Cloud backup service arrives: Backupify

If you work in the cloud (and who doesn’t these days?), then Backupify is for you. I stumbled on to the site last week and it’s very close to what I’ve been looking for.

Backupify lets you select from a list of cloud service, login, and set a backup schedule. It works with the big-name services like Google Docs, Flickr, Twitter, Facebook, and WordPress. It even works with some lesser-known (to non-geeks) services like Basecamp and FriendFeed.

The service runs on top of Amazon’s S3 storage service and even lets you use your own S3 account for greater privacy.

In my early testing Backupify worked well enough, though not all of my selected services have been backed up after a week with Backupify. I like the status emails and the ability to look through your backup history and archive.

Unlike desktop backup services like Carbonite, Backupify does not yet encrypt your backup data (though their feedback page says it’s planned) and there’s no standard way for you to log in to your various accounts.

This isn’t the fault of Backupify. Online identity and authentication are an industry-wide problem and, despite some good efforts, there’s no fix in sight. I’m always wary of sites that need my username and password in order to access my data from another site, and Backupify requires this for some of the supported services. For example, I was able to use Google Docs’ oAuth support but Gmail required my login credentials. An ideal cloud backup service wouldn’t need to ask for my info.

Finally, as much as I like Backupify so far, I wish it’s features were part of my primary online backup service, Carbonite.

UPDATE: It appears that Backupify is running a free account promotion through January 31, 2010. All accounts are free forever, with unlimited storage. Even if you decide not to use it, why not go grab a free account now?

Extending the cloud with backup services

Looking over my earlier post about backup strategies made me wonder how I could simplify my own process further. The basics of local backups of web services, backing up my local drive to another local drive, syncing critical files, and backing up my local drive to the cloud aren’t as simple as they need to be for most people. I try hard to eliminate the complexity but the truth is that backing up so many 3rd party services is the biggest chore.

It seems that the cloud storage/backup services could collectively agree to support some sort of standardized authentication protocol to allow web applications (Google Calendar, Delicious, etc.) to automatically backup your data to your cloud backup service – without first having to make local backups.

I can imagine a preference screen in Google Docs that lets me select my backup vendor and uses an oAuth-style authentication scheme to make the process quick and painless. Set it once, and forget about it until you need to recover data. Backup only works when it’s invisible to the user.

My personal backup strategy

For some reason a lot of people have been asking me lately about my backup routine, perhaps it’s the season, perhaps it’s the recent Sidekick trouble. Regardless, I figured that I should blog it and refer people to the blog, rather than write it over and over. 11  years of running IT for a regional newspaper company  taught me many things, including: 1) you can never have enough backup and 2) backup is hard and left to their own devices, people won’t do it. Hence, when I look for backup plans I look for something completely automated and easy. I prefer a layered approach to backup:

  1. Backup of web services
  2. Local backup for quick restores and constant connectivity
  3. Remote backup for safety
  4. Remote sync of mission-critical files

If you use Yahoo! Mail or Google Calendar, then you use cloud services, which means that you are counting on the service provider to make sure your data is safe. Frankly, this requires more faith in their IT infrastructure than I’m willing to place in them (ever suffered through a Gmail outage?). I use quite a few cloud services and have backup plans for each.

  • Evernote – I use this for notes and bookmarks. It keeps synchronized copies in the cloud and on your local drive by default, which means that my local backup routine keeps it backed up.
  • Gmail – use Mail.app to create a local version via Gmail’s POP3 interface
  • Google Calendar – create a local cache with iCal
  • Google Reader – use the built-in export tools to save a local OPML document. I also have this crazy Rube Goldberg setup that sends my Shared Items from reader to Gmail every day.
  • Google Docs – I used to rely on a combination of a Firefox plugin and a Greasemonkey script, but this is now built-in to Docs. It’s quick, easy and works from any browser. Read more.
  • Delicious – periodically use their backup tool to create a local HTML document
  • Publish2 – this bookmarking tool for journalists lets you also post your ‘marks to Delicious or subscribe to them via RSS
  • Twitter & Tumblr – All of my tweets are automatically picked up on my Tumblr blog (God, I hate web product names). Both of which rely on the same daily send-to-email service I use for Google Reader’s shared items.
  • WordPressRSS-to-email and the periodic full database export/backup.

UPDATE: Lifehacker has a post from this summer explaining backup procedures for a number of other  web services.

For local backup, I love Apple’s Time Machine. It just works. Plug in an external drive and you have backup. Note that Time Machine is not the same as Time Capsule, which is a wireless network hub with a hard drive for wireless backup. I keep a 1TB external drive on my desk at work and it backs up any changed documents every hour. With this setup, my entire drive is backed up – including all of the local backups of my various cloud services. But the external drive is local – sitting on my desk, waiting for the place to catch fire (or flood).

Which is why I’ve been looking for a good option for remote – or Internet – backup. It seems like it wasn’t until the last year or so that remote backup really became a viable option. The combination of rising broadband speeds and huge reductions in the cost of storage have made it much more reasonable. I’ve been waiting for a good, affordable Internet-based backup system for years and now there are plenty of options. My criteria for such a service was:

  • It must offer a flat rate for unlimited storage
  • It must be real-time (backup on the fly) and not scheduled
  • It must support multiple computers under a single account
  • It must be secure

After a bit of research, I selected Carbonite as it met most of my criteria. If I’d had more computers to backup then CrashPlan would have won the day as it gets more economical with volume. Carbonite installs a Mac System Preference pane (not fully compatible with Mac OS 10.6 yet) that is always looking for updated files to backup. You can define which locations on your system it should look in, to avoid backing up more than necessary. The process can be paused and you can tell it to operate in a low-priority mode to save bandwidth and system resources.

Because Carbonite encrypts your data locally before it sends it over a secure SSL session to the Carbonite mothership, backups aren’t lightning quick. The added layer of security is great to have but that encryption process does add processing time. Still, the whole point of  a product like Carbonite is that it is invisible – it sits in the background and just works. So far, it’s done just that.

Remote sync is a difficult one to describe. To most people, it resembles Carbonite’s invisible backup, but I prefer to think of it as having a virtual external drive that can connect to all of m devices at the same time.

For remote sync, I use Dropbox. The free version allows up to 2GB of remote storage, which is plenty for my needs. It installs as a menu item in Mac OS X and creates a “Dropbox” directory in your home folder. Anything that you store in that directory is immediately synchronized with the Dropbox service. You can install Dropbox on other machines and they also get added to this synchronized mesh of devices. In my use, I keep an account on my wife’s computer, with Dropbox installed.

I use Dropbox to store mission-critical files, such as my 1Password keychain, receipts, and original iTunes purchases. Thus I’m never without a copy regardless of which computer I’m on (I also sync 1P with my iPhone). Of course, these files are also backed up by Time Machine and Carbonite, but Dropbox isn’t a backup service, it’s real-time synchronized cloud storage. It is similar in that respect to Apple’s MobileMe iDisk but I find Dropbox’s method of using a local folder for the sync to be a far superior customer experience. One final note about Dropbox: they just released an iPhone app to view and manage your files from the phone.

Looking over this very long post, my system seems extremely complex but in practice, it’s nearly seamless. The only real interaction I have is when I have to perform periodic manual backups of some of my web services. Everything else is automated and relatively invisible – exactly how a good backup system should work.