In the cloud

I’ve had my first real experience with cloud computing. If you have no idea what I mean, let me define the term, with Wikipedia’s help:

Cloud computing is a style of computing in which dynamically scalable and often virtualised resources are provided as a service over the Internet. Users need not have knowledge of, expertise in, or control over the technology infrastructure “in the cloud” that supports them.

Have you used Google’s word processor, Google Docs? That’s a common example of cloud computing. You don’t have the application or the system it runs on. All you need is an Internet connection and a computer with a browser.

I signed up for a 15 day trial of Backblaze, an on-line backup service. For $5 a month, you can back up all the data on your computer to their servers. Their service is similar to the Mac’s Time Machine in many ways, but the most significant difference is why it’s so compelling, as well as a major weakness.

Available for the Mac and for Windows, you simply install a client application on your computer, and it does its work without bothering you. As you make changes to your files, it copies the changed files to its own servers. This is what Time Machine does, but the advantage of Backblaze is it’s off site. If your house burns down, your computer will be wrecked, and so will the external drive to which you back up your files. Why? Because it’s sitting right next to your computer!

Backblaze takes care of this problem without your having to carry external hard drives around. But this is also a weakness. Before it can simply back up the changes you make, it must back up everything. I’ve got 80 GB free on my system’s 320 GB internal drive. How long will it take to push 240 GB through a 700 Kb connection? Plenty long. But Backblaze isn’t designed to back up everything. It excludes your operating system and your applications. You couldn’t restore from a network backup without an operating system anyway. It backs up only your data, and further, the size of individual files backed up is limited to a maximum of 4 GB. Looking at the information their application provided about my files, I have 85 GB of music, 90 GB of photos, and 8 GB of other files. That brings the total down somewhat.

The Backblaze client will direct you to a speed test run from their own servers, and in my case, it informed me I could back up about 4 GB per day. The 182 GB of data I have will take more than a month to upload. Sure that’s a long time, but once it’s there, it’s there. Those with bandwidth caps could run into trouble here. Mainstream broadband accounts in my area offer 60 GB per month. This initial back up operation would overrun the cap. In my case, I’m allowed 200 GB of data transfer a month, so I’m fine.

Strangely, data security is not something that concerns me as much as I expected. The data stream uses SSL encryption so that’s fine, and they say it’s encrypted on their servers. You also have the option of specifying an additional key password to increase security. Lose it though, and you’re cooked. The data is inaccessible and even Backblaze can’t help you.

Among the advantages of this service are:

  • Offsite! Offsite! Offsite!
  • It’s easy. Install the client, enter your e-mail address, choose a password, and the process starts. You need do nothing more.
  • You pay $5 a month and there’s no backup size limit. I was surprised to see this, though the 4 GB file size limit goes a long way toward explaining how they can do it.
  • External drives are backed up was well, even flash drives! The client allows you to exclude drives, if you choose.
  • When a file is changed, the updated version is sent to the Backblaze servers and older copies are kept for 30 days in case you want to roll-back a change.

On the down side:

  • The initial back up will take days or weeks, depending on your connection to the Internet.
  • If your connection to the Internet is capped, you may run into extra charges from your ISP.
  • To get your files back, you download them over the net, which can take a while if you loose everything. Backblaze offers to send you a DVD with your data if the files you require will fit on it. That will cost you $99, which is excessive. If you need more than 4 GB of your data, pay them $189 and they’ll send you a 500 GB external hard drive with your files.
  • If their business fails, you’ll need to find another back up solution…though you won’t lose any data because it’s a backup of what you’ve already got.

On paper, it seems that the ‘in the cloud’ back up services are finally worth serious consideration. At the same time however, there’s something I’m really not comfortable with. It’s not the price. To my great surprise, it’s not data security. The length of time it takes to move the data does factor in, but I believe it wouldn’t cause me any trouble. I’m not sure what it is.

I’ve signed up for the free trial and my data is being uploaded at this moment. I’ve started by excluding the music and photos so I can get a feel for how it works once the initial backup is complete. I’ll see how it works out, and try to figure out what’s bothering me about it.

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One Comment

  1. Jason
    Posted April 21, 2009 at 15:00 | Permalink

    I’ve been using Carbonite for the past year or so. It’s pretty good as well.

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