Backblaze to the Rescue!

It's 3:00 AM. I awaken from a nightmare. There's been an earthquake. Our house survives the initial jolt but catches fire from a gas leak. No one gets hurt and the fire is put out before too much damage is done. Except, when the water hoses are doused and the smoke clears, I discover that all my computer equipment has been destroyed, beyond any hope of repair. My hard drives, my backup hard drives, my backup DVDs and flash drives — all gone. Forever.

With no other backups, the data on all of these drives are gone forever as well.

Now fully awake, I write a brief note to myself: "Do something so that this nightmare can never become a reality." The question is: What exactly should I do?

One possibility is to buy a safe and store a backup hard drive in it. You'll want a safe good enough to preserve hard drives and DVDs, not just paper documents, from heat damage. You might even consider a safe that acts as a hard drive enclosure, providing USB access to a drive inside. This would allow you to backup the drive while it remains secure inside the safe. None of these options appealed to me. In the end, I simply wasn't going to trust any on-site backup as the definitive answer.

The simplest off-site option is to store a copy of your data at a secure location such as a safety deposit box. Again, not for me. This is okay for archiving critical static data. But not for ongoing backups. No way will I keep replacing the data in the box with an updated copy. I actually did try this for awhile; the last time I added a new DVD was three years ago. I am not a founding member of Procrastinators Unite for nothing (you are welcome to join; we have yet to have our first meeting).

The remaining option is to store your data online. On the surface, this appears to be the ideal solution. Your data are stored offsite, safe from any damage or theft where you live. And you don't have to leave your chair to update your backups. In fact, you can set it so that updates are done automatically without you having to do anything at all.

So why I haven't I been using an online backup before now? Because, until recently, the cons appeared to outweigh the pros. Existing services were too expensive. Or too unreliable. Or too limited in features. Or too difficult to figure out. Or too slow to transfer data. Or incompatible with Macs.

To be clear, I didn't simply want an online storage site. I wanted a solution that would automatically maintain my backups. I gave Apple's Backup utility a try, but found it lacking. For starters, it is not designed for backing up all (or even most) of your hard drive. I also found it unreliable. Several times, it stopped doing scheduled backups, without ever giving a warning. Lastly, it is expensive compared to its competition. For 60GB of storage, it costs $99/year on top of the $99/year to be a MobileMe member. No way. Especially since I need considerably more than 60GB.

But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. There are several other online backup services, ones that work with Macs for a more reasonable price. Recently, I gave one such service a try: Backblaze. Its Mac version officially launched just this month. After some prodding (from Gleb Budman, CEO of Backblaze), I started testing a beta version last January. Overall, I have been very pleased with the results.

I can't say with assurance that this is the best online backup service, as I have not tried the others. If you are shopping around, you might at least want to look at MozyHome for Mac. I can tell you that Backblaze does exactly what it promised to do and what I was hoping it could do. I couldn't ask for more.

The service offers unlimited storage for $5/month. That's $5/month per machine, no matter how many hard drives are connected to that machine and how large those hard drives may be. I am currently storing over 200GB of data.

Setting up Backblaze is quite simple. Just create an account and download the software. You modify settings, such as exactly what gets backed up and how often, from the Backblaze System Preferences pane that gets installed on your Mac. By default, Backblaze continuously backups almost everything on your drive(s). This means that Backblaze is almost always backing up in the background whenever your Mac is running.

Don't assume that the default settings are exactly what you want. For example, I discovered that Backblaze was initially backing up not only my main drive, but my backup drive — essentially backing up the same data twice. Wasteful. But easily fixed. I simply set Backblaze to exclude the backup drive.

A critical test for any backup solution is how effective and easy is it to restore files. Again, Backblaze was impressive. To restore a selected group of files, you log into your account on the Backblaze Web site, select the desired files and wait for an email. When the email arrives, a link in the message takes you to a Web page with a Download button. Click the button and the files are downloaded to to your computer. The whole process, aside from however long it takes to download the files, takes only a couple of minutes at most. There is no additional charge for any of this.

What if you want to restore a large amount of data, such as your entire drive, and you don't want to deal with a lengthy download? For this, you have two other options: Backblaze will either mail your data on a DVD (up to 4.2 GB for $99) or a USB hard drive (up to 500 GB for $189). Compared to the alternative of losing all your data, $189 is a bargain. As a point of comparison, if you had a damaged drive and turned to a company such as DriveSavers for recovery, it would cost you much much more, and there would be no guarantee of success.

I only have one complaint about Backblaze; it's a pretty minimal and probably unavoidable one. It can take weeks before an entire drive's worth of data are initially transferred. Meanwhile, you remain vulnerable to data loss. During my initial testing, the data transfer sometimes appeared to be going so slowly that I thought it had stopped entirely. Remember: With most Internet providers, your maximum upload speed is much slower than your download maximum, which means you can't estimate the transfer speed from the time it takes to download files to your Mac.

To shorten the transfer time, I advise temporarily setting your Mac to never go to sleep. That way, transfer can continue through the night.

I had some concern that the constant monitoring and transfer of data would have a negative effective on the overall speed of my Internet connection. However, I did several speed tests and found little, if any, evidence that this was the case. The Backblaze software appears to do a good job of taking a back seat when you are doing other Internet-related activity (which also, of course, can slow down its transfer of data).

Backblaze has put an end to my nightmare scenario. In the event of a catastrophe, I am confident that "I lost all my data" will not be on the list of casualties. That's certainly worth $5 a month.