A while back I wrote a brief article on off-site backup and that got me thinking. The iDisk is great for small amounts of data, but it is limited to 20 gig in size. Taking a backup hard drive to an off-site location works fine, but is definitely not an automatic process. When I think about my most important and precious data, my iPhoto Library comes to mind first. Many types of lost data can be recreated, but I can't go back in time to retake lost photos.
Since I have plenty of local backups of my data, I decided that for myself, an automatic off-site backup would be for "catastrophic" situations: fire, burglary, tornado, etc where my computer equipment was lost, including all of my local backups.
In this article, I am going to give some general information about automatic off-site backups and then discuss three automatic off-site backup systems useful for large amounts of data such as your iPhoto Library.
Let's start with some common elements of automatic off-site backups:
- Off-site backups usually go to a data center maintained by the company that provides the backup software. The company should give you some idea of how that data center is set up to give you an idea of how reliable your data storage will be.
- Since data centers are expensive to build and maintain, there is a charge for using the backup service. Some charge just for the storage space you use, others charge for both the storage and data transfer.
- Your data is encrypted before it leaves your computer so that no one on the "other side" can view your data.
- Your data is also compressed before it leaves your computer. Compression helps speed up the data transfer and reduces storage charges.
- Backing up to an off-site location can take a very long time, even with a fast internet connection. If you are uploading large amounts of data, the first backup could take weeks.
- You can choose which files and folders you want to back up and which ones to exclude.
- Backups are incremental. While it can take a very long time to get the first back up made, subsequent backup sessions are much shorter because only changed data is sent.
- Backing up happens in the background on your computer so it doesn't interrupt your work. Much of the transferring happens when you aren't actively using your computer. This causes some special issues for notebook users who typically put their notebook to sleep when not using it. If you are using a notebook Mac, you will need to leave it awake while you aren't using it while that first backup is happening.
- You can upload your data to their data center, which they call CrashPlan Central. They go into great detail on their website about their data center. Backing up to CrashPlan Central costs $0.10US per gig per month with a $5 minimum. That $5 minimum gives you 50 gig of storage which is a good sized iPhoto Library. Since uploading all of your data could take weeks, CrashPlan Central allows you to send them a hard drive containing your backup data and they will copy it locally, thereby skipping all of the upload time. If you need a quick restore, they will also (for a fee) send you a hard drive in the mail with your data on it.
- You can upload your data to a friend's computer across the internet. This is the online equivalent of swapping hard drives with a friend. There is no backup and storage fee if you backup to a friend's computer. Your friend can use the excess space on their own hard drive, or you can give them a hard drive of your backed up data that they connect to their computer. If you need a full restore, you can simply get the hard drive back from your friend. I set my mother up to back up her iPhoto Library onto a PC that gets very little use that we have in the basement. Setting this up is easy, but it took a little bit of messing around to get a connection from her Macbook in Illinois to my PC in Indiana.
NOTE: If you are using off-site backup as a catastrophic backup plan, only back up your home folder, or certain parts of your home folder. Backing up the Mac OS X operating system and all of your applications will only increase your transfer time and increase your storage costs. After a catastrophe, you will likely need a new Mac anyway which will come with Mac OS X and as far as applications go, they can be replaced. (storing your software license keys in a file stored off-site will make replacing your applications easier.)
After all of my research and testing, here is what I ended up with on my computer system at home: My entire home folder of the MacBook and iMac are being backed up to CrashPlan Central. I expect that to cost me around $10/month. My mother is also storing her iPhoto Library on my unused PC hard drive. This is costing nothing for us on either end. While storing irreplaceable data to my basement PC is nowhere as secure as backing up to an underground data center, my mother and I both decided that if there were a catastrophe large enough to wipe out all our our computers in two different states, that we would have worse problems on our hands than worrying about the loss of photos.
Automatic off-site backup can seem a bit intimidating to set up, but it really isn't that bad. Of the three services that I looked at, all had extensive setup and help information on their websites. With a bit of research and a lot of patience for that first backup, you too can protect the photos, movies and music that you hold dear.