Cloudy with a chance of backups

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.

Comments closed
    • ShadowTiger
    • 8 years ago

    I refuse to use any program that requires Java.

    Java’s security has more holes than swiss cheese… i’d rather upload True Crypt files to my own webserver.

    • indeego
    • 8 years ago

    [url=http://techcrunch.com/2011/09/12/with-bitcasa-the-entire-cloud-is-your-hard-drive-for-only-10-per-month/<]An alternative for $10/month.[/url<] I haven't tried.

    • cfroese
    • 8 years ago

    I tried CrashPlan a couple years ago and the service is practically invisible once it’s setup. What got me out of if was two things.

    First, the proprietary file format. When I backup one of my computers to the other, I expect to be able to retrieve those files even if the software that made doing that backup easy is no longer available. With the proprietary format, that’s not possible. The only way to get your data back is to use CrashPlan.

    Second, rebuilding a computer is a serious PITA. If a backed-up computer dies and the rebuilt computer is given the same name, CrashPlan does not recognize it as the same computer and thus insists that it cannot put the files back to the same location they came from. Instead you end up with a brand new folder on your desktop full of all the files. And that essentially makes the rebuild a completely manual process. An external harddrive and a batch file makes a better backup in my mind.

    • SomeOtherGeek
    • 8 years ago

    Nice write-up, Bruno… But no, thank you, WHS is what I want it to be. My way – my bandwidth, my settings, my money and my time. There is just no way it can complete with daily backups of my household (6 to be exact) at the tip of my fingers with total restore right now if need be. To me, that is the ultimate and it is priceless.

      • LoneWolf15
      • 8 years ago

      Agreed. Only thing it lacks is the offsite component.

        • Jambe
        • 8 years ago

        Indeed. Theft, fire, natural disaster, etc, tend to do away with data stores pretty quickly.

          • XA Hydra
          • 8 years ago

          …Only if you fail to store copies of that data in more than one location, and while everyone’s situation is different, there is always a measure of that which can be done at home. Shoot- encrypt it AES-256 every few days/weeks/months (whatever you require) to BD-R ( or whatever else ) disks and store a copy at home and one in your car if there is nowhere else. All of a sudden both your car and your home must be levelled/ burnt to a crisp/ thieved or stolen. Instant redundancy.

          Sure- this may not be reasonable for every individual, but one can achieve a measure of security against disaster and whatnot without the cloud.

            • A_Pickle
            • 8 years ago

            Hell, you could even just make a solar-powered Arduino setup with that Arduino Ethernet Shield, and then hook that up to some SATA drives and go to town. Put it in your yard or something.

    • goshreport
    • 8 years ago

    [quote<]CrashPlan does have a few flaws. First and foremost, local backups can't be saved to a network share without some ugly workarounds.[/quote<] A simple workaround I've used with Crashplan for some time (on Windows7), is to create a directory symbolic link on your local drive, that points to a UNC share: [code<]mklink /D c:\backup \\myserver\backup[/code<] Then just point Crashplan to save a backup set to the local folder (c:\backup). Crashplan will happily oblige, while the data will really reside on the UNC share (\\myserver\backup).

    • dragmor
    • 8 years ago

    I use a combination of Carbonite for important files and downloading on the go (encrypted of course) and Windows Home Server. WHS really doesn’t get enough credit in geek circles for being an easy backup / restore solution. It keeps a backups for the last couple of months, can restore individual files or the entire PC.All in a hands off maner.

      • Anomymous Gerbil
      • 8 years ago

      If my PC has several disk drives, can WHS do an entire PC backup, and restore the whole lot to a rebuilt PC with the same (or larger) disk setup?

        • frumper15
        • 8 years ago

        Yes, Yes it can.

    • indeego
    • 8 years ago

    When it comes to a cloud-based service, the first thing I ask is: Will they be around 10 years from now?
    With Google, Apple, and Microsoft, I pretty much have that guarantee. With this company, I don’t have that guarantee. How many companies have just “given up” when their profit margins disappear?

    I then ask: Is the service audited by a third party for compliance with their stated policies?
    I see no evidence of that here.

    What evidence does CP have that a Discovery request on one of their servers won’t include a subset of my data?
    What protection is provided to my data if any one of the encryption methods is cracked/breached in the future? Are they securely purging my data?

    And on and on and on. The decision seems like one of convenience, but there is loads to think of with Cloud-based setups that are well beyond an impulse purchase.

    • maxxcool
    • 8 years ago

    And Comcast will terminate your account after the 1st backup or restore.

      • Kurotetsu
      • 8 years ago

      Data caps are just awesome aren’t they? I wonder how long it’ll take before cloud service providers realize how much that garbage damages their game plan.

    • A_Pickle
    • 8 years ago

    [quote<]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.[/quote<] I completely disagree with you. I'm sorry, but this is just one "This Cloud thing is neato!" blog post too many. The Cloud offers next to nothing over what you can do with your own computers under your own control (maps?). We're dealing with INFORMATION technology here, though, so when you forego control of your INFORMATION technology, you're also forgoing control of your INFORMATION. That's the key issue. You can trust these cloud providers all you want, but damn I'm getting tired of every tech blogger and their mom proselytizing the merits of the cloud after trying it for a few days. "Well, nothing went wrong in the week that I tried it, ergo it must be a perfect offering!" Get real. I want a solution that will keep my data safe from natural disasters AND from prying eyes for YEARS. I don't trust for-profit companies to ever be able to deliver that, least of all with this paranoid, schizophrenic police state that we now live in.

      • morphine
      • 8 years ago

      I’ve lived with Crashplan for a few months now, so this isn’t just after-marriage happiness.

      Besides, you can still have your computers stolen, or an earthquake hit you. That’s why an offsite backup solution is interesting.

        • Madman
        • 8 years ago

        Or cloud can be taken down offline with all the data by a ligthning strike – [url<]http://hardware.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=11/08/08/0056252[/url<] The availability of clouds is well below dedicated hardware, and the price is way higher as well.

      • frumper15
      • 8 years ago

      A lot of you guys must have a lot more sensitive information on your machines that I do… I just want to make sure there’s pretty much no way I can lose my kids pictures from the last 7 years
      My backup scheme involves WHS as my central repository and local machine image backup and WHS2011 (which I am finding I hate less than I initially did) backs the things I choose to backup locally twice a day to an external 1TB drive. From there I’ve got Crashplan backing up to both Crashplan central (4 year family plan FTW) and a drive hanging off the backup server at work for offsite backup. The way I see it, if I make a mistake or have a hardware failure at home, I have to go as far as my local backup on WHS. If my server and all local hardware get stolen have a fire/flood/etc. I go to my office for the backup. If there is a tornado that wipes out my house and my office, I still have Crashplan wherever they’re located. So, you know, if Crashplan goes out of business in 4 years, I’ll have to figure something else out, but until then I’m pretty happy. Oh, I also have a bunch of family backing up to my home server as a destination for them so they at least have some form of backup. I setup Crashplan for them, set my server as a destination and haven’t really thought of it since. It works for me and it just works for them too. I decided to drop the cash on Crashplan central for the expanded features/control of the backup schedule/frequency and because I didn’t want to have to make sure my computers all had to be running all the time to be able to backup.

      • XA Hydra
      • 8 years ago

      All respect to the editor, I’m with A_Pickle. There are lots of people that feel the same way about handing everything over to businesses and corporations. They generally get muffled out and called paranoid or old-fashioned. A very common remark is some sarcasm about how home backups are so inferior to the panacea-like cloud ( usually something like “wait til your house burns down THEN where is your data eh? )… I backup to several optical copies ( good, dependable media- not cheap brands ), two external hard drives, and the copies are stored in several locations. I’m not some neckbeard or tinfoil hat… I just researched best-practice and took some time to use it. Funny thing is- backup may be the LEAST unsettling thing about all of this – it’s the prospect of streaming all games from a remote service, giving up local hardware and “subscribing” to games, programs and even an OS that really makes me queasy. Forget that.

        • A_Pickle
        • 8 years ago

        [quote<]Funny thing is- backup may be the LEAST unsettling thing about all of this - it's the prospect of streaming all games from a remote service, giving up local hardware and "subscribing" to games, programs and even an OS that really makes me queasy. Forget that.[/quote<] Agreed. I'm already burning at the idea that I could be restricted from playing "From Dust" when I lack an internet connection, even though it's locally installed. Don't get me wrong -- I like the cloud, I just think that everyone has done it totally wrong. The average consumer possesses, at mean income levels, to create their own cloud. Rather than having dumb devices that rely on some company's servers thousands of miles away, I'd rather have dumb devices that rely on MY server that most people usually call "his desktop." It's got a six-core, AMD Phenom II processor, 8 GB of RAM, a gigabit ethernet connection (connected to an all-gigabit network), and an ISP that usually gives me a solid 30 mbps downstream and 5 mbps upstream. You know what that gives me? That gives me more than enough bandwidth to stream MY OWN music collection from my desktop to my phone, which can then play over my car speakers or my bluetooth stereo headset. That gives me enough bandwidth to run a uTorrent WebUI on my desktop, so I can find and add torrents to my desktop connection wherever I am. I can host a Minecraft (or any other competently designed game worth it's asking price) server on my desktop, and play with my friends on my gaming laptop wherever I am. I haven't a doubt in my mind that I could (if The Document Foundation and/or Microsoft had any shred of creativity) host a complete Google Docs replacement from my own server, using the same technologies that uTorrent uses for its WebUI. It's funny, though, that Google decided to put their software development resources into software that [i<]they[/i<] control. They could've just as easily made Google Docs hostable from your own computer. It's no surprise as to why they didn't, though -- then they wouldn't get ad revenue. The entire point of the Cloud isn't fully utilized by these companies who offer online services -- it's [i<]diminished[/i<]. The Cloud, and indeed information technology as a whole, isn't and has never been about more centralization -- it's about more [i<]decentralization[/i<]. That consumers can afford rich, local computing power is perhaps the greatest boon to the spread of human freedom that has ever happened in history... and we're about to throw that all away in the name of convenience and that ever-so-nebulous metric called "the experience." I feel like an old geezer. I love new technology, but the level of control that carriers possess over smartphones (even Android ones) is so unsettling to me that I'm more than happy to stick with my Windows Mobile 6.1-powered Palm Treo Pro. I'm happy to forego the convenience of cloud storage if it means I control my data and my software.

          • XA Hydra
          • 8 years ago

          Everyone that I speak with about this that has their doubts or concerns with the “cloud” says that they “feel old”. I’ve even said it. I think that is because older people seem to want to cling to what’s familiar. That is not entirely accurate or fair comparison in this case, however. I guess that, quite possibly before “my time” this has taught me that newer ( and trendy ) does not always = better.

          This all reminds me of all the people where I work that grabbed their iPads and immediately started trumpeting “the desktop is dead!”. About one month later nearly half of them are back on their notebooks. Does the tablet have its use? Sure. The mentality, however, was that it was automagically the best thing ever and a bunch of people jumped right in only to be disappointed. I see that same pattern here. In some circles, stating your feelings towards the cloud is almost grounds for a-lynchin’ !

          The cloud = the internet. The only difference that using the label “cloud” brings to mind is monthly fees, stipulations and extra legalities. Nickles and dimes…. “low, low monthly fees”… Bottled water 😉

          …Any service I personally have found useful online, perhaps like mapquest ( or insert something else here ) was around before the buzz. Nowadays someone could arguably call that a “cloud app”

    • Elsoze
    • 8 years ago

    Once they add in the local backup option I’ll start being interested

    Add a linux option or just and API so I can backup what I want and how I want and they can just take my wallet.

      • highlandr
      • 8 years ago

      Uhh, they [b<]DO[/b<] offer a local backup option. AND a linux option. AND Solaris, if that's how you roll. I like crashplan's free setup - get a friend with some big drives at their house, and presto! Offsite Backups for free! No cloud needed!

        • A_Pickle
        • 8 years ago

        [quote<]I like crashplan's free setup - get a friend with some big drives at their house, and presto! Offsite Backups for free! No cloud needed![/quote<] Seriously. THIS is a better solution than the cloud.

    • dpaus
    • 8 years ago

    [quote<]Cloudy with a chance of backups[/quote<] ...and a 40% chance of intermitent availability. [i<]That's[/i<] what keeps me out of the cloud.

      • A_Pickle
      • 8 years ago

      That, and the fact that your data really isn’t yours on the cloud. Your data is one subpeona or one “national security information request” away from being seen by someone, and if you think CrashPlan or [i<]any[/i<] of these cloud backup services has the spine to stand up to such a request, you're insane. They have the encryption key that they used to encrypt your data in the first place, they'll happily give it away to anyone who requests it. DropBox claimed that even they couldn't access your information, but what a surprise it was when that turned out to be [i<]a bald-faced lie[/i<]. I'm just not interested in that. I pay for a 30 mbps download, 5 mbps upload plan at home. 5 mbps isn't too bad. It allows me to use my desktop as a pretty good server -- and I get 1 TB of storage (or more, if I decide to upgrade) and an encryption key that no one but me has access to. That's proper data security.

        • Flatland_Spider
        • 8 years ago

        You could encrypt the data first. Granted the feds will have a lot more computing power then a casual admin, but it’s something.

          • XA Hydra
          • 8 years ago

          “Enhanced Interrogation” is good at revealing sophisticated encryption keys, or so I hear LOL

      • morphine
      • 8 years ago

      True enough given the recent Amazon/MS/Google outages (40% is highly overrated though 🙂

      To its defense, a backup service can wait a couple hours, and you can set up multiple destinations so, for example, you have a local copy and a remote copy. So it’s a better scenario than other has-to-be-constantly-on stuff.

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