I used to recommend Crashplan for Home to everyone who needed to back up their files. Crashplan could back up to local drives, other computers, and the cloud. It was free if you didn’t use the cloud. It worked on Windows, Mac and Linux. Their cloud service offered inexpensive single-computer and family plans for unlimited cloud storage. The Java app was crappy but that was about its only fault. I was very happy with my choice of Crashplan for Home until they discontinued it in August 2017.
In my search for alternatives I have concluded no one service does it all the way Crashplan for Home did. Since everyone’s backup needs are different I can no longer make a one-size-fits-all recommendation.
tl;dr Your backup strategy is more important than the backup software you use. You need local and offsite backups. If you don’t already have something else in place for local backups, I recommend Arq Backup, or possibly Acronis True Image. For offsite backups I recommend either Backblaze, Arq Backup or Crashplan For Small Business.
Your Backup Strategy: Local and Offsite
You need a backup strategy which includes both local and offsite backups.
You need to have an automatic local backup plan. Periodically copying files to an external drive is not automatic and you will someday lose files because they’re not on your backup drive. This is your primary backup in case you lose any files on your main drive.
Your local backup must be an actual backup, not a sync. Backups allow you to go back in time to previous versions of files (how far back is up to you and your backup software). Sync is not a backup, because if you accidentally delete or scramble a file, sync will overwrite the version you want to recover. Every time I’ve had to restore from a backup it was because I had to recover from an accidental deletion or modification. A sync would not have recovered those files for me.
You need to have an offsite backup to recover from a disaster, such as fire, flood or theft. It should be automatic so you lose as little data as possible if you were to ever need to restore from it.
Your offsite backup strategy could be to periodically copy files to a drive that you take to another location: a friend or relative’s house, a safe deposit box, your workplace. Lots of people do this, or try to. I call this strategy Sneakernet.
Sneakernet works only if you are diligent about making copies and you’re willing to lose data that changed since your last copy was moved offsite. If you only make your offsite copy once a year, be prepared to lose a year’s worth of files when disaster strikes.
A better automatic offsite backup strategy is to use cloud storage. Your data is stored in the cloud, either to a backup service’s cloud storage, or to cloud storage you buy from Amazon, Google, Microsoft, or others.
If you’re in an area with the potential for widespread flooding or other disasters that could affect you and your offsite backup drive at the same time, seriously consider using a cloud backup instead of or in addition to your Sneakernet drive. You want your offsite backup to be far enough away that a single disaster won’t destroy all copies of your data.
If you’re concerned about data privacy in the cloud, choose a cloud backup solution that lets you choose your encryption key and keep it private. Most do, although you might have to choose a non-default option to do so. You want your data encrypted on your device before it’s sent to the cloud. You don’t want your cloud service to have your key. If the cloud service gets hacked, the hackers can’t decrypt your data if the key is only on your computer.
Your offsite backup should not be your primary backup. Your primary backup should allow you to restore your files quickly so you can continue working. Offsite backups are slow to restore, whether it’s driving to the bank to pick up the drive, downloading large amounts of data over a sluggish Internet connection, or waiting for a cloud backup service to ship you a hard drive containing your data. Use your local backup as your primary backup, and rely on your offsite backup only as a last resort in the event of a disaster that destroys your local backup.
Sneakernet can be used in conjunction with cloud backup to reduce the time to restore all your files from your offsite backups. Copy all your files to a USB drive every 3 to 6 months and store it in your safe deposit box. If you ever need to restore all your data from your offsite backups, use Sneakernet to restore most of it quickly, then download your recent updates from the cloud. Unless you only have a small amount of data or an extremely fast Internet connection, this will be much faster than downloading it all from the cloud.
If you’re really paranoid about your data, you could have multiple local backups and possibly multiple offsite backups, all using different technologies, in case one somehow goes bad. I know people that do this. I’m not there but you may be.
I hope I’ve convinced you that you need an automatic local backup as your primary backup and an offsite backup, preferably automatic, for disaster recovery.
My New Backup Plan
After considering many options and trialing several programs I’ve determined my new backup plan. I have specific recommendations for you later. I suggest you don’t blindly use my plan unless our requirements are similar.
I am using Arq Backup for my local backups. I’ve been trialing it for a few weeks and I like almost everything about it. I set it up to use SFTP to push backups to another computer on my local network. This is the same configuration I use with Crashplan for Home, which is not supported in the Small Business edition. I prefer to store my local backups on a separate computer rather than a USB or NAS drive. This helps to ensure my backups won’t be wiped out by any kind of malware that might intrude on my main computer, and makes it much harder for me to accidentally delete my backup files. Arq can also backup to USB and NAS drives but I don’t use it that way.
I will stay with Crashplan for my cloud backups for a while, possibly as long as two more years. My Home subscription ends in September 2018. If I keep it that long I will upgrade to a Small Business subscription at the special reduced price until September 2019. Crashplan already has my data in their cloud so I have no urgent need to upload my data to another cloud. Although cost is not a major factor for me, it seems to be the least expensive option until the price rises to the normal Small Business rate of $10 per month per computer. I have some concerns about the long term viability of Crashplan, as well as a bit of a trust issue. For these and other reasons I may switch to a different cloud service before the end of 2019, but I have plenty of time.
The main reason I looked at Arq in the first place is that it can be used for cloud backups as well as local backups. It can be configured to send backup data to a variety of cloud services, such as Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Dropbox and others. I tested this with OneDrive and it works. I like the idea of using the same software for local and cloud, but Arq stumbles a bit when using it for both. Specifically, it can run only one backup or validation at a time. So while your cloud backup is running, your local backups won’t run. This is a big deal if your initial cloud backup runs for weeks or months. Crashplan is optimized for this configuration, Arq is not.
Thus I have chosen to start out using Arq only for local backups, not cloud backups. Long term I would like to use Arq for cloud as well and get rid of Crashplan, but probably not until they make it possible to run local and cloud backups together seamlessly. I do have a plan for how to use Arq for both, but it requires some manual stopping and starting of backup processes during the lengthy initial backup. I will probably try this in the coming months to see if it’s viable.
Recommendations For You
First, decide on your strategy for local and offsite backups. Will you be diligent about making manual copies and shuttling hard drives to the bank or your Mom’s house? Or do you want everything to be automatic?
Consider how often you might need to restore a file, and whether you need to go back weeks or months to find the uncorrupted or pre-deleted version of a file. As long as one of your backups keeps versions long enough in the past, you may not need all your backups to retain previous versions of files.
Consider whether you have multiple computers to back up, or just one. Some cloud services are priced per-user, some are priced per-computer.
For local backup, I recommend Arq Backup. It’s available for Mac and Windows. It can backup to local drives, to other servers via SFTP, and to various cloud services. On Windows it can backup open files, which some of the free programs can’t do. You might also look at Acronis True Image 2018. I have not tried Acronis recently but the 2017 version generally gets good reviews, and the just-released 2018 version addresses some of the concerns reviewers raised with 2017.
Many people use a free open source program called Duplicati, which offers similar features to Arq. I tried it and liked many things about it, but it simply failed to complete any of my backups! They either hung for hours using no CPU or disk or network, or they failed with obscure stacktrace error messages. The developer claimed the stacktrace errors were fixed in May but they were still in the version I downloaded at the end of August. There may be something odd about my configuration since so many people have it working. The main issue I read about Duplicati is that many people complain about it being very slow. I can confirm it seemed about 50% slower than Arq on the relatively small backups I tried. If you don’t like Arq and have a relatively modest amount of data you might try Duplicati to see if it works for you.
For cloud backup, if you want something simple that works, I suggest you try Backblaze. It gets positive reviews, usually coming in second place behind Crashplan. It’s cloud-only so you can’t use it for local backups. Although I have not tried Backblaze myself, I know some people who use it, including a friend who recently used the service to send her a hard drive containing her files to restore. One of my concerns with Backblaze is their limited file version support. However, as long as you have a local backup that supports your file versioning needs, you may not need as much versioning support from your cloud backup. Another concern about Backblaze is it may be difficult to restore files. Having not tried it I can’t say whether this is true, but I see lots of complaints about it. Backblaze also has issues with backing up external hard drives. Make sure you connect your external drives frequently or Backblaze may decide to delete your backups!
If you’re a current user of Crashplan for Home, I suggest you consider upgrading to the Small Business version. It’s the path of least resistance since your data is already in their cloud, and you get a huge discount for the first year after your Home subscription expires. You know what you’re getting, and as long as you aren’t relying on computer-to-computer backups you won’t be losing any features. That being said, they just disrupted your existing backup strategy by discontinuing the Home version. Are they in this game for the long run? What else might they do in a year or two?
If you decide to upgrade to Crashplan for Small Business for your cloud backup, you can also use it for local backups to external drives, but not computer-to-computer backups.
Arq is another great choice for cloud backup, but as mentioned above can be problematic if you use it for both local and cloud backups since a long running cloud backup prevents your local backup from running. If your Internet service is fast enough and your data small enough, this may not be a concern for you.
Acronis True Image 2018 also supports backup to their cloud, but I am hesitant to recommend it until I’ve heard good reviews about their cloud service. Their cloud storage is not unlimited, and I have not seen their pricing for storage above 1 TB.
If you need to replace Crashplan’s computer-to-computer backup, Arq can handle it using SFTP. But you need to have an SFTP server on the other end. Setting up an SFTP server on Windows can be done but is tricky. If the other computer is at a friend’s house they will have to open a port through their firewall, which carries security concerns if they don’t know what they’re doing. All achievable, but not for novices.
Before committing to any backup program, try the free trial version for a couple of weeks to be sure you are able to set it up. Try some backups and restores to make sure they’re working. It’s boring but necessary. It’s your data, you want to be sure it’s being backed up correctly.
If you don’t like any of my recommended options, there are literally dozens of other programs that can make copies of your files to local destinations and some to the cloud. Whatever you choose, make sure it supports file versioning the way you want, not merely syncing your files (unless that’s what you want!). Make sure the encryption options suit your needs. Check that it can store data on whatever device you want to use (NAS, external drive, another computer, cloud services). If your Internet connection is slow, cloud backup with deduplication will be faster than without.
Some people like to simply copy their files to Dropbox, OneDrive, etc. and call it a day. If you do this, make sure you understand how file versioning/history is working, unless all you want to do is sync instead of backup. How long is it keeping previous versions and deleted files, if at all? Do you know how your files are being encrypted? Also, how are ensuring your backups are kept current? It’s unlikely all the files you want backed up are in the Dropbox or OneDrive sync folder so you’ll need to put something in place to copy files around or do it manually. Lastly, if you’re using a cloud drive as your only copy of a file, it’s not a backup at all!
I have avoided discussing image backups. An image backup contains a full bit-for-bit copy of a drive, which can be used to quickly get back up and running if your OS drive fails. I personally do not use image backups, but some people swear by them. If I were to suffer a failure of my OS drive I would reinstall the OS and applications. It may take several days but I would end up with a cleaner system. There are many programs available that can create image backups. I’ve used image backups in the past, and it’s notoriously difficult to validate that they will work before you need them.
Hardware for Backups
A total backup strategy should specify what hardware you’ll use, including when to use redundant disks with RAID, NAS drives, external drives, separate computers, fast vs. slow drives, and more. Although I’ve alluded to some of these topics, I haven’t discussed them in detail. I may describe my complete hardware configuration in a future post if there’s any interest.
If you’ve read this far, I hope you’ve learned something useful about backing up your important data!