Five lessons learned when switching cloud-hosted backups

Using online backups that archive files to the cloud is convenient, but the inertia makes it hard to switch.

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I’ve been using CrashPlan for several years and have accumulated an enormous archive of files, online and in local storage, using their software. But over time, I’ve had so many troubles keeping CrashPlan running reliably on one of my computers that I was ready to switch that one Mac to a different cloud-storage system.

However, with terabytes archived online and on a local drive, and about 1.3TB of data that I’d ideally like to back up with a new service, that’s easier said than done. If you’re in a similar situation, or even trying to get started with a comprehensive backup plan, these lessons I’ve taken away from the transition will help.

The upfront, before we get into details? If you have a low-rate upstream broadband connection or your ISP caps your monthly usage or charges overage fees, you may not be in a position to swap services without some additional effort, described throughout. If you have 10Mbps or faster upstream and a cap of 300GB or more each month, you’re likely suited to make a switch without too much pain.

A note about CrashPlan: I don’t want to knock the service generally, despite my specific problems. It consistently comes in top-rated, as in this Joe Kissell roundup at The Wirecutter. But Code42, its maker, uses a Java-based client, and while it’s promised for several years to release native software for OS X and other platforms, it has done so recently—but only for its enterprise customers. This makes it fragile.

The large number of files I back up and other unknown variables combined with Java-specific memory-allocation issues have led to multiple weeks-long or even months-long customer service interactions to get backups reliably back on track. Generally, it works well, but it doesn’t work well enough anymore for my office computer, even though it works without a problem on four other machines in my household.

1. Figure out backup set size

It may sound obvious that to back up, you need to choose a set of files you want to protect and preserve. Online backups are best when you get versioning as part of the arrangement. Then, if you delete a file accidentally or make changes from which you need to revert, you can just retrieve an older version from the archive.

But your backup needs are probably a mix of static items, such as photo libraries that are full of images that have already been edited or will never be edited, and constantly changing fresh work.

I used to back up nearly everything, including applications and system files, but that works poorly with online backups because of the nature of the files, their number, and how frequently certain system files change. It’s probably much more sensible to trim to documents, preferences, and media. (That said, I have 1.2TB of just that.)

Different services let you pick and choose differently. Backblaze will not archive system files and applications, and lets you pick entire drives (except those files) and mark exclusions. CrashPlan and other services more commonly have you select what to back up, and mark some files, file types, or file extensions or patterns to omit.

I supplement all backups with local clones using SuperDuper!, which will affect each of the points below, and I recommend having a clone on hand for a full restore of the system and apps in any case.

Knowing the size of your backup set helps shade what you need in the next lessons.

2. Find an acceptable alternative

Not everyone needs a cloud-hosted backup service. Dropbox, iCloud Drive, Google Drive, or Microsoft OneDrive may be the right alternative, depending on what you need. (See Lesson 4 for more on that.) But if you want to store remote copies in multiple versions of files located all over one or more drives, cloud-hosted backups make the most sense for ease—and restoring files in bulk.

CrashPlan and Backblaze stand out for having flat-rate unlimited storage options for home users. Other services offer similar plans, but with various drawbacks. Carbonite, for instance, doesn’t offer versioning—retaining multiple copies over time of the same file—for Mac users at this point.

One of CrashPlan’s key advantages has been configuration and targeting. The app offers a massive number of choices (possibly too many) for setting which items to back up, how many versions to retain, when to delete older versions, how much CPU power to use when a user is present or away, and so on. The same app can back up locally mounted and network volumes to locally attached storage, to or from a locally networked client or a peer elsewhere on the Internet, and to Code42’s cloud servers.

switchingbackups crashplan settings

CrashPlan has a plethora of settings, which, if you need them, cannot be found to the same level of granularity with competitors.

Backblaze is much simpler, with very few controls and settings, and only offers cloud-based storage. At one point, I had much more complicated needs in terms of retaining files and controlling CPU and network use. Over time, that’s reduced enormously, as even with a 2014 Mac mini stuffed with 16GB of RAM, continuous active backups seem to have a negligible effect on computer responsiveness, and I have shifted most of my active documents and projects to a Dropbox folder, which gives me another level of quasi-backup protection.

Some Backblaze users may opt to switch to CrashPlan for exactly the opposite reasons: They want a combination backup tool that includes cloud, peer-to-peer, LAN, and local backup, or they need to control aspects of archiving and scheduling more precisely.

3. Evaluate costs

The cost of swapping among cloud backups is more than just the fees the services charge, though those matter. For a single computer and unlimited storage, CrashPlan charges $6 a month or $60 a year and Backblaze $5 a month or $50 a year. Most competing services charge either the same or just slightly more for unlimited storage or up to 1TB of storage. For comparison, Dropbox charges $10 a month for 1TB of synced storage with a central repository and the ability to share files and have public downloads; Apple and Google also charge $10 a month for 1TB.

However, when you get into family plans for two or more computers, the costs start to stack up. Backblaze offers no discount, while CrashPlan charges $14 a month or $150 a year for two to 10 computers on the same household plan. Most competitors charge more than CrashPlan but less than Backblaze for family plans. (Backblaze has a slight two-year plan discount, and Code42 recently stopped offering multi-year contracts.)

In my situation, I’m reworking how I’m handling backups and storage on other computers, described in Lesson 4, but if you need to back up multiple machines, you’ll need to check the math. Two computers with Backblaze costs less than CrashPlan’s and many other services’ individual and family plans, but when you hit three or more, CrashPlan is cheaper than all others.

The other cost is broadband. Many ISPs in America have monthly limits or caps, after which you’re throttled or halted; others have a threshold, beyond which you pay overage fees. If you have a 500GB set to back up and your threshold is 300GB (as in some Comcast markets), you’ll pay $10 for each additional 50GB; you can also pay $30 per month as an overage “protection” fee, but it’s not refunded if you stay below the threshold. For seeding a backup for a single month, this might be worth it—and the actual data transferred could wind up higher than the total in your set.

If you’re in this boat with your ISP, you might consider if there’s a place you can take your computer during a backup period that has higher throughput and no caps—like a friend’s house, coffee shop, or library with fiber. That may sound absurd, but Google is bringing high-speed links to Starbucks, and I recently measured 40Mbps at a Seattle-area store. It might take several trips, but still be cheaper than alternatives, or at least make a good dent. (All hosted backup servers that you can find reviewed use encrypted transport, so your backups won’t be sniffed in transit.)

Some services offer the ability to seed a backup on a hard drive but only for your initial backup. They send a drive, you back up using its software, you send the drive back, and they load it on their servers. CrashPlan used to offer this service but recently discontinued it due to what the company said was low interest.

switchingbackups backblaze performance

Backblaze has performance settings that improve throughput by allowing simultaneously threaded uploads, but also shows you recent upload rates.

4. Rework your setup

When figuring out how many computers to back up, or whether to use a cloud-backup service or a sync/cloud-drive option, it will benefit you to examine how you organize where you store files to start with. You might bypass hosted backups altogether in favor of cloud sync or storage.

On my office computer, which is a desktop machine with multiple externally connected drives, using Dropbox or the like makes no sense. This is partly because I don’t need the same data everywhere, partly size (over 1TB), and partly the static nature of most of my data, as noted in Lesson 3. The vast majority of that set is photos and other media that will never change. So I need a backup archive, not a live synchronized set.

Since I’m using iCloud Photo Library, I can opt to exclude those files from a hosted backup, if I trust that Apple will keep the full-resolution versions safe. As noted, I also regularly make a clone of my main computer. To lose all my images, Apple’s redundantly stored copies would have to be deleted and my clone fail. However, because I had and have the bandwidth and the storage at both CrashPlan and Backblaze, I’m making yet-another-copy in the cloud for additional belt/suspenders/duct tape goodness.

But you should evaluate whether you have everything that’s perishable stored already in some cloud-based solution plus another local or cloud backup. A clone plus cloud could be enough, or local clone, safe-deposit box occasional clone, and cloud might be the right solution for longer-term assurance.

When I switch to Backblaze, I’ll be reorganizing my laptop and moving all permanent files to my desktop machine, and everything else to Dropbox, for which I’m already paying $10 a month (1TB of storage). This will sync my files to my office machine as well for an additional backup there, and that Dropbox folder on the office computer will also be backed up to the cloud. This lets me leverage the fee I pay Dropbox and what I’ll be paying Backblaze for storage.

5. Plan and make the switch

Strongly connected with bandwidth limits and costs noted in Lesson 3 is the question of time. If you have 3Mbps upstream, it will take about 16 days of continuous flood-the-pipe uploads to back up 500GB. If you have 50GB to upload, it’s still a day and a half. If you have an increasingly commonly 15Mbps upstream connection, 500GB and 50GB will back up in 3 days and 7.5 hours, respectively. I couldn’t make the switch for my data set until I had more throughput. I recently switched from 18/3 service to 1Gbps symmetrical fiber with no overage charges, throttling, or caps.

switchingbackups backblaze speedtest

You can test your connection to Backblaze’s servers to get an estimate of backup performance and initial backup time.

Likewise, you need to check with the backup service about whether they throttle uploads. It varies quite a bit. Backblaze offers an online speed test between your browser and their servers that shows the maximum possible speed. And in March, Backblaze added a Performance setting, where you can set Maximum Number of Backup Threads, dramatically boosting uploads by allowing simultaneous transfers. I went from 10Mbps upstream to between 100 and 600Mbps upstream by upping the number. Threading can reduce performance, but I’m not noticing problems, and for an initial backup, it’s more important to push the files up and just get through it.

After you’ve completed seeding your hosted backup, at some point, you’ll want to cancel your service with your previous provider. But when you do so, all your archives and versions will be lost. Some services will let you pay to have a drive sent with all your archives, including every version. (If you’re using CrashPlan in parallel for local backup, you’ll already have a copy, however.)

In my case, I prepaid for CrashPlan so far in advance, including taking advantage of a brief 50-percent-off offer and answering a business survey, that I’ve only paid $150 total for the next three years of service remaining. I’ll almost certainly keep it active for my remaining household computers since they all work without a hitch with CrashPlan.

In three years, I expect the backup landscape to be very different than today.

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