup may take days, depending on your upload speed and the size of your data set. But once that's done, it should be clear skies and smooth sailing ahead.

For folks in the ol' US of A, CrashPlan offers an additional service: physical backup seeding. For a fee, CrashPlan sends you an external 1TB hard drive and a pre-paid shipping label, so you can get your files up in the cloud without using up all of your bandwidth. Incidentally, this service is available in reverse. CrashPlan can ship your data on a physical drive if you're in an emergency situation and need to rush the restoration.

As far as restoration goes, it's simple, quick, and painless. You're shown your backup set, you tick boxes for what you want restored, optionally choose a destination (the default is your computer's desktop), and off it goes. I've seen it downloading at 3Mbps, but my ISP ain't the hottest thing in town, so I'd hazard a guess that you can download faster.

Since CrashPlan lets you download any file or file set from your account, you can use the service to grab something from your main PC while you're on the go (or temporarily without access to the machine). This feature has a 250MB limit, so it's only good for emergencies, but it's nice to have nevertheless.

I have a nice hat, and it's made of tinfoil
CrashPlan has measures in place to stop unauthorized parties from snooping on your data. According to the official FAQ, backups are kept under lock and key using either 128-bit or 448-bit Blowfish encryption, depending on whether or not you're using the free service. (Paying for CrashPlan+ will enable the longer key.) Blowfish is open and easily verifiable for efficacy, and to this day, no attack vector has been found for it—the only way to break the cipher is by brute force. The fact that the encryption scheme was created by Bruce Schneier, the Chuck Norris of encryption, probably doesn't hurt.

For an extra layer of security, you can set a "private password" in addition to the main account password. CrashPlan claims it doesn't store the private password on its servers, so in theory, losing your private password means saying goodbye to your data—not even CrashPlan tech support staff will be able to help you there. On the flip side, that should mean nobody but you can ever access your data, unless they manage to learn your private password.

Quirks mode on
CrashPlan does have a few flaws. First and foremost, local backups can't be saved to a network share without some ugly workarounds. (Code42, CrashPlan's parent company, plans to implement network backup capabilities in a future version, however.) The software's main user interface is sometimes sluggish (the curse of Java), but that's not a huge problem, since you'll seldom need to consult it after the initial setup. CrashPlan also can't back up disk images, which means you can't keep a copy of your entire hard drive, boot sector included, for one-click restoration.

That's the way I like it
Before I tried CrashPlan, I was suspicious of the whole cloud backup thing. I couldn't really see many upsides, and my imagination ran wild with thoughts of lost privacy, quirky software requiring constant maintenance, and stratospheric prices. It turns out that pretty much all my fears were unfounded. I've entered a pleasant world in which I've stopped worrying about my backup schedule and the possibility of backup drives biting the dust. CrashPlan is what I consider a fire-and-forget application—it does its job perfectly and stays out of the way, yet it's always ready for when you need it. I highly recommend it.

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