Monday, April 1, 2013

World Backup Day

No April Fooling here.

World Backup Day was yesterday. It's a little-known holiday, in fact it only came into being in 2011. It's got a pretty catchy slogan of "Don't be an April Fool. Backup your files. Check your restores." I'm a firm believer in backups. It's practically an art and not one most people understand. There are many things some people consider backups but aren't at all. A backup has to satisfy certain qualifiers to be considered a true, blue backup:

  • A backup is not a Mirror. Mirrors copy file corruption and don't version files. Human error is always the biggest source of data loss in my experience, and a mirror doesn't protect from the human factor
  • RAID is not a backup. This goes with #1. Things like RAID1 (which is mirroring) and pairity-based RAIDs are sometimes thought of to be a backup. They are not. RAID was designed to increase performance or availability. It doesn't protect your files beyond that needed to do one of those two things.
  • A backup is versioned. That is to say, the data in a backup represents files as they were some time in the past. A good backup has many versions of the same file from you to choose where to restore. A system that keeps only one version of a file is the weakest kind, but still has one important distinction over mirroring: changes to original files don't instantaneously replicate to the backup. This allows for a restoration Windows to correct from human error.
  • A backup is verified. An unverified backup is nothing more than a hope. You hope the data in the backup is good. You hope the data in the backup is what you need. Until you verify those facts (which can only truly be done by doing a test restore) you never know if your backup is actually working as you intend it to. This point is so important that it's in the slogan for World Backup Day. It's also the most overlooked aspect of a backup.
Those are the key aspects of a true backup. Besides that, a backup should be automated (human error is the greatest problem, and it's so easy to postpone backing up). A backup should generate feedback/reports. Exception reporting is when the backup software tells you that something went wrong and is the most common type of feedback from backup software. Software may also come with statistical/general/informative reporting where it'll tell you that everything is going fine. What's good about that is it means if you don't get that report than you know that something is wrong (so wrong that it's affecting the reporting feature).

Going further down the path to backup enlightenment is that backups should be stored on different mediums and securely stored in different locations. When you have this, you have backup nirvana. Power surge fries your hard drives? You've got tape/cold storage backups to restore from. Your house burns down? You're data's still safe. The more distant the better. Cloud backup services have made off-site backups an achievable possibility for the average person. Tape's not really a viable solution for your average person, but flash storage, optical media (DVDs, BDs), and cold storage (unplugged hard drive) all are. The problem with two of those three is that you can't automate it on the same level. Flash storage, too, is still expensive. I also consider cloud storage a storage medium.

Security of backups is the most important thing when dealing with off-site backups. Encryption is the most obvious way to do it. Any good cloud backup solution will encrypt your files. The best will give you options on how to encrypt. Of course good ol' sneakernet of an encrypted hard drive (maybe with TrueCrypt) is also a viable off-site secure backup strategy.

Of course you don't need to do all this at once. Backups can be improved over time. The whole idea behind World Backup Day is to get people started and moving in the right direction.

Backup Software

I consider backup software to be like Operating Systems: they all suck, so it's a matter of picking the one that sucks least for your purposes. Try out different programs and see which ones work best for you. IMO, the best backup software I've used has had a client-server relationship like BackupPC (been meaning to try out Bacula). It works well for my purposes, but obviously not ideal for others. Below are some free backup programs to try out and get started with:


Windows is what most people use. Unfortunately it's the one whose free backup software I've found most lacking. There are some gems I've enjoyed from time to time though:
  • File History (Windows 8): File History is the one great feature of Windows 8 IMO and I truly think it is amazing. Unfortunately I'm not crazy about the rest of Windows 8 on the desktop paradigm and I doubt many of the users of Windows 8 use File History.
  • Windows Backup and Restore (Windows Vista/7): The predecessor of File History. It offers a lot of nice features including the ability to do a full system image. It's pretty efficient and I've never had it goof up, but setup is a bit clunky (Which is where File History really improved on) and depending on the version you have, you can be quite limited in backup destinations. Windows 7 Home Premium lacks network backups, for example.
  • Cobian Backup: Cobian Backup offers a lot of neat features and a pretty good scheduler. The main problem is the lack of an integrated restore feature makes continuous incremental backups quite painful. Instead it's best to do sets of incremental backups, say keeping 9 sets of 10-day incrementals (keeping 90 days worth).
  • FreeFileSync: Yes, mirrors aren't backups, but FreeFileSync is unique among file synchronization tools in that it offers the ability to keep files deleted/changed and moving them to a different  timestamped directory, creating a basic file versioning system. It's no-frills which will undoubtedly appeal to those after a simple (feature-wise) solution.

Mac OS X:

Anyone read this use  Mac OS X? I personally don't and so the only Mac OS X-only backup program I'm aware of is Time Machine, which is an included utility. It's quite nice for local backups. If you don't want to buy an expensive time capsule, you can use FreeNas for networked backups.


Linux has backup software galore. rsnapshot, rdiff-backup, a million others, and many different GUIs. Here are some GUI backup programs for Linux:
  • Back In Time: Based on some no longer maintained backup programs and inspired by Time Machine, it is a very nice backup program.
  • LuckyBackup: A very feature-rich backup program offering GUI options for many advanced features not commonly found in a GUI. NOTE: technically it's cross platform, but I don't consider it to be stable enough to trust it with data and list it as cross-platform.
  • fwbackups: Designed to be simple, it largely succeeds. Doesn't have the bells and whistles others offer, but it gets the job done. NOTE: technically it's cross platform, but it doesn't play nice with UAC on Windows.


There are some great cross-platform backup programs out there. I'll note that many require java to run. Here are my top three:
  • Areca Backup: A very advanced backup program. It offers many settings to satisfy anyone. This comes with a steep learning curve and a desire for experimentation to uncover them all, though.
  • CrashPlan: A friendly backup program. The free version is ad-supported. It offers the unique ability to back up to a friend's computer over the Internet without an involved setup. This is a very nice feature for people untrusting of the cloud The subscription version also offers a cloud backup option. The Windows version doesn't require Java, Linux and Mac OS X version does.
  • JBackPack: Java-based GUI for rdiff-backup and encorporates EncFS functionality for file encryption.
Finally there are cloud-based backup programs. I won't go into detail here since I don't have any experience with them besides CrashPlan. I chose CrashPlan because it's cross-platform and so far I've enjoyed it. I don't trust my super-private files to it (it has nice regex filtering) and it gives a weekly report of the backup. I've heard good things about BackBlaze, but it doesn't support Linux which is a no-go for me (I list these two in particular because 1. I use CrashPlan and 2. both are supporters of World Backup Day). Others are probably good too. I will say DO NOT USE CARBONITE. They seriously throttle your speed. That kind of practice is deceitful and hurtful to customers and such practices should not be acceptable. Also note that other online storage and sync platforms like Dropbox and Google Drive really aren't backup solutions, but they may suit your purposes fine so long as you realize they aren't really catering to the backup market.


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