Monday, February 15, 2010
When owners of Apple Time Capsules suffered widespread failures of the device after a year and a half of use, the company replaced the out-of-warranty machines for owners with an AppleCare contract covering their Mac. A faulty power supply rendered the hard disk inaccessible.
But the solution didn't recover the data, just replaced the Time Capsule, proving that your Plan B disaster recovery strategy is only as good as your Plan C.
CrashPlan (http://crashplan.com) offers you a Plan B like any other online backup service, but it also offers a Plan C, Plan D and more through its free backup software. We chatted about the service with Elvin Loomis recently to learn just how it works.
As Code 42 Software, the company has been in the enterprise backup business for about 12 years, Loomis told us, providing secure backups to companies like Apple and Target. During the last year, the company has expanded into the personal backup arena, primarily to stress test their systems for large customers.
To do that, it is giving away its Java-based backup software. You can download it from http://crashplan.com/download for Mac, Windows, Linux or Solaris systems. Any machine built within the last four years should be able to run it, Loomis said, although it requires 500-MB of free RAM to run quickly in the background. The code also includes a software daemon that runs in the background.
While you can use the software locally without charge, there is an annual service plan available for backups to the company's cloud of servers. The servers are safely lodged in an underground vault, which is growing at 100 terrabytes a week at the moment, Loomis disclosed.
The plans include the unlimited Individual Plan for $54 to backup unlimited data from one computer for a year and the unlimited Family Plan for $100 a year to backup every computer in your household. The company also provides a CrashPlan Pro solution for corporate enterprises and builds backup appliances (high-capacity RAID servers, that is) for onsite deployment.
In short, this isn't beta software from a startup. It's a mature application from guys who know this business inside out.
What most interested us about the free CrashPlan backup strategy is that you aren't restricted to backing up your critical files to one location.
You can use the software to automatically backup to an external drive, a network attached server, a friend's computer or anything else you can see on your desktop. That's Plan B, Plan C, Plan D and so on.
The software itself is particularly straight-forward for a backup utility. Backup utilities tend to be so technical and confusing that you feel you should take a few college courses in the subject before setting any preferences.
But the CrashPlan software is nicely arranged in Backup, Restore, Settings, History, Friends and Destinations panels.
Backup asks for your destinations and which files you want to copy there. You can indeed backup everything (although the program is designed for file backups, not bare metal system backups). Typically, Loomis said, users just backup their data files.
If you have over 100-GB to protect, CrashPlan will send you a 1-TB hard drive for $125 (or $145 with two-day delivery) so you can expedite the first, long backup.
That huge RAM allotment is used to intelligently parse and encrypt changed data using a 448-bit Blowfish cipher so it can be immediately and automatically backed up. Loomis explained that the program does not backup the entire revised file but only the parts of it that have actually changed. That's unlike most backup programs which note the file was modified and backup the whole file.
While the program does a lot work, it also can get out of the way quickly, Loomis said. The Settings panel lets you decided how quickly, letting you set CPU usage when "user is away" or "present," bandwidth limits and what priority it has over your connection. Being able to throttle CrashPlan's performance is better than crippling your backup strategy, which is the only option with most software.
Restore options include the ability to immediately overwrite current files which, Loomis noted, saves him a reboot when he changes a code library for the worse. He simply restores the library and gets back to work.
The FAQ (http://support.crashplan.com/doku.php/faq) explains everything from the program's color scheme to the type of encryption used and even includes advice on backing up Aperture files.
A SHORT TEST
We downloaded the 14.4-MB program and installed it for a brief test. It impressed us, from the start, as well built and attractive (although it does display a couple of small ads unobtrusively).
On startup, we were prompted to create a free account (our password strength was reported in a small but effective graph) which includes a 30-day free trial to the company's online backup service.
After creating an account, we were taken immediately to the Backup panel where our home directory was scanned. Destinations included CrashPlan Central (free for 30 days), Friend (free), Another Computer (free) and Folder (free to an external drive). The Backup Sources option lets you invite friends to backup to you, generating a backup code automatically.
The program does access CrashPlan's servers to find your destinations, otherwise a local connection is straight-forward. Scanning our home directory took a while, but no longer than our usual backup process takes.
The automatic aspect of the program is one of its more compelling features. As the FAQ puts it, "The problem with traditional, manual backup is that it is, well ... manual. That means people forget to do it and inevitably lose data." This is backup you don't have to think about.
CrashPlan isn't the only automatic backup program, of course. Western Digital also ships automatic backup software with its latest generation of hard drives.
But CrashPlan's automatic multiple destinations is special. We may have qualms about connecting to the server to manage destination addresses, but otherwise we were impressed by the program's design and robustness. Not to mention the company's expertise.
In short, CrashPlan sounds like a Plan. More than one.