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.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Steve,
    Sergey of S3 Backup here. I understand your reasons for looking for another backup solutions but wanted to ask you to provide a little more info on the error messages you've encountered. We try to immediately fix any problems we are made aware of and I don't thing you've reported them (other than the encryption problem that we've resolved). If you still remember what they were or maybe even have the log files (%appdata%/s3 backup/logs) that would be greatly appreciated.

    I suspect the errors you mention are the 'ServerInternalError' which is not a fatal condition but an error on the Amazon side and is out of our control, that happens sometimes and the app handles it by retrying the operation automatically but also reporting that this happened. We should make these notifications more user-friendly because I suspect they might be confusing and seem to be a failure to perform some operation.

    I also wanted to mention that the schedule can be configured to run not just daily but literally on any schedule imaginable -- it uses the Windows Task Scheduler and probably the most flexible as far as scheduling goes. The schedule is customized by clicking the "Edit schedule" button on the schedule tab of the backup job window.

    Thank you,