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 speeds 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 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. CrashPlan used to offer a $5.month “Home” tier for their pricing which put it squarely on terms with BackBlaze. In 2017 they discontinued the consumer facing Home tier to concentrate on business solutions, and the cheapest pricing tier in the Business package is $10/month.
So is CrashPlan worth paying twice as much for?
When I first started researching this article I was using the CrashPlan Home plan and I absolutely loved it at the $5 price point. When they announced their intention to drop the Home plans and concentrate on business solutions, they offered a simple one-click process to switch to the the CrashPlan Pro Business tier, and a 75% discount for the first year. I decided to take them up on that offer because at the very least, it gave me a year to evaluate the benefits and additional features of the Small Business plan. In all honesty, I was always so impressed with the features they gave me for $5/month, that I don’t really begrudge them $10/month. I like being able to tinker with all of the settings that Backblaze simply doesn’t allow you to mess with.
Having taken a look at the competing features, the main difference for single users like myself is probably those that relate to the scheduling of the cloud backups. With Backblaze you have three options when it comes to scheduling: Continuous, once per day and “Only when I click the button”. With CrashPlan you have much more granular control. For example you can set it to continuous, but only if your computer has been inactive for a certain number of minutes. Even then you can define the percentage of the computers CPU and bandwidth that gets used at certain times.
I find this additional control to be very useful because I have slow upload speeds in Canada. If you max out your upload speed, it also kills your download speed and that’s something a lot of people don’t realize. Whenever CrashPlan begins uploading, Netflix struggles to download, as does any other streaming service. For this reason, I definitely like having the ability to throttle the speeds and schedule the timings in a more granular fashion.
The choice used to be really easy. If you wanted simplicity, go with Backblaze and if you wanted fine control then go with CrashPlan. That was when pricing apples were ($5)apples! Now you have to decide whether you want to pay $5/month more in order to get that control. I’d imagine this rules a lot of people out, but if you have limited or slow internet connections then my money is still on CrashPlan, even at twice the price of what it used to be. And really, it’s still only the price of a coffee more than what it used to be.
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 was 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 months. I carefully tuned the CPU percentage 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 was criminally good value when it was $5/month, but I still find it to be an excellent service at the new higher $10/month price point.