Finally a Backup (and sync) System that Works!

For some time I’ve been looking for a way to reliably backup all my personal and work related files on both my home and office computers that is as maintenance and hands-off as I can get it.? This “holy grail” of start-and-forget operability has been elusive…until now.

Why backups?

Quite simply – as any computer guru will tell you (or someone who’s learned the hard way!) – hard drive failure is not an if, but a when.? No matter how well a hard drive is manufactured it is still mechanical and subject to wear and tear.? Eventually it will fail.? Backing up your data is just plain smart if you don’t want to lose any of your hard work. It is something that is even more necessary in this age of digital media – who really wants to lose their years of photo memories, or that cache of mp3’s they’ve been gradually amassing?? If you don’t have a backup system – there’s really no time to waste and it should be the first thing on your to-do list in the immediate future.

The ideal backup solution – what does it look like?

Backups are one of those necessary things – like eating vegetables.? Everyone knows that we should eat a certain amount of vegetables every day, but most of us really don’t want to take the time or the effort to get that healthy helping of greens.? Heck, some of us don’t even like them!

The ideal backup solution is one that fills the following criteria:

  • It’s reliable – Put simply.? If your data doesn’t restore from the backup when you need it then the backup is worthless.? A backup should be something you can count on when the unthinkable happens.
  • It’s redundant – No backup can ever be 100% reliable. That’s why a good back-up solution should have multiple copies should one fail.? Redundancy can mean different locations for the backup, different sets of backups, or different media copies.? The ideal solution will have all of those.
  • It’s automatic – Ideally, once you set up what you want backed up you shouldn’t have to think about it.? Kind of like breathing – how many of us really think about pumping our lungs full of oxygen? It just happens.? Backups should be like that too!
  • It’s current – If the most recent back-up you have is 2 months old when you go to restore after a computer melt-down – you might have a case of heeby-jeebies.? Heeby = “whew, I’m glad I’ve got a backup” – jeebie = “darn, it doesn’t have that 20 page proposal I put together last week…”.? An ideal backup solution will be real-time – when you save a file, it’s archived.
  • It’s cheap – not in quality of course.? By cheap I simply mean that the ideal backup solution shouldn’t cost an arm and a let to run.
  • It’s simple – If the backup solution takes a degree in computer science to run then it isn’t “ideal”.? Sure, there are lots of “geek power” solutions out there that fit many of the other criteria I’ve listed above (such as using subversion, backing up to a home server etc.) but I want to have something that wouldn’t take me a couple weeks to learn how to set up or need constant “tweaking” to keep running.

Methods that work but are a pain in floppy…

While I’ve long been an advocate for frequent backups – I haven’t always practiced what I’ve preached.? The main reason has been that for the most part – doing backups required time that I didn’t really have much of and more often, effort that I didn’t want to expend.? So I still did backups, but just not as frequently as I would have liked.? In the past I’ve used:

  • Floppy Disks (3.5″) + WinZip – way back when a big hard drive was around 750mb!
  • Zip Drives (250mb by Iomega) + Proprietary software – a nice upgrade but still time consuming.
  • A second hard drive + winzip/mirrored files – Definitely faster, but I still wasn’t comfortable with the potential for dual hard-drive failure (both hard-drives in the same case…I know, my worries were probably unfounded but I still saw it as a temp solution)
  • 1Gb USB Memory Stick + Allway Sync between Home and Office comp – This backup solution was probably the most redundant and reliable system I had going to date and definitely the one I had the most up-to-date backups for. This also had the added advantage of having a copy of my files on me at all times with the USB Key.? However, this was only useful when it was just docs and small-files I was backing up.? When I started going digital with my photos and music/sermon recordings, this backup solution just wouldn’t cut it.
  • DVD-RW plus? various backup software – The advantage here was size.? DVD’s could hold a whole lot of files.? However, I was back to the “disk-swapping” thing and I just didn’t like the time it took to set up a DVD burn session.? I also couldn’t settle on any Backup software for DVD’s that I liked.

With the advent of broadband and the Web 2.0 revolution more and more options started appearing on the internet scene that began to approach the ideal backup solution. One setup that I tried was pretty complicated, but it worked – for a while.? I used Hamachi (by – which is a VPN [Virtual Private Network] system) to hook my home computer into my church office network.? I shared the folders for the network that I wanted to sync between my office computer and home computer and then using Allway Sync and the Windows Task Scheduler system I configured the two computers to sync files between each other so that there was a mirror copy of all the files I wanted archived between the two of them. This worked well for a while but then the connection speed using Hamachi wasn’t fast enough and I started getting sync failures far too often. This backup solution failed the reliability test, the simplicity test, and the real-time archiving test.

It’s here!

Then along came the news of Amazon S3 (Amazon Simple Storage Solution) and a neat little free program called S3 Backup that plug-ins with your Amazon S3 account to make backing up to the Amazon servers easy.? I’m not going to get into the mechanics or the step-by-step method of setting this up (maybe I’ll write that in a future article), but suffice it to say that after the initial looong upload of the files I wanted to archive this has proved to be fairly painless.? Amazon does charge for storage on their servers but thankfully, the cost is minimal and definitely worth it.

Thanks to the redundant, and reliable architecture of Amazon’s server farm I am definitely sleeping easier at night knowing that there is a safe copy of all the files I want to be archived.? I was finally working with something that was the closest to the ideal backup solution that I had come across yet.? There was only point it was off on and that was real-time archiving.

Then, there was another difficulty I ran into.? What about my home computer?? Along the way I? realized that I was not only looking for a backup solution but also a sync solution.? I wanted a way to keep my working files mirrored between my office and home computer (pictures and music as well). Of course, I’ve been using Logmein for a while and although it is really easy to use this service to access another computer from a different location and work with programs and files on it – it’s still kind of slow and you don’t want to have to do things in a hurry.? So, if I could have more painless way (similar to the criteria for the ideal backup solution) of syncing files between my computers I would be quite pleased.

Enter in Microsoft’s FolderShare.? I can’t even remember how I came across this online service other than I was googleing something and read about it in some tech-support forum.? Put simply FolderShare allows you to set up multiple computers to sync folders and files with each other.? Here’s a point form list of some features that I found very useful:

  • You setup different “libraries”.? A library is simply a way of saying, “these are the files I want to sync on this computer with the files on this computer”.? The libraries are remarkably easy to set up and you can have multiple computer’s sync with the same library.
  • You can set up the sync to be real-time.? That means that when? you save a file on one computer it gets propagated through all the computers that are part of the same library.? You wouldn’t believe the time-savings this gives you!? This also has the added bonus of being a great backup solution which partnered with my Amazon S3 backup method closes the gap on creating a real-time backup solution!
  • You can access (download) any of the files in the libraries you’ve set up, from any computer hooked into the internet.
  • It’s free! I don’t know if Microsoft will ever start charging for this service – but if they do and the cost is reasonable it will definitely be something I’d pay for.

Of course, there are many other features with FolderShare, but what I listed above are the predominant reasons why I use it.

In summary:

With the combination of Amazon S3, S3 Backup, and FolderShare I now finally have managed to put together what I believe to be the ideal backup system:

  • It’s reliable – The writeup Amazon has about their service is quite informative about the reliability of their service.? I’m reasonably confident that S3 Backup works as promised as well (which is crucial since it uses an encryption to make the file storage more secure).? However, the fact that I also mirror my files between my home and office computer ensures that I’ve got a fairly reliable backup solution in place.? I’ve been using this system for just over a month now with no problems to date.? Of course, the real test will be when I actually need to restore a backup!
  • It’s redundant – Two backup methods + three archive locations (home computer, office computer, Amazon servers) = great redundancy!? If one location fails I’ve got two others to fall back on.
  • It’s automatic – I don’t even think about my backups anymore! Groovy…
  • It’s current – S3 Backup automatically uploads any modified/new files to Amazon’s servers once every 24 hours.? But the real beauty of this system is that with FolderShare up and running I always have near real-time copy of my files on two locations.
  • It’s cheap – The only thing I pay for using this system right now is for data transfer to, and storage on, the Amazon servers.? But the cost is minimal.? How minimal?? Well after my initial transfer of 32gb (reading, writing, setting up buckets, deleting) and a monthly storage fee for just under 13gb of data I have accumulated the grand total of $8.50 for the month.? Future months will be cheaper because I won’t be incurring the data transfer charges ($6.55 for the month- which is more this month because of the initial transfer).? Pocket change for peace of mind!
  • It’s simple – All in all I’d say between the two methods I spent a total of about 3 hours setting them up.? The most time-consuming part of the process was restructuring my folder structure on both computers to overcome the 10,000 file limit per library using FolderShare and also making sure that the mirror’d copy of my office files wouldn’t take out the remaining space on my home computer’s main hard-drive (which it did on the first go at it lol).? But all-in-all things were pretty easy to set up.? Of course, the novice user will have a bit of difficulty understanding how to use Amazon S3 but most computer users should be able to get by ok.

So there you have it.? The ideal backup system that works….and a great sync solution to go with it!? (hint: If I get enough requesst for a step-by-step guide on how to set this up, I may just bump it up nearer to the top of my to-do list 😉 )