I have experimented with online backup solutions over the past few weeks. I keep local backups, but the saying goes that any important digital data should exist in three places or you should consider it nonexistent. In fire, flood, or EMP, the backup drive across the room is not going to help.
What I have
I have two main computers of importance. The first is what I’d consider my main server. It holds the full music library. It connects to the high-speed document scanner, so it holds all receipts, bills, and legal paperwork. It runs Aperture, so contains all of my photos. Any older projects and websites that I do not actively need on the laptop are there, too, although most of them are just local checkouts of Subversion projects sitting out on the internet. This backs up through cron jobs and shell scripts. The cron job synchronizes (rsync, actually) everything to a Buffalo TerraStation. The manual shell script synchronizes (rsync over ssh, actually) a disk image containing the scans to a secret little shell account on the internet. I have to admit, were I given a second chance to pick out a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device, I would not have picked the TerraStation. While it is serviceable for use by a Mac, it is really not optimized for it. I have written about the limitations in the past, but the practical upshot is that you need to put a *.DMG disk image on the TerraStation. You attach to the network disk, then attach to the DMG sitting on that disk and store your files there. Bleh!
The second computer is my laptop, a MacBook Air. I use it for day-to-day projects, but it mainly works as a window into the other systems I use, whether that is through a web browser, through an SSH connection, or over a VNC remote control session. I do some coding there, but all the code is checked in to a repository (Subversion at home, CVS at work). I keep a few recent and favorite albums in iTunes as well as the podcasts I have subscribed to. It is my calendar and address book, and everything syncs to my iPhone. It also houses a Windows 2000 virtual machine instance for when I need to do some specific microcontroller work. The backup here is just a Time Machine external disk that I need to remember to plug in every so often. (“It has been 20 days since you last backed up with Time Machine” is not uncommon.) I really should be syncing to the TerraStation NAS, but it’s nearly out of room, and if I am going to invest any more money in a NAS and NAS disks, I’m getting a Drobo instead. (Unfortunately, I can’t just get an empty Drobo and move the TerraStation’s disks over there because the one takes old-school ATA disks and the other takes SATA.)
In comparing online backup solutions, Mozy bubbled to the top of my list. Given that it is $5 per computer per month for unlimited storage, that is a very easily budgetable $10/month. I have heard great things about Carbonite, which offers competitive pricing to Mozy, but unfortunately I must disqualify them from my list. Carbonite only backs up internal disks. They will not back up external drives. Considering my music library is on an external drive, Carbonite is useless to me. (I suspect that an underlying symlink might fool the Carbonite client, but I did not investigate this because it breaks the spirit of their usage rules.)
Mozy looked like the best deal and their Mac client had been out of beta for a while. I signed up and tried it out. I did not choose to back up my whole system, just some subdirectories to test things out. The initial backups took forever and really bogged down the system. I kind of expected this, though. Between their documentation, FAQs, and my understanding of upstream bandwidth, I was not too surprised. The laptop backup took about 3 or 4 days. The server backup took a week.
What surprised me is that the system slowdowns continued beyond the initial backup. Any time Mozy kicked in, the system would freeze for a minute, be usable for a minute, freeze for another minute, and so on. The mouse would move, but you couldn’t click on any windows. I would hit Cmd-Tab a few times to try to switch applications or Ctrl-Arrows to switch between Spaces and nothing would happen until the machine unfroze and then there was a flurry of switching windows and screens. Even backups that should have been small, incremental changes — one or two small files changed — caused these freezes. Presumably, it was trying to figure out which files really did change. There were several times in which I wanted to throw the laptop across the room.
This would not be bad if it honored my “only back up at 4am” setting. But it didn’t. No matter how many times I turned off the “back up after I’m away from the computer for 20 minutes,” it kept getting set again. It also kept resetting my 4am setting to the default time. There were several times my laptop would seemingly wake up on its own to back up — while in my bag! I would pull my laptop out, only to find a hot-to-the-touch machine that was not sleeping and with fans futilely spinning at maximum speed but getting no air circulation inside the zippered pouch. There were also several times when the system would wedge for so long I was unsure whether it was frozen, so I used the 5-second-power-button trick to force a reboot.
Partition? What Partition?
Yesterday was yet another of the 5-second-power-button days. My research brought me to Jungle Disk and I thought I would do one last Mozy backup before uninstalling it and trying out Jungle Disk. Backup. Wedge. Hard reboot. Stuck at the Apple Logo screen with a spinning wait icon for minutes. Dozens of minutes. I wonder what’s wrong and reboot with Cmd-V to get the verbose startup messages. This is where all the great messages about missing system journals and the inability to mount the root filesystem enter.
This is where you boot the OS X install disc, run Disk Utility, fix the issues, and reboot as if nothing happened — except that did not work in this case. Disk Utility could see the disk, but could not mount or otherwise touch the partition. Dropping to the command prompt to manually run fsck_hfs proved futile. Attempts to use diskutil to force repairs, or to force removal and recreation of the journal kicked back obtuse error messages. The pdisk partition utility couldn’t even find the partitions. Mounting it manually did not help, either.
This is the point where the author freaks out. I had forgotten to attach my TimeMachine disk since December 9th. I had not configured Mozy to back up my whole home directory, only test pieces of it. I had stuff I really did not want to lose.
I felt like I needed TechTools, and in fact, TechTools Protogo looked like it might useful then and in the future — but they only sell physical DVDs in the mail and had no instant downloads. I had seen some mentions of DiskWarrior, but their site made it unclear if it would fix partition tables or whether simply undeleted missing or broken filesystems. I then saw mention of TechTools coming free with AppleCare, and sure enough, once I logged into Apple support I got a download link for my own copy of TechTools.
Booting with TechTools and running all the tests showed that everything passed, which was odd and unexpected. I then booted to Disk Utility again and it was able to mount and check the partition. It appeared that TechTools silently fixed whatever partition error was present.
I booted into the now-fixed partition and everything looked fine. I figured this was a good time to do another Time Machine image (now 49 days since the last one).
So now I am trying Jungle Disk. The pricing structure is much less straightforward and much more difficult to budget. It is $2 (per computer?) per month for a basic 5 gigs of storage. Beyond the initial 5GB, Amazon S3 storage prices apply: 15¢ per gig per month plus bandwidth costs. This makes budgeting complex, but fortunately miscalculations are measured only in dimes and quarters. The lack of an unlimited option means backing up my whole music library will be a bit more expensive, but it is feeling more and more like “you get what you pay for” with remote backup.
The signup and installation was smooth. The backup is proceeding as I type this, but I have to admit that it is running as smoothly as expected. There are no system slowdowns and the configuration options (of which there are dozens more than Mozy) all seem to stick.
Restore will be another matter. Backups are only useful if the restore functionality works. Mozy’s ability to restore from either the client or the web was nice and worked as expected. Given the polish and smoothness of Jungle Disk, I expect similar restoration success but, as I mentioned above, that remains untested until the backup completes.
Assuming I run into no major snags in finishing the backup and doing a test restore, I will be sticking to Jungle Disk on the laptop. The server is a bigger question-mark. Since I rarely sit in front of it, I don’t notice the Mozy slowdowns. Jungle Disk will definitely be a much more expensive backup compared to Mozy. There have been recent rumors of cloud storage and streaming your library in relation to Apple’s LaLa buyout. If these turn out to be true, I may not even need to worry about backing that up. So in summary: Jungle Disk on the laptop. The server sticks with Mozy until enough of the Apple/LaLa situation is known to make a change.