(Cloud over Iceland farmhouse)
All hard disks die, it’s only a matter of time. And then, when you need it, you may find your backup is corrupted. So you should have at least two backups and one of these should be offsite in case your house is hit by a meteor or falls into a sinkhole.
When you travel with a laptop, you should also have at least two backups and should carry one on you. However, here I’m primarily considering your home computer. Cloud backup doesn’t usually apply to travelling.
You should also have a system image backup as well as a file backup. A system image backup backs up your C Drive including your applications and hidden system files. You restore your files from a file backup; you restore your C Drive from a system image backup so that if it dies or becomes disabled by a virus, you don’t have to to rebuild it from scratch.
Windows allows you to make free file and system image backups. There are also third party programs that you may have to pay for or may be free. For example, I use Acronis, which you pay for (It’s fast, highly customisable and allows disk cloning and restoring an image to a different PC). I still use Windows as my most reliable method of system image backup though I also have incremental system image backups in Acronis.
Why cloud backup?
The advantage of cloud backup is it provides current offsite backup. If your offsite backup method is taking hard drives to store in someone else’s house, then those backups are not likely to be very up to date. Most Cloud backup services do not include system image backup, though, so you probably need to do that locally.
I had assumed cloud backup was not suitable for large data requirements and reassessed this presumption after reading Martin Bailey’s recent blog post on his workflow.
So, the questions we will need to address are: How much does it cost?; How reliable is it?; how flexible is it?; how fast is it?; and how easy is it to use?
Why you still need local backup
It’s very slow to transfer large amounts of data to the cloud. Getting back a few files should not be a problem but retrieval of large amounts of files is also slow, though not as slow as the upload.
Also, as with any media choice, local or Cloud, there is some risk your file may be missing or corrupt when you come to recover it. Cloud companies have also been known to fold in the past (though hopefully not the ones we will mention).
Cloud storage vs cloud backup
Cloud backup is not to be confused with cloud storage. Companies like Dropbox offer cloud storage and you can copy files in and extract them or share them, but there is no interface for file backup. There are many options for free cloud storage but most of them don’t offer much space. The largest I have found is Mega (founded by the infamous Kim DotCom) which offers 50GB free.
The cheapest cloud storage for larger amounts appears to be Amazon Glacier or Backblaze B2 which cost 0.5 US cents per Gigabyte per month. That corresponds to $A8 per annum for 100GB, $40pa for 1TB and $200pa for 5TB. Glacier costs from 0.3 US cents per GB for a slow download (wait 5 to 12 hours before anything happens) to 3.6 cents/GB for a download with little delay. Backblaze B2 costs 2 cents/GB for a download with little delay.
Cloud backup options
For backup to the cloud you need backup software as well as a cloud storage repository. These are usually integrated but can come separately. There are many alternatives out there. Here are a few that I see as the most likely options.
If you have small amounts of data to back up – up to around 1TB, the cheapest option is Cloudberry. This is an interface for backing up to the cloud but does not include storage. There is a free version of Cloudberry, or one with encryption for a one-time cost of $A40. Then you need to add storage from Amazon Glacier or BackBlaze B2 at the costs outlined just above, or any number of more expensive alternatives. This may be a cheap option but is not an easy one. You need to negotiate the complexities of setting up both Cloudberry and the storage choice.
If you are already using Acronis for your local backups, extending to Cloud backups may be a viable option. Acronis is fast, easy to use and extremely configurable. Additional cost per annum of backup to the Cloud is $A3 (50GB), $A14 (250GB), $A30 (500GB) and $A60 (1TB). Beyond that, other options are more cost-effective.
This leaves the last two candidates and the most likely to be of use to photographers at a reasonable price. I have eliminated IDrive, SpiderOakOne and SugarSynch (too expensive and too little storage), Carbonite (limited space per computer and no external drives) and SOS (too expensive). That leaves BackBlaze and CrashPlan. Both of these offer unlimited storage at $A67pa and $A80pa respectively for a single user. In effect, the vast majority of users who have little data are subsidising us photographers, who may have vast amounts of data.
Why Unlimited Storage
Photographers are likely to have large amounts of files and unlimited storage is likely to work out cheaper, especially when including future requirements.
Also, you could be backing up specific directories using multiple backups with different criteria. This creates the possibility you may forget to define some backups for new projects so you end up with holes in your safety net. Having an unlimited Cloud backup means you can back up everything and solves that problem.
Backblaze is cheap and simple. Basically you just set it going and it backs everything up. On the main screen you simply have options for [Backup Now], [Restore Options] and [Settings]. There is also a Help button at top right.
All you really have to do is click [Settings…] to select which drives to backup and let it do its thing. However, you might want to specify a drive other than C:\ as temporary data drive because Backblaze temporarily stores copies of large files there while uploading.
On the Performance tab you can let Backblaze automatically adjust the upload overhead, or adjust it manually in various ways. Here, I have unchecked [Automatic Throttle]. You can use the slider to increase backup times but if you take it too far, you may slow down your whole home network. You can also increase the number of backup threads and you should do it slowly, one day per increment, and observe results.
On the Schedule tab, scheduled upload is usually continuous but you can make it daily or on demand.
Backblaze does not back up system files and has a number of folders and file types it excludes by default. You can specify additional folders to exclude but you can’t do it the other way and define folders or files to include.
Restoring files is more complex than backing them up. You login to the web site to request the restored files. Then you can download your files as a zip file. Next you have to work out what to do with them. They come inside the zip archive in a folder structure corresponding to the directory structure. You have to manually work out where to copy them to from there – and you need enough space to have two sets of those files until you’re finished.
Alternatively, you can ask BackBlaze to send you a hard disk (up to 3.5TB; US178). You can get a full refund on the hard drive if you return it within 30 days and pay return postage, making it almost free. After you make the request, it takes them 2 to 4 days per terabyte for them to post it plus 3 to 4 days in the post. So probably: 4 to 6 days for 500GB; 5 to 8 days for 1TB and 14 to 24 days for 5TB.
I read a review that said that if you tweak the Settings/ performance values, BackBlaze should run about the same speed as CrashPlan. If this is the case, and based on my download test for Crashplan (though my PC and network speed may be quite different from yours), direct download may be quicker than a disk for up to somewhere between 1TB and 2TB download. However, without tweaking those settings, my current download test is running 25 times slower than my last CrashPlan download test(!). In any case, a disk may be more practical if you’re short of disk space. If you do go for a disk, you can still be recovering your most important directories while waiting for it. Bear in mind that your whole download choice has to complete before you can access and copy any files.
Backblaze is cheap and simple but there are a few drawbacks that Crashplan does not have.
- That restore process is a handicap for me though the hard disk option could be useful for large data restores.
- You have to copy the files manually from the zip file to your final destination
- You can’t access any files until the zip file has finished downloading
- Restore seems extremely slow with default settings.
- BackBlaze does not support backing up files from a NAS (i.e. an external array of disks working together, such as a Drobo).
- It allows backing up from external drives but deletes the files if the external disk is not connected for a month.
- Though it claims continuous backups, it may take two or more hours to notice a new or changed file.
- It lacks a History screen to allow you to accurately determine backup durations and speeds.
- It allows only 6 versions of files and removes versions after 30 days.
So that brings us to CrashPlan, which is my preferred option and I’m currently on the 30-day free trial. You can see on the main screen that I have a backup running. It shows details of how that is progressing. You can also see the folders or directories involved in that backup.
How did I do that? Very simple. First time I opened the screen, there were no files defined. I clicked on [Change…] to define some files and away it went, backing up to the default location of CrashPlan Australia (i.e. the Cloud).
This is the Settings Tab for the backup.
- Default is for backup to run always, but you can make it on specific days and between specific times
- Verify selection is set by default to 3am every morning. This assumes your PC is left on and set never to sleep (Control Panel/ Power Options). Otherwise, you should change the time to when your computer will be on.
- Increase the number of days before verifying to 30 during your initial upload will help it run faster.
- [Frequency and versions]: See the next screen and comments….
- [Filename exclusions] allows you to exclude file types as in BackBlaze. There is nothing specified by default here but your system files are excluded from backup anyway.
- Leave [Advanced settings] alone. They’ll only decrease functionality.
- [Enable] backup sets lets you define backup sets which are for different destinations. Apart from the Cloud, this can be other locations on your computer’s drives, other computers in your home network or friends’ computers.
On the Backup Frequency and Versioning Settings subscreen, the first slider sets the frequency of backups, varying from every minute, to every 15 minutes (the default), to every week.
The next four sliders determine how many versions of files to keep and how much to whittle them down as they age, ranging from keeping all versions to jettisoning them after a week.
The last slider is how often you remove deleted files. The default setting is never and alternatives range from every day to every year.
CrashPlan determines whether the computer is in use according to keyboard/ mouse activity. On the General Tab of the settings screen, you can define how long before CrashPlan thinks the computer is inactive, and what percent of CPU to use if you’re away and if you’re using it. You can see it defaults to 80%/ 20%. You could conceivably change that to 90%/ 10% if performance were an issue. Alternatively, you might try 100%/ 90% and then wind the in use setting back if the PC slows. Setting CPU% to zero though is not what you would think; it actually tells CrashPlan to use whatever it wants. Its default upload speeds are good, so there may not be any need to modify anything here.
You can define other computers to backup files to you (as we will see later). The [Configure…] button allows you to change their destination. (The default destination is a subdirectory of C:\ProgramData\).
What to back up? Not system files because they keep changing endlessly, so even though CrashPlan excludes many file types automatically, not your whole C Drive. On your C Drive, perhaps just your Users directory plus any directories you have created for your files. Most user settings are stored under C:\Users but one I can think of that isn’t is:
- Printer profiles: C:\Windows\System32\spool\drivers\color
Also exclude Lightroom previews and cache files from the backup. Lightroom rebuilds them anyway and it slows the backup. You may have the Lightroom catalogue stored somewhere else but by default on Windows 10 and for Lightroom CC these are located at:
- Lightroom previews cache: C:\Users\username\Pictures\Lightroom\Lightroom Catalog Previews.lrdata
- Smart previews cache: C:\Users\username\Pictures\Lightroom\Lightroom Catalog Smart Previews.lrdata
- Adobe Camera Raw cache: C:\Users\username\AppData\Roaming\Adobe\CameraRaw\Database
When setting a huge initial backup, you can define it in sections with your most important directories and folders first.
Restoring files is easy. You can select drives, folders or files and then restore them to their original location or another place such as the default of Desktop. It’s just going to take a long while if you have a huge mass of files, but you can restore your most important files first.
Here are some locations of important settings in C:\Users:
- Lightroom User Print Presets: C:\Users\[user name]\AppData\Roaming\Adobe\Lightroom\Print Templates\User Templates
- Lightroom User Export Presets: C:\Users\[user name]\AppData\Roaming\Adobe\Lightroom\Export Presets\User Presets
- Lightroom User Develop Presets: C:\Users\[user name]\AppData\Roaming\Adobe\Lightroom\Develop Presets\User Presets
- Photoshop Actions (if you’ve saved them): C:\Users\[user name]\AppData\Roaming\Adobe\Adobe Photoshop 2017\Presets\Actions
- Photoshop Actions (otherwise): C:\Users\[user name]\AppData\Roaming\Adobe\Adobe Photoshop 2017\Adobe Photoshop 2017 Settings\Actions Palette.psp
The history screen is very useful. It tells you when your tasks started and finished, and the speed that they run at.
Help and support
There is no Help button to click in the interface but there are help screens available online. Just search for the screen or the issue. Alternatively, here is the support site. You can send emails and there is a Chat Line. Both are quick and informative; only catch is that office hours are 12 midnight to 8am Canberra time.
Additional free capabilities
A very interesting feature of CrashPlan is that you can download it and use it for free to make backups to your computer drives, to and from other computers in your home network, and to and from the computers of friends. You only have to pay for it if you use it to back up to the cloud, although with the free version you can only back up automatically once a day.
You might remember there was a [Backup Sets] Button at the bottom of the Settings/ Backup tab as it initially appeared.
- If you click on that you can create additional backups to locations other than the Cloud.
- Next, go to the Destinations screen and set up destinations as a folder on your computer, as another computer on your home network, or as the computer of a friend
- Then, go to The Settings/ Backup tab again to define new backups.
Here I have two backup sets defined. “Computer to Cloud” is unsurprisingly my backup to the Cloud. “Computer to External Drive” is a local backup to a directory (Travel 16) that I have defined as a destination.
Here, the main backup screen shows that as well as the backup to the Cloud at the top, I have defined the backup to a local drive we saw above and also there are two inbound backups from other computers in my home network. So you can also use CrashPlan free for local backup and if you have a NAS with spare capacity, other members of the household can use CrashPlan to back up to it.
You can also have two destinations to one backup set, say one locally and one to the cloud. In this case, the local, fastest destination has priority in the backup.
Currently, when I come back from travelling, I create a Lightroom catalogue of the new files on an external hard drive and then import it into the Lightroom catalogue on my PC. Instead I could first highlight the images in Lightroom, save all changes to sidecar files ([Ctrl][S] or Metadata/ Save Metadata to File) and then use CrashPlan to send them overnight to a folder on my PC via my home network. When all the files are in, I would need to use Crashplan to restore the incoming backup, and then I can specify which drive the files go to.
You can even use CrashPlan free for offsite (non-Cloud) storage. Create a backup on an external drive (fast transfer). Have a friend do the same on his PC. Configure your computers as CrashPlan friends. Swap hard drives. Now you can continue the backup you have set up on your friend’s computer and they can do the same from theirs. Cost then depends on whether you need to buy disk drives or disk caddies.
Options while travelling
From your laptop, you can log into your CrashPlan account, view the status of downloads, and download files you need from your Cloud backup (up to 250MB per selection and 500MB per session). You receive a zip file of the files you selected.
You can also download an iOS, Android or Windows app to your phone to see and download files you have backed up to the cloud from your home computer.
Most places I travel to I’m lucky to have an internet connection at all. However, Cloud backup while travelling might be possible if you travel in Europe or North America and especially if you stay in one place for a while. Even if you don’t get everything backed up, whatever you do is better than nothing. In that case, unless you already have a CrashPlan Family subscription, you could purchase a monthly one for your laptop ($A8.16 per month) and terminate it when you return and have all your files on your PC and backed up.
Backup and Restore Times
Upload to the Cloud depends mainly on your network speed (which can vary) and also on the specification of your PC and what else you are running or doing on it. So the speed I get on my PC may or may not be relevant to what you get on yours and a test I make at one time may give different results at another. Here is a link to test your upload and download speed.
I made a test to see how long it would take to backup a 54.1GB upload with speedup setting implemented (as below). That took 12 hours 37 minutes, corresponding to 23 hours for 100GB, 10 days for 1TB and 14 weeks for 5TB. Download is usually faster so I set a restore going. That took 5 hours 20 minutes, corresponding to 10 hours for 100GB, 4 days for 1TB and 6 weeks for 5TB.
Speeding up the backup
There are a number of things you can do to speed up the backup, especially for a large initial backup.
- I have already mentioned leaving the computer on and setting sleep to never (Control Panel/ Power options)
- In Settings/ General, increase CPU% to 90% both for when user is away and for when user is present.
- Then reduce CPU% for when user is present if it noticeably slows computer down.
- In Settings/ Backup/ Frequency and versions: [Configure…], reduce backup frequency from default every 15 minutes to say every 8 hours
- This reduces the time the CrashPlan spends checking for new versions.
- You could also verify selection of your backup less often.
- You can return CPU % and Frequency settings to default values (or whatever you prefer) when your initial backup is finished.
- However, CPU % when user is present should be at least 10%. If you reduce it to 0%, CrashPlan actually takes that to mean “Do whatever you want!”.
- If you have two different backup programs operating simultaneously and you notice performance issues, it may help to schedule them to run at different times.
CrashPlan recommends allocating 1GB of RAM for each 1TB of files stored in the Cloud. Default is 1GB. (Actually, it’s really 600MB per TB storage but they allow for expansion).
So far I haven’t encountered any performance problems, though I have only uploaded 380GB of a potential 5.7TB and my computer has 32GB of RAM. CrashPlan is in any case designed to run quietly in the background and not compete for resources. Presumably though, people with old slow PCs and lots of data to backup are more likely to encounter issues.
If you do encounter problems, here are a couple of further things that could help:
- The most resource-intensive activity is file verification scans. Normal backup gets file change information from the operating system and it doesn’t need to scan. So make sure the verification scan only operates when you are not using the computer (Settings/ Backup/ Verify Selection)
- You could set your backups to only run overnight (Settings/ Backup/ Backup will run…)
- You could reduce the amount of data you store on the cloud. For example, you could create “3+” subfolders and move images with 3 or more stars to them in Lightroom, then back up only images in those folders.
- You could have different backup sets for older files and current files with different settings. Different backup sets are usually for different destinations but you could have two for backing up to the cloud.
- On the Settings/ Backup tab, you can set different [Frequency and Versions] settings for each backup set, but if you have two sets backing up to the cloud, only the settings from the highest priority set will apply. So that’s of no use here.
- However, you can set Backup times and Verify times for two sets backing up to the cloud and they will apply.
- So one set with your old files that change very infrequently would seldom backup while the set with your current files would backup often.
- At the extreme, you could set your old backup set to back up for one minute on Sundays (i.e. not at all) and verify it very infrequently.
- When you finish a project and want to transfer files from the current to the old backup set, define that folder in the new backup set, click Verify [Now] for that set, and delete them from the current backup set.
- If necessary, you can also pause all backups for a specified period by right-clicking on the CrashPlan Tray at the right of you Menu Bar and choosing [Sleep…]
Recovering from a Ransomware Attack
Cloud backup can be a valuable way to protect against ransomware attacks. Typically you introduce the ransomware to your PC through clicking on an email attachment or a link. All your files may become encrypted and a message appear on your computer demanding a ransom. We have recently seen the explosion of the WannaCry ransomware. According to Wikipedia, over 230,000 computers in over 150 countries were infected within the first day.
Norton now protects against WannaCry and other known ransomware. Acronis’s expensive Premium subscription option also does this by preventing malicious changes to your Master Boot Record and to your backup files. Probably nothing can be 100% successful against new ransomware algorithms. Received wisdom says it is not a good idea to have two competing antivirus solutions so running Acronis Premium as well as Norton (or Kaspersky or whatever) may not be a good idea. It is also important to have your operating system up to date.
If you get hit by something like WannaCry, you’re probably going to need to reimage your PC. If it has spread to your home network, you may need to reimage all the PCs on your home network that were turned on since the attack began. Then you need to restore files from backup.
If you have an online local backup, your backups are probably encrypted too (not merely the files they contain). Offline backups to hard disks may be OK but are are more likely to be out of date than your Cloud backup.
The standard approach to Cloud backup with CrashPlan is that you back up data files (images, video, music, Word files, Excel files etc.) and not system files. So when you restore files from the Cloud after reimaging, the danger is not reintroducing the ransomware Trojan, it is reinstalling encrypted files. If you find this happens, you just need to restore files from a date earlier than when the attack started. CrashPlan will show you the files you have available to restore at a certain date in a directory structure, including the file names. So if you see encrypted file names, you need to go to an earlier backup and if you don’t, they should be all right.
If the ransomware attack means you have lost your CrashPlan password and you have the standard security level, then CrashPlan support can help you reset it and you can access your backups. However, if you are using the higher security archive key or custom key settings, you will need to know that password or you won’t get your files back. In any case, it may be as well to have your passwords on a USB stick, a disconnected hard drive or a piece of paper.
Backing up or restoring large amounts of data to the Cloud could have a hidden cost if you have a fixed-data plan with your ISP. I have just switched to one of the new unlimited iiNet plans so that is not an issue for me. For some, Cloud backup might require changing your plan or changing your ISP.
Options for families
CrashPlan is $A80pa for a single PC to backup to the Cloud, or $A199 for a Family plan for from 2 to 10 computers.
BackBlaze doesn’t have a Family Plan; you just have to buy more single licenses.
Another alternative is IDrive, a well-featured program including file synch, file sharing and also free offline backup with unlimited computers for $A93pa, but for only up to 1TB of data, which is probably not very much, especially including future expansion.
Cloudberry plus storage on Amazon Glacier or BackBlaze B2 would be cheaper up to about 4TB but the hassle factor would be much greater and the functionality more limited. If you happen to have a subscription to Microsoft Office 365 Home ($A120pa), that comes with 1TB Cloud storage in OneDrive per computer for up to 5 computers. Cloudberry supports OneDrive so I presume you could connect from Cloudberry to your Office 365 OneDrive online storage.
There is also the option of off-site backup to a friend’s computer using CrashPlan, free if you have the hard drives, but for many, the CrashPlan Family Plan might be the most appealing option.
(Sunset near Flinders Ranges, South Australia)
Photographers inevitably end up with lots of images and backups are essential. You should have at least two and one should be off-site.
These days it makes a lot of sense for your off-site backup to be the cloud. Your initial backup will be very slow but this is not a problem because it will run in background and you should have two local backups before you start this process anyway.
I have covered some other options above but for most people, Cloud backup will be a choice between BackBlaze and CrashPlan, both of which offer unlimited storage space. Backblaze will suit people who want a very simple choice, don’t mind slow performance if they don’t tweak the settings, and don’t mind a complex restore process. CrashPlan will be a better choice for most people, though somewhat more expensive. It is much better specified and more customisable with several unique features, including free backup to a friend’s computer.
Links to more information
Free free to comment, and to offer or to request information….