An Evolving Backup System

[Chaos Manor Reviews reader Drake Christensen was reading about the Network Attached Storage (NAS) system your editor set up with the Raspberry Pi, and decided to share his experiences over the years with his NAS and backup system configuration and practices. – Editor]

nas-backup-cloudI’m very happy with my backup system, which has evolved over many years, and I thought I’d share my experiences as I have enhanced and improved it over the years to its current configuration.  It may have been on one of the Chaos Manor Mail pages, where someone declared:  “If it’s not in at least three places then it’s not backed up”.

I use Windows at home. I’ve had a Network Attached Storage (NAS) on my home network since 2009. Even though they’re a little more expensive, I’m a big fan of NAS over external USB drives.  I worry that if Windows gets confused and trashes a drive, it may also trash any backup media that’s plugged into it.

Since a NAS is a separate computer, that provides a bit of a buffer to protect against the disk structure getting destroyed.  Also, just as a simple practical matter, the NAS can be accessed by multiple computers on my home network.  And, I don’t have external drives cluttering my work area.  The NAS is off in the corner, out of the way.

I started my home NAS with a two-drive D-Link DNS-321, which is still attached to my network.  This older NAS is limited to 2 TB drives. The D-Link is very hack-able, and I think I could have downloaded a custom build of the OS that would let me use larger drives. But I just don’t have time to add another hobby.

In early 2014, I added a new hot Windows box that I had built by a boutique builder, iBuyPower. My previous, circa 2009 iBuyPower box was relegated to be a secondary chat/email machine that I use on the same desk.

I needed more backup space, so I added a Synology DS213j (see information here; link to site?) This two-drive system currently has only one 4 TB drive in it.  The admin page of the Synology is quite a bit slicker than the D-Link, and it has a lot more optional features available through their interface.  And it is being actively updated.

With my first NAS, I used a conventional backup program, which did daily backups to the NAS.  But, for some reason, even though the data was growing only slowly over time, the backup was taking much, much longer.  Eventually, it was taking most of a day, even for an incremental backup.  I never did figure out what was causing the performance issues.

Updating over the Years

Somewhere around 2012 I started looking for a program to give me Apple Time Machine-like capabilities on Windows.  I wanted to have a file backed up within a few minutes of when it was modified, with multiple versions stored.  I tried one commercial product, Genie Timeline; it wasn’t horrible. But, I found its interface to be a bit too “cute,” for my taste, and I felt that it got in the way.

Eventually, I found AutoVer mentioned in several places.  It’s certainly not a pretty program, but I find it fairly straightforward.  I’ve been running that on a few machines ever since.  I set it to backup up my entire \Users\(me)\Roaming directory, plus my data drive.

During the first few weeks, it does require some attention.  Some programs, like Firefox and Evernote, for example, will touch some large files fairly often, which can quickly eat up space on the backup drive.  I was able to break up the backup task into three or four smaller pieces, with custom rules for each task, and greatly reduce the number of versions it keeps of those larger files.

Unfortunately, “Real Life” has encroached on the author of AutoVer, and it is teetering on the verge of abandonware.  He rarely logs in to his own forum, anymore. It is still reliable for me, and I’m still using it on two machines.

More Enhancements to My Backup System

When I purchased my latest machine I decided to find an alternative that appears to have more recent work done on it.  I ended up with Yadis! Backup.  Its interface is a bit more familiar and friendly.  I’ve been running it for about 18 months now.  The only issue I’ve had with Yadis! Backup is that over time the log file will grow huge and crash the program on start.  Every couple of months I’ve had to rename/delete the file, which clears up the problem.  I have contacted their tech support a couple of times and received reasonably prompt responses.

One wrinkle that I’ve recently solved is automatically logging into my network drives.  Apparently, when checking the “Automatically connect” box in Explorer, the order in which Windows attempts to log into the network shares vs loading its network drivers during boot results in an error, leaving me unconnected.  I had hacked together a quick Powershell script to do that, but I wasn’t happy with it. A few months ago, I started looking around, and found the open source NetDrives, a free utility that I can run on startup to connect the network shares when the OS is ready to take them.

So, that’s one extra backup copy.

Going to the Cloud

A couple of years ago I saw an ad for a cloud backup service, called Backblaze.  That got me started researching.  I found lots of good reports about Backblaze, but it was a little expensive for my use.  (I record some amateur sports videos, which greatly bulk up my data.)

Carbonite is well-known, but at the time I was looking at it, it was also very expensive for large backups. It has been long enough that I don’t remember the specific prices, at the time. I recall that one of my machines had over 600 GB on the data drive, and that Carbonite was in the several hundred dollar range for that much data.

I ended up with Crashplan, which gives me unlimited data on 10 machines for $149/year.  I added my mother’s machine to my account (and I set up a NAS for her, too.)  Crashplan is also Time-Machine-like, in that it backs up continuously, and keeps multiple versions.  I’ve actually made use of Crashplan to restore a couple of files.

I don’t want to sound like a commercial for Crashplan, but there are a couple of other features that are worth mentioning which have been useful to me in my configuration and usage. (As they say, Your Mileage May Vary.)

First, since all my machines are under the same account, if I were on the road, I could conceivably use my laptop to pull a file from the cloud that was saved from one of my desktops. They also have Android and iOS mobile apps to access files backed up in the cloud.

Crashplan can also back up from one Crashplan machine to another, whether local or remote. And, it can back up to physically attached drives. It does not appear capable of replacing AutoVer and Yadis! Backup to back up to a NAS, though, even when the shares are mapped to drive letters.

Cloud Backup Advantages

The prices and packages of all of these cloud systems have changed a lot since I looked at them a couple of years ago. Backblaze is now $50/yr/computer, unlimited. And, they offer a stolen computer locator service. Carbonite is $59/yr for the first computer, unlimited data with the exception of video. Video files and more computers are available for an added cost. All of them provide seeded backups (the option for you to send them a drive with an initial copy of your data.) And, there is an option for them to send you a recovery drive. In any case, do your homework before choosing your cloud backup service to see which best fits your needs.

Cloud systems like this also protect against ransomware.  Since it backs up only through the software service, ransomware has no way to get at that set of backup files to encrypt them. For a while, you might be backing up encrypted files. But, with this kind of versioning, you can get back to a good copy from prior to the infection. The NAS, on the other hand, is still vulnerable, if the virus looks to see what shares the machine is connected to. From a Windows point-of-view, the share is “Just Another Drive”.

An aside:  One thing I found when researching cloud backups is that there is one company that is poisoning Internet searches.  They have released four or five different programs which are nearly identical, but under different names and different pricing schemes.  And then they have paid for a large number of reviews, and commissioned a bunch of Top 5 and Top 10 lists with their programs listed near the top, to make them look a lot better than they are.  Digging a little deeper, there are a lot of complaints about that company – either bait and switch pricing, poor customer service or technical problems.

Wrapping Up

My current backup system is comprised of Network Attached Storage, Time Machine-like versioning for local backup (is there a more generic term for this sort of thing?) and a commercial Cloud versioning backup. With this system in place, I can set up multiple computers on my network for continuous backup.

There are a few things I really like about my backup system.

The first is, after the initial teething period, it is completely automatic.  I don’t have to remember to do anything.  It Just Works.

Also, the multiple versions have come in handy. I’m a bit of a packrat, and I like having multiple versions of stuff I’m actively working on. It’s only a few times a year that I have that breath-sucking, “Oh, no.” feeling when I saved instead of canceled. The versioning has saved me a few times. One example would be, when my mother made a change to her book collection database file, and didn’t tell me about it for over a week.  I was able to pull a version out of Crashplan from before the change. I chose to pull from Crashplan because it happened to be the first time I needed to get an old version of a file since installing it, and I wanted to try the interface. It worked about as I had expected.

Next, I like the speed of on-site storage, as my first place to restore from.

And, finally, it adds a lot of peace of mind to know that I have off-site storage, in case of fire or theft, or similar disasters at the house. Plus, there is the slim chance of ransomware wiping out everything locally.  And, again, I don’t have to think about it.  I don’t have to discipline myself to rotate storage to have off-site safety.  For practical purposes, it’s built into my computers, now.

My solution is maybe a little pricey. I spent about $300 initially, for the D-Link DNS-321 and a 1 TB drive. The more recent Synology DS213j with a 4 TB drive can be had for about $300, at today’s prices. And the yearly cost for cloud backup is $149.

The NAS is a one-time expense, lasting me for years.  Crashplan is an ongoing expense.  As always seems to be the case, it was all a little more than I’d prefer to spend.  But, given the bulk, I think it’s reasonable.

[What do you do for a backup system? It is extensive, or do you even have a backup system? Let us know in the comments. Or you can submit your own experiences with backup processes on your home computers; see our Submissions page for details. – Editor]