Sunday, 9 January 2011

Online Data Backup - My Experiences

A few years ago I started to back up documents at home. My wife does lots of work from home, and it’s important for us to ensure her documents are copied somewhere. This became especially important over the last couple of years as both our laptops died within a few months of each other.

As a storage location, Amazon S3 makes sense to me. The data is backed up reliably and I can use lots of free tools to browse and download my files from anywhere (even my smart phone). The pricing model also appeals to me - pay for what you use and no more. S3 isn’t a backup solution on its own though - you need an application to send new and modified files to S3 on a regular basis.

Below I’ll describe the different backup applications (for Windows) I’ve used over the last two years and my experiences with them.


In 2008 this was the backup system I chose to go with, and it served me well for a couple of years. It has most of the standard features you’d expect from such a tool:

  • Selection of which folders to back up

  • Support for excluded files (e.g. ignore iTunes folder)

  • Scheduled run times (daily only)

  • Support for compression and encryption of data

In 2008 S3 Backup was free for personal use, but now it is $35 per license.
I had two issues with this tool. The first was that occasionally I would see error messages as the tool failed to perform some operations. The second was that I had set up the tool to use encryption when running on my laptop. When I later came to try and retrieve the files I was unable to decrypt them myself. I also couldn’t decrypt the files with the tool itself due to bugs in it. I contacted the author of the application, who was very helpful with sending me patched versions, and eventually I got my data out of S3 again.

Overall the tool works well enough, but I wasn’t willing to pay for it given the number of errors I saw during everyday use.

S3 BackupSystem

After S3 Backup I started evaluating other tools on offer that supported backup to S3. S3 BackupSystem was another free tool for Windows. It has on offer the same simple features as S3 Backup, and I’ve used it for a few months without issue on a Windows XP desktop. On Windows 7 however I constantly see “Access Denied” errors when scheduled backups kick in, and the UI is not very user-friendly.

Since I cannot rely on this tool to run backups on a regular basis I’ve decided not to use it anymore.


The next tool I tried was SecoBackup. This tool didn’t appear to have been developed beyond 2009, but I thought I’d give it a go. It has the same standard features as the previous two tools used.

The user interface (a web-based one) was very poor - AJAX is put forward as a positive in the tool’s feature list, but no thought has been given to usability, and I frequently found the local web server to be unresponsive, resulting in error messages when attempting to use the tool.

The main negative for this tool, which is not clear from the outset, is that instead of data being stored in your own S3 buckets this tool puts them in buckets that are only accessible by SecoBackup. I tried fruitlessly to view the bucket contents myself using other tools. Since data accessibility was one of the main reasons I wanted an S3-based backup solution, this was a big surprise.

Cloudberry Online Backup (Desktop)

After exhausting the market for free tools it was time to stump up some cash, with the hope that I would be rewarded with high quality software and more useful features. The two main offerings I found were Jungle Disk and Cloudberry. I went with Cloudberry as I had already been happily using Cloudberry’s S3 Explorer (a desktop app for browsing S3 data).

Cloudberry comes with the standard features of those above, but also offers some extras that I think will be really useful. For one, versioning is supported, and in a way that still supports accessing the data from other tools.

When versioning is turned on, the directory structure that is created in S3 matches the structure on your computer exactly, until you reach an actual file. Each file is then replaced with a folder that shares the filename, but ended with a colon. Beneath that folder you find a folder for each version of the file that has been backed up, and beneath that the versions themselves.

I really like this approach to versioning - it’s trivial for me to inspect what has been backed up and when, increasing my confidence that this tool is doing its job properly. I now have Cloudberry running a backup every 15 minutes. This is a completely unobtrusive process (unlike other tools which pop up progress bars on every run). The ad-hoc inspections have helped to increase my confidence in the tool, but I also get (optional) emails for each backup that runs.

I am happy to report that compared to the free offerings in this space, Cloudberry has a vastly improved build quality, and in general feels more easier to use.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Lack of customer focus

Having just moved house I've spent a lot of time talking to call centres to arrange new services or update contact details with old ones. I booked tickets for Pearl Jam at Hyde Park in June a few weeks' ago and the tickets don't arrive until nearer the event, so I had to tell TicketMaster about our move.

The update process was fairly simple - phone a number (once you've finally tracked it down) then tell your new address to someone. The guy on the phone said that he was happy to make the change, but that he had to warn me that the delivery address had to match my card's billing address. If it didn't TicketMaster would cancel the booking without informing me.

On the face of it, it's reasonable for TicketMaster to require the two addresses to match as part of fraud prevention. But not informing you when they cancel the order? Imagine looking forward to seeing your favourite band play, and having shelled out money on travel and hotel for the event, for the tickets to just fail to arrive without a note of warning.

Having been annoyed by the TM website before calling I decided to push the guy on the phone about this policy.

Me: "Why don't you inform me when the order is cancelled?"
Him: "It's our policy?"
Me: "I understand it's your policy, but why?"
Him: "We inform the customer before they buy the tickets that this is our policy."
Me: "I understand. But you have my phone number, email address and presumably 2 different postal addresses. You can contact me to tell me the order is being cancelled and give me a chance to fix it."
Him: "That's our policy..."

This kind of thing leaves me pretty irate. TicketMaster are clearly not interested in events or customer care; they just want money. It continues to frustrate me every time I want to buy tickets for something and get sent to their site.