Regular readers of the site will know that I’m always hammering on about how important a good backup strategy is. Hard drives will fail, as sure as the sun will rise. It’s only a matter of time.
When I get into backup discussions with other photographers, we always seem to end up on the same topic: Cloud backups.
A solid backup strategy should always follow the 3-2-1 rule. 3 copies of every photo, 2 of which are local but on different drives, and at least 1 offsite copy. My current backup routine achieves this, but it’s the last step, the offsite copy, that has always bugged me a little bit. For a long time I simply kept a set of hard drives offsite in a Pelican case, and occasionally took it to my office to be updated. The problem with this strategy is it isn’t automated, and sometimes I can go several weeks before finding the time to perform that offsite backup. Bringing those drives into my office also means that for a short period of time, I’ve got all my eggs in one basket.
I’ve shied away from cloud backups for a long time because my internet upload speed are glacially slow here in Canada, and quite frankly, I also didn’t want to add yet another monthly subscription payment to what seems like an ever expanding list. As time goes on though, I begin to appreciate more and more, the importance of free time, and time spent driving to and from my offsite backup storage location (friend’s house), is time I could be spending doing a million other things – or nothing at all, which would also be nice on occasion 🙂
I decided it was time to start experimenting with cloud backups to see whether there was a way I could use it to save some time, or make my files that much safer that I didn’t mind the costs that would be involved. Of course it also means that I can become a bit more qualified to answer all the questions about this topic that I get from my readers!
Different Types of Cloud Services
Before starting my first cloud backup experiment, I posed some questions to my Facebook followers on my page, and something became immediately obvious: There’s some major confusion about the difference between a cloud backup service and a cloud sharing service.
Cloud sharing services are designed to host a variety of files in the cloud, in a way that means they can be continually accessed, and easily shared with others. The most common examples are Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud, iDrive and Microsoft OneDrive. You can log into these services in a web browser to have remote access to your files, and you can easily share files with other people by granting them sharing permissions of specific files or folders within your cloud drive. They also work directly on your computer to continuously sync a folder full of files up to your cloud storage. For example, when you install Dropbox on your computer, it creates a folder called Dropbox, and anything you put into that folder gets added to your Dropbox folder in the cloud as well. But here’s a VERY important distinction: Anything you delete from your Dropbox folder will also get immediately deleted from your cloud, and any file you accidentally corrupt, will also be corrupted in the cloud in the same way. In many ways, it’s similar to the problems of calling a RAID drive a “backup”, which is something I have discussed (ahem, maybe ranted) about before on this site. If you make a mistake and delete something from your cloud-synced folder, and it get’s immediately removed from the cloud, it can hardly be called a backup.
Cloud backup services treat things very differently. These services are for archiving files purely for backup purposes, not for constant access, remote access or file sharing. Whilst some of the services do offer remote ways to retrieve files in an emergency, they’re far from user friendly compared to cloud sharing services, because it’s really not what they are designed for.
Importantly, cloud backup services like BackBlaze, Carbonite and CrashPlan, keep versions of your files for set periods of time, and they also keep your files on their servers for a short period when they are deleted from your computer. Should you accidentally delete a photo from your computer, you can log into your cloud backup and retrieve it. Should you corrupt a file, or make an edit that you want to get back from, you can log in and retrieve the previous version of the file. When you are investigating which cloud backup service is right for you, pay attention to how they all hand things like deletions and revisions. For example, BackBlaze will keep deleted files for 30 days, whereas CrashPlan can keep things for over 90 days if you’d like, and you actually have control over that length of time. You also get control over how often it looks for new versions of the file, so you can have it check every few minutes, or every few hours.
The other significant difference is the storage capacity and pricing of cloud sharing services vs. cloud backup services. At the time of writing this post, Dropbox charges $12.99/month for 1TB of space and iCloud is $9.99 for the same volume. On the other hand, cloud backup services like BackBlaze and Crashplan charge $5/month for UNLIMITED storage! This is a huge difference to pay attention to! Not only will cloud backup services back up the entire contents of your computer, not just one folder on it, but they’ll also back up any connected external drives too! That means that it doesn’t matter where you store those latest photos you just downloaded, they’ll eventually get sucked up into the cloud for safekeeping.
Why the Heck Has It Taken Me So Long?
This is the question I was asking myself about ten minutes after deciding to embark on this experiment recently. For a long time I shied away from cloud backups because I envisaged them as being a backup for my entire photo archive, which currently sits at 12TB in size. That kind of volume, on my slow, rural Canadian upload speeds would take many many months, and likely incur sizeable bandwidth overage fees.
My slight change of heart came when I saw just how cheap these services are. $5/month is nothing! For that price, I might as well use it for something, even if it’s just to back up the contents of my main computer, and not my external archive drives. I’m a Mac user, so I run Time Machine for local backup of the computer, but it doesn’t hurt to have an offsite copy of all those files as well. Up to this point, only my photo archive had an offsite copy, and I was using Dropbox and Google Drive to selectively sync my important personal and business documents to the cloud in case of fire or theft. There’s no doubt in my mind now, that for $5/month, a cloud backup service is a MUCH better way to deal with this, and it covers way more of my files. Should I decide to slowly add my image archive to the cloud, I can do it over time, one year’s worth of photos at a time.
CrashPlan Vs. BackBlaze
After much research, and consulting with my merry band of Facebook followers, I decided that the choice comes down to BackBlaze or CrashPlan. Both of these services have glowing reviews and recommendations everywhere you look. What’s great is that they actually go about providing their services in two quite distinct ways, and it makes it fairly easy to choose between them.
BackBlaze is all about simplicity. You can simply install the software on your computer, and turn it on. It’ll take care of everything else, and after a while, depending on your internet upload speeds, you’ll have the whole computer synced to the cloud. If you aren’t the kind of person that likes to go messing around with settings, BackBlaze is clearly the option for you.
On the other hand CrashPlan offers total control over everything from the CPU% that gets used by the software, to bandwidth usage and hourly control over when uploads are performed. You can define a period of inactivity that signifies you are “Away” from your computer, say 15 minutes, and then only have CrashPlan kick into high gear at that point. When the computer is “In Use”, you can set entirely different rules for how much resources are consumed by the program. You also have great control over which folder are included in your upload, and which are not, so of you want to exclude a giant 12TB volume of images for the moment, like me, you can do that. For me, CrashPlan was the clear winner because Im’ the kind of guy that likes to seriously nerd out over that stuff to get it optimized for my workflow.
Both services are essentially the same price, so it really comes down to whether you want that simple set-and-forget setup of BackBlaze, or whether you want to tweak a few sliders in CrashPlan.
My Initial Testing Results
I say “initial” because my CrashPlan backup is large, my internet upload speeds are slow and I’ve also got it throttled so I don’t blow through my upload limits. As such, it’s likely that my initial upload is going to take a couple of months. This isn’t a reflection on CrashPlan at all, please understand that I could make it go faster if I wanted to, and wanted to pay my ISP for it. These are all considerations that you should make as well though, so I wouldn’t bank on making an initial cloud backup in a couple of days or anything like that. Note that CrashPlan used to offer a seed drive service that allowed you to ship your initial upload to them on a drive, but as of August 2016, this has been discontinued. Many other existing online comparisons between cloud backups are still showing outdated information about this service.
I found the setup process for CrashPlan to be highly customizable, but also reasonably simple. I know it’s pegged as the more complex of the two options, but really, I would still not consider it to be a complex job. Especially given that most photographers these days are reasonably computer savvy by necessity. I was up and running in under 5 minutes, and I was very pleased to see that they also have an iOS app that allows me to monitor the files that are backed up, and even browse the file tree and retrieve a file remotely should I need to. It’s not a full blown search facility for finding archived images by any means, but I can see it being handy in some extreme situations. Since starting my initial upload, it has now been running fault free for a few weeks. I carefully tuned the CPU percentag so that it doesn’t interrupt my usage of processor-intensive programs like Photoshop and Lightroom, and honestly, you’d just never know it’s there. Like I said earlier, I really can’t believe that I haven’t been using this for many years. It seems almost criminally good value at $5/month!
Do you use a cloud backup solution? What has your experience been like? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!