Easy online backups

You know you should back up your data. But whether it’s the cost, the setup, or the hassle of swapping discs or shuttling around hard drives, most of us find a million excuses not to get the job done. So wouldn’t it be great if you could click on a few buttons and ensure that your data was backed up regularly? Thanks to a new breed of online services, it’s possible to copy files over the Internet easily and affordably, keeping your data secure at an off-site location.

Weigh the pros and cons

Why copy your files over the Internet to faraway servers? For one thing, you don’t have to deal with additional hardware or media—you simply take advantage of the online service’s hardware. In many cases, you can just install some software, configure it, and let it run in the background. It’s also easy to back up from the road without having to drag an external drive along—provided you have a fast Internet connection.

One of the biggest advantages of backing up online is safety. Because files are stored elsewhere, they’re protected even if your equipment gets stolen or your office or house burns down. Plus, most services offer encryption (see “Safe and Secure”).

There are downsides, however. If your Internet connection falters, or if the online service has server problems, you could be stuck without access to your data. Also, if you have a computer meltdown, you won’t be able to boot up your computer from an online backup. If you want a bootable duplicate of your hard disk, you’ll still need an external hard drive and software such as Shirt Pocket’s $28 SuperDuper 2.1.4 (   ) or Bombich Software’s free Carbon Copy Cloner 3. (See Easy Mac Backups for instructions.)

By far the biggest drawback of online backup is speed. Even if you have a fast broadband connection, backing up your data online will be much slower than backing up to a local hard drive or a server on your local network. In fact, depending on the amount of data you have, your first full online backup could take several days or even a week to complete. You’d only have to suffer through that once, of course, since subsequent backups would copy only new or changed files. And you could also be choosy about what you backed up. Still, you will want to carefully consider whether you have too much critical data to make online backups practical. (To estimate how long it would take you, see “Check Your Speed Limit.”)

Find the right service

Some online services are tailored to backup; others are intended for file sharing but also can be used for backups. What makes the biggest difference to most people, however, is how files are uploaded.

Access via the Web Several services, such as Box.net and myDataBus, offer storage space that you can access only from a Web browser. These services are designed with file sharing, rather than backup, in mind. You can get to your files from any computer without installing special software, but you’ll have to upload files manually. Still, if you need to back up only a few files, these services could be good options.

Access as a Volume Some services let you mount online storage space in the Finder as a network volume—just as you would a CD or an external hard drive. For instance, Jungle Disk uses Amazon.com’s S3 service and includes a Mac client for mounting the storage volume. Omnidrive also offers its own Mac client, while BingoDisk uses the WebDAV standard, which enables you to mount a volume by visiting the Finder’s Go menu, choosing Connect To Server, and entering the server’s URL.

Once the volume is mounted, you can access it using your favorite backup program—such as Prosoft’s $59 Data Backup 3 or EMC Insignia’s $129 Retrospect Desktop 6.1 (   ). You can schedule automated backups using all of your backup program’s features, but you might need to do some fiddling to get the pieces to work together.

Service with Software I think the best option is a service that includes its own backup software. Since everything is integrated, such a system is easier to set up and maintain. My favorites are CrashPlan, Mozy, and Steekup. All offer software that lets you schedule automatic backups; CrashPlan and Mozy go a step further by including the option to back up only new or changed files throughout the day. (In Mozy, go to Mozy: Preferences, click on Scheduling, and select Perform Backups Automatically. In CrashPlan, click on Settings in the left menu, select the Advanced tab, and enter a time in the Back Up Changed Files After field.) All three encrypt your data for safety and compress it, which means you can typically squeeze more into your storage space.

CrashPlan charges for its software. But it does let you back up to a second Mac, or even to a friend’s computer over the Internet, without purchasing an additional copy of the software. Steekup and Mozy include free software, though at press time Mozy’s Mac application was still in beta and had some rough edges. (For instance, it can’t yet back up files that are open or locked.)

Apple’s .Mac One seemingly obvious choice for online backup is Apple’s $100 per year .Mac service, which includes online storage space and the company’s easy-to-use Backup software (   ). Your storage space—or iDisk —mounts as a volume on your desktop. You get 10GB of storage, which must be shared by e-mail messages, shared photos and videos, Web sites, backups, and any other files you wish to store online. For an additional $100 a year, you can upgrade to 30GB.

Unfortunately, 10GB is too paltry to back up a typical iPhoto or iTunes library, to say nothing of the rest of your files. If you’re thinking about using it just for backup, .Mac isn’t the cheapest service either. But it’s worth considering if you’re already a member and just want to save copies of certain critical pieces of data.

Tweak your backups

These tips should help you avoid common pitfalls once you’re ready to give online backups a whirl. I’ll use my favorites—CrashPlan, Mozy, and Steekup—to illustrate.

Pare Down Because Internet backups are slow, be picky about what you transfer. The logical starting point is your user folder. But depending on the size of that folder, and the speed of your Internet connection, you may want to back up just its irreplaceable items.

So how much of your user folder should you back up? Calculate the number of gigabytes your broadband connection is capable of uploading per hour (see “Check Your Speed Limit” to find out how). Divide the size of your user folder by this number to approximate how long it will take to copy. For instance, if your user folder is 5GB and your upload speed is 768 Kbps (which means you’re uploading about one-third of a gigabyte per hour), it should take about 15 hours to perform your first full backup. File compression should reduce this time, but because so many variables come into play, it’s best to keep your estimates on the pessimistic side. I suggest limiting the amount of files so that a full backup does not exceed a week. Remember: subsequent backups will go much faster, since you’ll be copying only new or modified data.

Limit File Versions CrashPlan and Steekup let you specify how many versions of each file to archive. Limit this number (to, say, five or ten) to help keep storage costs down. In CrashPlan, select the Settings option in the left menu, and then click on the General tab. Select the # Of Versions To Keep For A File option and fill in a number (see “One File, Many Versions”).

In Steekup, click on the Configuration tab and select Number Of Versions from the Configuration Settings menu. Choose a number from the pop-up menu and click on Submit. Mozy doesn’t currently let you restrict file versions, but since it gives you unlimited storage, that’s no big deal.

Watch Bandwidth Most online backup programs upload files at the maximum speed your Internet connection can handle. But when you’re using your Mac, you may want to preserve some bandwidth for other tasks, such as sending e-mail. To prevent annoying slowdowns, make sure to set your backup software to throttle —in other words, to automatically adjust—its bandwidth usage.

In CrashPlan, click on the Settings link and then the Advanced tab. From the Bandwidth Limit When Present pop-up menu, choose a maximum data rate; this should restrict the bandwidth allocation when the computer is in use. In Mozy, go to the Preferences window (Mozy: Preferences) and click on the Performance button. Under Bandwidth Throttling, move the slider until you hit the bandwidth number you want. Select Always Throttle to use that figure at all times; click on Throttle Between and enter specific times if you want Mozy to pull back on speed during set hours.

Steekup doesn’t currently offer bandwidth throttling, but you can work around this by scheduling subsequent backups to occur when you’re not using your computer. To do this, select the Configuration tab, click on Scheduling, and specify times for your backups.

Test Restores It’s wise to periodically check that files are being backed up correctly. I recommend doing this after your first full backup and every few weeks thereafter. To do so, select a few random files from the server and restore them back to your disk.

In CrashPlan, click on the Restore option in the left menu. In Steekup, select the Data tab, and then click on the Restoration button. In Mozy, choose Restore Files from the M menu in your menu bar. (If you don’t see the menu, enable it via Mozy: Preferences.)

Restore the files to a different location from the originals. Once they’re downloaded, open the files and compare them with the ones on your hard disk. If they appear to be corrupted, or if you can’t restore them, contact the company’s tech-support staff. Remember: it’s always better to find out that there’s a problem with your backups before a crisis occurs.

One File, Many Versions: CrashPlan can store multiple versions of each file, so you can go back to an older copy if needed.

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