Over the course of the last few months, I’ve tested a number of online backup solutions, and found them all lacking. Some are disappointingly constructed and others seem feature-poor, but no matter how well they were designed they all share a single fatal flaw: consumer broadband in the United States is insufficient for backing up the dozens of gigabytes that an average user requires.
Still, the fact that broadband is the problem is progress, given my past experiences with backing up my data. I used to find that backup solutions were expensive or complicated to implement — a decade ago, I used the completely bewildering Retrospect and a prohibitively expensive tape backup system to back up my files — or tried to, anyway. The setup was unwieldy enough that I ran backups erratically, at best, and an erratic backup is not much better than none at all.
Better, Cheaper, Faster
Today, thanks to the advent of cheaper storage and remarkably improved consumer backup software, I back up my data with spotless regularity: each and every night to two 1-terabyte external hard drives that cost just US$70 each. Apple’s Time Machine does incremental backups to one, and the indispensable, must-have utility SuperDuper! clones the complete contents of my internal hard drive to the other.
It works like a charm — except of course, for the one glaring gap in this strategy: there’s no off-site redundancy. Fire or theft would leave me as helpless as any less-conscientious computer user, rendering all my self-congratulatory local backups worthless.
Up, Up, Upstream and Away
A whole crop of Internet-based backup solutions promises to remedy this situation, and in theory any of them should work. I’ve tried Mozy, Carbonite and CrashPlan. Each installs some sort of desktop software component on your hard drive which facilitates the progressive copying of your data to the service’s storage center ‘in the cloud,’ as the kids like to say. To varying degrees you can see that they could work, but they just don’t.
Each of these services has its own pluses and minuses, and some are decidedly quirkier than others. But not one of them is cleverly designed or implemented enough to get over the limitations imposed by my cable modem’s paltry upstream bandwidth, even though Time Warner Cable assures me that I’m subscribed to the fastest service they offer.
Heavy Clouds Ahead
After running the services for several days each, I found that it would take me about a month of uniterrupted upload time to even finish an initial backup of all my critical files. And even if I managed to finish that, incremental backups will inevitably lag behind the rate of change that occurs on my computer. Heaven forbid that a catastrophic event actually spurs me to call on a full backup; the time it would take to restore my system would be impractical.
(At least one service, CrashPlan, is clever enough to offer to send new users a physical hard drive onto which they can copy their initial backup, allowing further backups to be incremented over the cloud. In the event of a major data loss, they can send a hard drive back with the latest data, too. Both are clever workarounds, but either adds considerable expense to the cost of the service. They’re also a bit of a cheat in my book, since they’re not actually cloud computing. Though, hey, if they work for you I would’t blame you one bit for using these methods. For me, even the incremental backups would still be too slow and unreliable.)
What’s so frustrating about the situation these online backup players are in is that there’s no good reason that these services can’t work. Each one has more or less done everything they need to provide a truly useful functionality that makes complete sense. The only thing that’s holding them back is the pathetic state of consumer broadband in America; it’s simply not up to the task, even though the task, while nontrivial, would seem to be fundamental to a healthy data infrastructure. What’s more basic than allowing consumers to upload their files, especially for something as critical as data redundancy? It makes you wonder, really, what other kinds of businesses and services are being handcuffed by the broadband we have in this country.