Understanding Offsite Backup vs. Local Backup vs. Syncing

A few days ago a good friend of mine, Jami, sent me this question via email:

… a while back … you wrote about cloud back ups and I believe you recommended Crash Plan. I tried the free trial but was disappointed because it was SO slow. I like drop box, but couldn’t figure out a way to get it to automatically back up my whole computer like time machine did. I tried hooking up my old time capsule that we used to use as a router directly to my computer via ethernet, but I couldn’t get that to work. SO, I thought maybe it was just a random thing that Crash Plan was so slow the first time, so I signed up again in desperation. For 150+ gb, it says over 57 days?!? Do you think that seems right?

Do you have any other recommendations? I want something that worked like time machine did, preferably cloud based. I’m curious what you’re using.

The following is what I responded with via email, but I’ve actually gotten this question from a few people lately, so I thought I’d post it here.

The first fundamental question to ask is: what do you want when you say “backup”?

I’d say there are a few key criteria:

  1. A true backup – nothing1 you do can destroy your data
  2. A fast, but at-risk backup – you’ve got a copy of everything, but you could destroy it
  3. Sync – you can get to your files on any device with minor accident tolerance

CrashPlan is all #1 and #2, and a partial #3.  Time Capsule is #2.  Dropbox is #3.

CrashPlan is as fast as your upload bandwidth to the Internet, which in general is slow.  The key with CrashPlan is that it’s:

  1. Unlimited storage for a super cheap rate.  I have almost 2 TB with them and it’s still less than $5 a month.  For Google Drive the same storage is $100/mo.  Dropbox is usually 4x Google, so while they don’t list the price for this, I assume it’d be $400/mo.  Big deal breaker.
  2. It’s true backup.  First it’s off-site, so if your house burns down, someone steals your Time Capsule, or if any other catastrophe occurs, your data is still backed up.
  3. If you have another computer with a large hard drive, you can have CrashPlan do super fast local backups.  For example, I back everything up to their cloud service, but I also back it up to my Linux server with a 5 TB drive.  If my laptop dies, I can quickly get my data from my local server.  If my house burns down, I can get my data from the cloud at a speed that corresponds to the speed of my Internet connection.

A key thing to note with Dropbox is that it is not backup.  If I borrow your computer, delete your photos folder, and you don’t realize for a few weeks it’s just gone.  No recovery.  Dropbox does keep track of recently deleted files and allows you to restore them, but it’s unpredictable in terms of how long they’ll be available.  That feature is more for a “whoops, I didn’t mean to hit delete” situation.  Not really a true backup.  To contrast, you can tell CrashPlan to never delete backup copies of a folder like “Photos,” even if you delete it on your computer.

If you want true backup, I haven’t seen anything better than CrashPlan for the price.  The initial backup will take some time, but I wouldn’t worry about it too much.  If it’s a real issue, I’d check on your Internet plan and see if there’s an affordable faster plan.

Personally, I use all 3.  :-)

1. Dropbox is my sync solution.  I see it as a quick portal between computers.  I only have 8 GB on my plan though, so file size is limited.

2. My Linux box acts as an Apple Time Capsule.  If I want to go “back in time” in some folder, I use this.  (If disk space ever became an issue, I’d remove this.  It’s really overkill with the local half of #3 below.)

3. CrashPlan also runs on my Linux box and I pay for the “Pro” service.  It’s my ultimate fallback.  It is slow, but it’s the only true backup I have.

Ultimately it comes down to choosing what you want/need.  I’ve got tens of thousands of photos at this point that I’d hate to lose.  Moreover, I’m shooting RAW now and my photos come in around 30 MB each.  I’d hate to pay Dropbox-like fees to backup.  CrashPlan backs those (and everything else) up for a great price.

Notes

  1. When I say “nothing” I mean that it’s unlikely that a non-deliberate scenario would play out that would destroy data. Clearly, if you log into your backup account and say “delete my account” and then smash your computer, your data is likely gone forever. I’m not considering these unlikely and deliberate scenarios. ↑ back.