CrashPlan and Why The Cloud Makes Sense

Are you doing enough to protect your data? That you stumbled onto this article may indicate a concern you aren’t doing enough to ensure its security. If you are at least backing up your data to another hard drive, ideally an external drive like a Western Digital Passport, you are doing a better job than most. If you are backing up to an external drive and also taking that drive offsite then you are WAY ahead of most people. But you might be wondering if there is a way you could automate this entire process – a way to backup on a regular basis, in the background, without having to initiate anything and also have the backup location exist offsite. What is the answer?…

The Cloud

The Cloud really is just another way of referring to the inter-connected servers and networks we have more commonly called the internet. Use of the term “cloud” has been recently used in conjunction with a growing set of services being provided online that used to be accomplished by locally installed applications. Some examples are using Google Docs as opposed to a locally installed word processing application such as Microsoft Word, or using Evernote for note taking and organization instead of pen and paper or a locally installed application. At the heart of it, accessing something in “the cloud” usually means you are storing information on a server that is remote from your local computer. In recent years a number of companies have started offering very attractively priced online “cloud” backup solutions. Instead of backing up your data to a hard drive attached to your computer you backup to a server, that could be thousands of miles away, via your broadband connection. Some examples of online backup solutions are Mozy, Carbonite and CrashPlan. Since I personally use CrashPlan, this is the online backup solution I will profile in this article. I say profile because this is more of an informational article about cloud backup and CrashPlan rather than a review of the service. I’m simply writing about my experience. And just to clarify, I am not affiliated and I do not work for CrashPlan and I’m not getting paid to write this article.

Why Backup Your Data To The Cloud?

The strongest case I can make for why I chose to backup my data to an online backup solution is that I can be sure that the files I worked on today, tomorrow or any day will automatically be backed up to an offsite location, usually within minutes or hours at most. Should anything happen to the location where my original files are stored I can rest assured that my data is safe and sound in an entirely different location. Sure, you can accomplish this yourself with the use of an external hard drive and a friend or family member that is willing to hold onto your valuable data at their house (or leave a copy at your place of work) but this is an entirely manually process. You are left to haul the drive back and forth. You can probably imagine that the frequency of your backups to this “offsite” drive is likely to decrease over time due to the inconvenience. The ease and convenience of having your data backed up automatically to an offsite location cannot be overstated.

What is CrashPlan?
CrashPlan offers several different backup plans, the cheapest of which is free. Although I should point out right now that the free plan is actually just software you install on your computer that allows you (and a friend or family member that also has the software installed) to backup from one computer to another. This can be in the same location or across the country. With the free plan you aren’t using CrashPlan’s servers (called CrashPlan Central) to store your data. The nice thing about the free plan is that, well, it’s free and it works with an unlimited number of computers. You still get all the benefits of automatic and unattended backups and if you choose a computer that is not in the same location you still get the benefit of offsite storage of your data. What you don’t get with the free plan is continuous real-time backup of your data, multiple backup sets and support from CrashPlan. Above the free plan are 3 additional paid plans. The cheapest plan is called CrashPlan+ 10GB and for $24.99 per year you get 10GB of online storage and the ability to backup 1 computer. Next is CrashPlan+ Unlimited for $49.99 per year and you get unlimited online storage with the ability to backup 1 computer. The last plan is CrashPlan+ Family Unlimited for $119.99 per year for unlimited online storage and the ability to backup up to 10 computers. CrashPlan also offers CrashPlan PRO for businesses but that service is beyond the scope of this article. I think most people will probably choose the CrashPlan+ Unlimited because 10GB is simply too little storage these days. Plus, if you sign up for multiple years the cost can be cut by up to a third (as low as $2.92 a month, even lower with the 10GB plan). I also feel that unless you have a lot of computers to backup you can probably get away with the 1 computer plan because you can still backup data from other computers via network shares (although you need to follow these directions, which are not officially supported, to get that working properly).

When I signed up for CrashPlan I took advantage of their 30-day trial to see how their service works before committing any money. With 3 days left on the trial I decided to go ahead and purchase their longest multi-year option, CrashPlan+ Unlimited for 4 years for $139.99 which is only $2.92 per month. My main justification in buying multiple years is that I’ve spent around $120 every year or so to upgrade to a larger external Western Digital Passport drive to use as my manual offsite backup solution. I currently have the 1TB version and it’s nearly full. In fact, it doesn’t even store all my data, just the most important data. For only slightly more than I’ve typically spent for those external drives I now have 4 years worth of online backup with unlimited storage space. Now I have no reason to upgrade that 1TB external drive any time soon.

How Does CrashPlan Work?

Here are the main points that I believe make CrashPlan an excellent choice for cloud backup. Some of these options are only available with paid plans. More information can be found on CrashPlan’s website.

Install the CrashPlan software on your computer, select the data you want to have backed up and then pretty much forget about it. CrashPlan will work in the background to backup your files to CrashPlan Central. If you turn your computer off or if there is any kind of interruption in the connection, CrashPlan will automatically resume next time you turn your computer on or the connection is restored.

Unlimited File Size
This is a really important distinction with CrashPlan. They do not limit the size of the files you can backup and you do not need to do anything special to backup certain types of files. Whatever files that exist in the location you have chosen to backup will be backed up to CrashPlan Central with no fuss.

CrashPlan’s software is designed to make your backup as small as possible. This is done in a couple of different ways. CrashPlan uses a differential backup which means after the first backup completes, CrashPlan will essentially ignore unaltered files that have already been backed up and will only backup files that have changed. In addition, it only actually backs up the changes, not the entire file. Another optimization that CrashPlan uses is Data De-duplication (or dedupe). In the simplest terms what this means is that CrashPlan will not backup data that it knows it already has a copy of. So if you have redundant data within your collection of files CrashPlan will only transfer the redundant data once, not each individual instance. Rest assured all of your individual files will remain intact on CrashPlan Central. The last optimization is compression. All data transferred to CrashPlan Central is compressed before it is sent.

File Versioning and Retention
CrashPlan likes to say “we never throw anything away”. What this means is that they keep everything, even files you delete are still available to restore at a later date! In addition, CrashPlan retains multiple versions of your files. If you have a file you made a change to but instead would like to get a copy of the unchanged file, that can be done with CrashPlan. This includes many changes to the file going back in time. You can restore the file to any previous state. Keep in mind that these settings are configurable within the CrashPlan software. Lifted from their website “By default CrashPlan retains more versions of newer files and fewer versions over time. With CrashPlan+ you can adjust the number of backup versions being retained to meet your retention requirements.”

If you use the free plan you get 128-bit Blowfish encryption. With paid plans you get 448-bit Blowfish encryption. In either case your data is probably more secure in the backup location than it is in its original location!

Restoration via the Web
If you backup to CrashPlan Central (meaning you have a paid plan) you will have the ability to sign-in to your account via CrashPlan’s website and then restore files to any computer. This is definitely one of the most convenient, flexible and simplest ways to restore files!

Seeded Backup and Restore
If your broadband internet connection isn’t all that fast you might be thinking that cloud backup is not going to work well for you. Indeed this could be a problem if you have a really large amount of data to backup. The biggest hurdle is getting the initial backup complete. In most cases, even with a slower broadband connection, day to day updates to your files should be no problem to get backed up to the cloud. But how do you deal with that one time, massive bulk file transfer to get all your data backed up when you first start out with CrashPlan? Seeded Backup is the answer. CrashPlan will send you an external hard drive that you can use for your “first” backup. Send the drive back to them and they will transfer your data to your online storage location on CrashPlan Central. Of course there is a cost to this service, but it could be well worth it for those that have slow broadband connections. If you ever need to restore all your data you can pay for a Seeded Restore which, as it might sound, is just the reverse of the Seeded Backup.

My Experience with CrashPlan So Far

I have been using CrashPlan+ for about a month now. As of writing this article 711.2GB has been backed up to CrashPlan Central out of a total of 1.8TB. Based on the current transfer rate CrashPlan is estimating another 39.6 days to complete the intial backup. Obviously I have not opted to use the Seeded Backup. Instead I will just let the backup keep running until it is complete. At that point the only thing that will be transferred are changes and additions to my data which should rarely cause CrashPlan to fall behind by any large margin. I have seen throughput as high as 9Mbps and as low as only a few hundred Kbps. It’s hard for me to estimate the average throughput over the last month based on how variable it has been but I would be surprised if it was above 1.5Mbps.  That’s not horrible, but considering I have 25Mbps upstream with Verizon FiOS that is leaving A LOT of bandwidth on the table. I’ve done numerous speed tests during the past month and I’m definitely getting the full 25Mbps upstream with Verizon. That does not mean CrashPlan is to blame, however. The problem could be anywhere in between my house and their data center which means the problem might not even have anything to do with Verizon or CrashPlan. I have not opened a support ticket with CrashPlan yet to inquire about the speed but if I do I will write about it here. I also plan to write an additional article to report on the progress of my initial backup to CrashPlan as well as any other details I believe you should know about.

Make sure your data is safe tonight!

Follow-up article: Two Months With CrashPlan


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