Comprehensive Guide of Cloud Backup Services. The Best Companies, Software and Solutions Reviewed.

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Introduction to Cloud Backup


‘If cloud storage had existed decades ago, it’s unlikely that the industry would have developed the backup processes that are commonly used today,’ writes Marc Farley in a recent Microsoft book, Rethinking Enterprise Storage. ‘However, the cloud didn’t exist, and IT teams had to come up with ways to protect data from a diverse number of threats, including large storms, power outages, computer viruses, and operator errors.’

These solutions were wide-ranging, disparate, and didn’t always mesh well together. Backup systems could consist of many different components that had to be managed properly to ensure data could be restored after a disaster.

It’s a common theme in IT: new technologies superseding old ones to the extent that they should completely replace them. Had they been invented first, they would have removed the need for the old technology altogether. The reality, though, is that these systems now have to work together. Microsoft rightly note that cloud backup should render every other form of backup obsolete, but instead cloud systems are used in conjunction with these other means. Farley continues, ‘Many companies have multiple, sometimes incompatible, backup systems and technologies protecting different types of computing equipment. Many standards were developed over the years, prescribing various technologies, such as tape formats and communication interfaces, to achieve basic interoperability. Despite these efforts, IT teams have often had a difficult time recognizing the commonality between their backup systems. To many, it is a byzantine mess of arcane processes.’

Cloud backup has the ability to simplify data storage and recovery vastly, offering exceptional benefits of speed, cost, redundancy and convenience – enabling organisations to safeguard their data quickly and securely, without investing in their own hardware and personnel. However, there are many different forms and variables to cloud backup, and each service will be suited to different individual and organisational needs.

Neither is cloud backup a panacea. It has its own limitations and downsides – not least the requirement of an internet connection to work. If you’re working under conditions where bandwidth is expensive, sporadic or otherwise restricted, cloud solutions won’t carry the same appeal that they will for workers in highly-connected locations. It also brings risks that aren’t as present with private cloud or on-location storage: namely security. Using the public cloud means handing over your data to another company, and that can entail various issues, including legal and compliance ones.

Nevertheless, the cloud has the potential to revolutionise the way that individuals and organisations back up their files, offering low-cost and extremely convenient solutions. As time goes on, these solutions are being more and more closely integrated with organisations’ IT strategies, providing seamless and low-impact means of maintaining the availability and integrity of data of all kinds.

Cloud Backup Companies

As with other cloud offerings, cloud backup comes in consumer and enterprise forms. The former will often be available for free, as a part of the overall cloud service, but may be limited in scope. Backup solutions suitable for businesses are more involved, but offer greater sophistication for more complex business needs.

Consumer Cloud Backup

These services are aimed predominantly at individual users. They may be suitable for some small businesses but essentially they are offered for personal use. They will generally start with a certain amount of free space – often between 2 and 5 GB – with a business model that charges for upgrades of various kinds, including more storage. They may run through a web app or using downloadable software, and will support different operating systems. This means it’s wise to consider what devices you will want to access your files from, both now and in the future.

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Bitcasa Drive. One of Bitcasa’s chief attractions is the large amount of storage it offers – although this may well put off users who don’t need that volume of space. There are three options:

  • Free – 5GB online backup/storage. Further space is available if you refer friends.
  • Premium – 1 TB for $10 per month.
  • Pro – 10 TB for $99 per month.

Prices are somewhat cheaper if you pay for a year up-front. Clearly, this is a huge amount of storage, which puts Bitcasa ahead of many other providers of personal storage. Files are encrypted client-side, meaning that they cannot be read in transit or in storage – even if Bitcasa’s employees did have access to them. Documents, photos, videos and so on can be uploaded from any computer or mobile device.

Bitcasa is a great option if you need a lot of storage, and the security of client-side encryption is a welcome change, but it can be slow if you use it as a regular drive (rather than solely for backup or synching files). It’s also a little expensive, but still well worth considering.

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CrashPlan. CrashPlan is a very popular backup solution, known for its straightforward interface, breadth of features, reliability and low cost.

‘CrashPlan endpoint backup is so easy to administer and so reliable that I can just set it, and forget it.’ – Alfred Smith, Systems Administrator for Lockheed Martin’s Information Systems and Global Solutions Division

Crashplan uses extremely strong encryption – 448-bit, which is significantly stronger than the 128-bit that online banking uses. Of course, this isn’t strictly necessary: banking security is plenty strong enough, since you don’t hear of banks being hacked every day – and if 128-bit encryption is cracked, we’re going to have a lot bigger problems than thieves accessing your files in the cloud.

The basic plan costs $5.99 per month, and gives you an unlimited amount of storage from one computer. The Family plan costs $13.99 per month, and gives you unlimited storage for as many as 10 computers. You can get significant discounts if you pay in advance for a block of time.

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Dropbox.

Dropbox is one of the most popular public cloud providers. They have a simple but user-friendly interface – nothing too fancy but it does the job, and the service is free unless you need a lot more space (upgrades are available in exchange for referrals).

‘Automatic synchronization is the killer feature of Dropbox, something that will save lots of time and streamline collaboration.’ – Ian Lamont

Dropbox can be used as a web interface, in which case you’ll need to upload your files there to back them up. But if you’re using the desktop application, it’s a whole lot easier – your files are backed up automatically. You’ll have copies of your documents on your hard drive, and these will be backed up to Dropbox without you having to do anything; the copies stored on Dropbox are also backed up for extra safety. If you’re using more than one computer, the files are backed up to those too. Apps can be downloaded to support different Android and other devices.

Dropbox encrypts your files, though this happens server-side (and there have been incidents of security breaches in the past). It will also keep copies of deleted files and earlier versions for 30 days by default. A paid upgrade allows you to recover deleted files for up to a year.

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ElephantDrive. ElephantDrive offers backup solutions for both personal and enterprise use. It’s relatively versatile, offering functions like versioning control (revert to earlier file versions), recovering deleted files, sharing folders and enabling synching to all your devices, whether at home or work or elsewhere. It is more expensive than some other options, though you can gain discounts if you pay up-front for a year. Each plan covers up to three computers. A helpful function you won’t always see with cloud backup software is a browser uploader – you can upload files using the web only, rather than an app you have to download specially for the job.

The first 2 GB is available for free. 100 GB costs $9.95 a month, and after that you can access greater economies of scale – 500 GB costs $39.95 a month, 1 TB $85.95 and 2 TB $169.95.

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IDrive. Not to be confused with Apple’s ‘i’ range of products, IDrive provides a kind of one-stop-shop where you can back up all of your devices – PC, Mac, iPhones, iPads, Android devices etc – and even Facebook pictures, under the same roof. Whilst it’s broadly similar to many of the other backup solutions out there, and offers an enterprise version as well, IDrive includes an offline backup facility. Not many others have that, and it’s a good way of getting your files backed up safely to start with, before you take the time to do a full upload to the cloud – which can be time-consuming. They also have mapped drive support, which could be an attraction for some users. Data is encrypted client-side for extra safety.

‘IDrive for iPhone offers a combination of capabilities not found in other apps, letting you back up, share, and enjoy all your photos, music, video, and more-anywhere.’ – Michael Muchmore, PC Magazine

You get the first 5 GB for free – though of course, if you’ve got lots of photos on Facebook or your iPhone, that’s not going to last long. The Pro version offers backup for an unlimited number of devices. It starts at 1 TB for $59.50 per year, with a massive 10 TB storage coming in at $499.50 per year. Enterprise-grade solutions offer up to 12.5 TB at $2999.50 per year. You can gain substantial discounts if you pay in advance, with two-year plans subject to a 50% discount for the first year (equivalent to a 25% discount overall).

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Jungle Disk. Jungle Disk is a highly specialised, or limited service, depending on how you look at it. As their website says, ‘Backup is all we do, so backup is what we do best.’ Unlike other providers, they have a flat fee of $4 per month, and users pay for what they use in storage. This has the advantage that you never pay for space you’re not using. There are no limits to space or file size, and documents are encrypted client-side with AES-256 encryption.

‘I use the backup for servers edition, as a redundant offsite backup. Software is a little clunky – has been known to freeze my server from time to time – after a reboot, I have to re-verify file shares I have connected in order for the backup to commence. It works well enough for me not to switch. Restores function properly (as fast as my internet connection will allow, and have yet to have any corruption from a restore). – Martin, Jungle Disk review

Jungle Disk uses Amazon S3 and Rackspace for their storage, which cost $0.125 per GB per month and $0.15 per GB per month. Amazon S3 charges another $0.012 per GB you download, as well as other small fees, so these two options aren’t amenable to simple comparison – it depends how you will be using the service, and how often you’re likely to be restoring data. The first 10 GB of space is free, though. An enterprise offering is much the same, just starting at $5 per month.

Ultimately, Jungle Disk’s pay-as-you-use model is what sets it apart from other cloud backup providers, and it’s this feature that will attract customers who don’t want to be hit with fees for storage they’re not using. This is extremely unusual: usually you’ll be hit with flat fees, and as soon as you reach the limit of your storage, your costs will jump as you purchase the next tranche.

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Livedrive. Livedrive offers a pretty versatile and comprehensive list of facilities, with a range of different backup plans. There are four options: Backup, Briefcase, Pro Suite and Business.

Livedrive Backup is a straightforward cloud backup service. It’s very easy to get started and there are many testimonials from tech journalists to prove this. Like the other plans, it uses AES-256 and there’s a very user-friendly interface. You’ll get a free trial, and then it’s $8 per month. Backup gives you unlimited backups, but you can only use it with one computer. Pro Suite, at $25 per month, allows you up to five – though you can add individual machines with each plan, too. As with many other providers, you get decent discounts for paying in advance for one or two years.

The Briefcase plan isn’t an automatic backup facility, as such. For $16 per month you receive a 2 TB chunk of space, as well as features like file-sharing, editing and synch. These features are included in the Pro Suite package, along with 5 TB space.

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Malwarebytes Secure Backup. Malwarebytes is a popular malware scanner that will root out a broad range of threats against your PC, removing or quarantining them as you require. It happens that they also offer a cloud backup service, with similarly wide-ranging functionality. Unlike the malware scanner, there isn’t a free option, but you get plenty of impressive and sometimes unusual toys to go with it. It comes with solid encryption, and there’s an option for a private encryption key – which many cloud backup services won’t give you. Encryption happens locally, in transit and at the data centre – a multiple-redundancy approach which doesn’t hurt in the slightest. It also supports backup from network drives and external drives.

‘Most people think secure backup solutions like Carbonite or Mozy can be a cure for a compromised machine after they have trouble. Backups should be done when the machine is not infected, since restoring infected data will just re-establish the malware, and render the backup useless. The malware must be removed before backup.’ – Marcin Kleczynski, Malwarebytes’ founder and CEO

Beyond that, you can use it with any number of devices. You can back files up locally (as well as using the cloud, of course). Like Dropbox but unlike many others, you can also use a web interface, so you’re not forced to download a separate piece of proprietary software to each device. And you get unlimited document versioning – so if you overwrite a file locally on your PC and want to recover an earlier version you thought was lost, it will be safe and sound in the cloud.

Malwarebytes Secure Backup comes in three packages. You get 50 GB storage for $29.95 per year, 100 GB for $59.95 and 200 GB for $114.95. From these prices, you can see that there’s not much in the way of economies of scale for signing up to larger packages, but there’s still plenty to commend this as an option. You do get a free test drive, and Malwarebytes has a cool feature that few others offer: scanning each file you upload to make sure it doesn’t contain any malicious software. It’s a nice touch that you’d expect, but it’s reassuring to know it’s there. It means you can’t backup, restore or share infected files – protecting not just you but those you collaborate with. One final quirk is that it requires you to download its malware programme separately, which is a little odd – but you do get the pro version rather than the free ‘trial’ version (which is very worthwhile in its own right).

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Norton Online Backup. Norton is another household name in online security that has branched out into cloud backup services. (McAfee is another, but discontinued their service at the end of 2014.)

Whilst most services offer a decent lump of space, Norton takes the approach of giving you 25 GB storage to start with, at a price of $49.99 per year. It’s all automatic and you can use it with up to five computers, and of course you can buy additional storage if you need it, but it’s rather limited in functionality. There’s a web interface, which is nice, but no Explorer integration. It also won’t back up files that are open, so Outlook mail won’t be stored, amongst other things. The reality is that other providers will almost certainly give you a better service, and potentially for a better price.

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SOS Online Backup. Another major and well-respected player in the cloud backup space, SOS has plenty to offer. There are two options: Personal Cloud (1), which gives you unlimited storage for $7.99 per month, from one computer; and Personal Cloud (5), which allows you to use it with up to 5 computers from the same account for $39.95 – again with unlimited storage. These reduce by around 27 percent if you pay for two years up-front. As well as the unlimited storage, you’ll get unlimited versioning. SOS also supports external and network drives, which plenty of services don’t. SOS also has a reputation for speed, which becomes an issue if you’re working with large volumes of documents or have limited bandwidth.

The catch, if there is one, is that SOS doesn’t do continuous backups. Instead, it will periodically backup your files – the most frequent option being once an hour. This leaves you open to losing some data if you are unlucky, though some files can be individually backed up immediately with the ‘LiveProtect’ functionality. It’s not perfect, but it’s not a deal-breaker by any means.

‘SOS Online Backup just keeps getting better, lengthening the gap between it and the competition. New for SOS Online Backup 5.0 are Facebook backup, improved iPhone and Android apps, Mac support, and a greatly streamlined PC setup process. The new version improves on the software’s already fast upload and download speeds.’ – Michael Muchmore, PC Mag

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SpiderOak. Spideroak have an excellent track record in providing zero-knowledge backup. In a world where high-profile hacks of the public cloud happen on a regular basis, they have a solid platform that offers unparalleled security. As the SpiderOak site says, ‘Even with physical access to the storage servers, SpiderOak staff cannot see even the names of your files and folders. All we see are sequentially numbered containers of encrypted data. We are never capable of betraying the trust of our users.’

Not only that, but they have excellent customer support, with plenty of tutorials and FAQs. Although they’re a smaller player in the cloud backup space, they’ve made that work to their advantage, providing a more niche, personalised service. The first 2 GB of space is free, and you can buy large quantities of additional storage at reasonable prices: 30 GB for $7 per month, 1 TB for $12 per month and 5 TB for $25 per month. As ever, upfront payment for the year will reduce these.

Enterprise Cloud Backup

Cloud backup for businesses tends to be more complex and feature-rich, reflecting the different needs of enterprise-customers. For example, there will typically be a greater emphasis on security, collaboration and mobility, with files accessible from multiple devices to make working from home, the office or on the road equally easy. Naturally, these features come at an additional price, and given that the service looks superficially similar you may be surprised at just how much some of these charge. For small businesses, it’s quite possible that one of the personal cloud services might adequately cover your needs. For larger organisations, the individual provision won’t do it, and it’s worth thoroughly researching what’s out there to see what will suit your needs best.

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Amazon S3. Amazon S3 (Simple Storage Service) is one of the undisputed leaders in the cloud computing world. It’s build to make computing on a worldwide web basis easier for developers, giving you a straightforward web interface. You can store and recover data in any amount, from anywhere on the web.

Amazon rose to fame as a vast online retailer with massive reach. It uses the same infrastructure – along with the speed, scalability, uptime and cost benefits – for its cloud offering. That means you get all the advantages of a global ecommerce giant’s platform for your organisation. As well as the web interface, it has APIs that let developers connect from all kinds of devices and apps. This is an extremely versatile service that will suit developers and organisations that are confident in their ability to manage their own services, whatever the nature of their business. If you need more help, then you might be better off with a managed service, but for many organisations the low cost, speed and reliability will trump other options.

 

 

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CloudBerry Lab is one of the lesser-known cloud backup solution providers, but they nevertheless pack a respectable punch. They support a couple of dozen cloud storage providers – most notably Amazon S3, but also Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud, OpenStack, Rackspace, HP Cloud, DreamObjects and a good many more. You choose the storage provider, thereby accessing the reliability and economies of scale that brings.

With CloudBerry Backup, it’s very easy to integrate with existing home storage solutions (like Windows Home Server) and schedule a backup plan or back up in real-time. There’s built-in dedup and data compression, if you want it. You’ll also have access to all the security measures you’d expect of a cloud backup provider – and more, like being sent an encryption key before upload – the interface is simple and intuitive, and you’ll be able to set file permissions, check versioning, etc.

CloudBerry Backup includes a free trial, and it’s extremely fast to get up and running. You can custom edit your backup plan, or use the Wizard to create an off-the-peg one. The basic Desktop plan costs $30, going up to $300 for Enterprise. The company also offers a bunch of freeware products, such as CloudBerry Explorer that is a simple and useful file manager for your cloud storage accounts or CloudBerry Box that synchronizes and shares your files through a chosen cloud storage account between several PCs. There are beta versions of the solutions for Mac and Linux as well. In terms of customer service, they have an excellent reputation and there’s an extensive forum with answers to lots of the most regular queries.

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Barracuda. Barracuda’s attractions include its speed of set-up, which can be managed in just 15 minutes for initial deployment. It’s also simple to use, but with an excellent web interface that will allow you to do everything you need, including giving you an overview of all the machines in your network. There’s also an emphasis on putting you in control, though that doesn’t come at the expense of user experience. One of the nice touches is that it gives you various options of off-site backup, so you can save your data to the cloud, a private location or a combination of the two – ensuring that you’re protected against catastrophic data loss. The local cache scales from 500 GB to 100+ TB, which is pretty respectable. You’ll get the first 30 days for free, and there’s lots of free support available too.

‘Businesses with a cavalier attitude to data backup are asking for trouble, but trying to manage a total data protection strategy can prove the stuff of nightmares. However, there are solutions that claim to cater for such needs. Barracuda’s Backup Servers can do it all for you as they bring on-site backup, site-to-site replication, cloud backup and full data restoration services all under one roof.’ – Dave Mitchell, IT Pro 

This means you can treat Barracuda as a one-stop-shop service for unlimited and highly flexible cloud backup, combining it with your own infrastructure to copy, synch and share files to different locations, whether that means the Barracuda cloud or your own private cloud or storage.

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Dropbox. Dropbox is best known for its individual cloud storage service but they offer an enterprise-grade solution too. They’re a solid and respected name with a huge user base, though you might find they lack the functionality that other cloud providers offer business customers. The other side of that is the simplicity for which Dropbox is renowned. It’s really easy to get started, so you won’t have to waste any time on training – everyone will just be able to pick it up intuitively, or with minimal effort. There’s also a free trial.

‘My first reaction when IT implemented Dropbox was relief because I knew that it would revolutionize how we work, make our job easier, and make us all better at what we do.’ – Christiaan Gunther, Style Editor at BCBG Max Azria Group

Documents are syched in the background as you save them, so you’ll know that your files are safe without taking extra measures to protect them. The service is considerably speeded up with a delta synch approach: instead of backing up the entire file, only the ‘deltas’ – those parts of the file that have changed – are uploaded. Again, this is something that not every cloud backup provider offers, and it can make a real difference under the right circumstances.

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Druva. Druva’s Phoenix solution boasts serious speed, claiming to up up to 20 times faster than other products, whilst still giving you the cost and scalability that the cloud offers. The company state that ‘100Mbps transfer speeds ensure you hit defined backup windows’ and that ‘Global deduplication maximizes WAN throughput, delivering as high as 1 Gbps effective transfer speeds.’

Deduplication is the USP that Druva offers enterprises that need to back up large amounts of data. It’s a smart approach. As Steven J. Vaughan-Nicholls of ZDNet comments, it gives two advantages:

‘First, even as cloud storage costs go ever lower, when you’re talking long-term business storage you can still be talking about petabytes of data and that’s not cheap no matter how low the prices go. The other cost, both in terms of dollars and time, is bandwidth. It’s a lot faster to store and restore over the Internet when you only have to deal with, say, 1 MB of e-mail attachments rather a 100 MBs of attachments.’ – Steven J. Vaughan-Nicholls

This is all designed vastly to reduce the inefficiencies of the traditional model of multi-tiered server backup. The centralised console seamlessly manages hot, warm and cold backups. Infinite retention means that your data can be stored safely for as long as you need it – potentially decades or longer.

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Egnyte. Egnyte is comparable to Dropbox, but designed for larger loads characteristic of the enterprise. Like Dropbox, you’ll keep a local copy and have a synched cloud copy. The advantages of this are that you will be able to access your critical files even if you don’t have an internet connection. It also means you can hold off synching your documents until the network is relatively quiet, to minimise disruption. The downside is that it requires you have enough local storage to meet your needs, which precludes using Egnyte as a cloud drive for everything. There are some neat features, like being able to customise your Egnyte interface to your brand, with its own logo, message headers and URL.

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Rackspace. Another big and well-respected name, Rackspace provides enterprise-level cloud backup for prices from $10 per server per month. It’s a market-leader for good reasons, offering loads of great features. You get unlimited backups, you can choose the individual files and folders to backup, and you can restore your whole system or given files from a particular time window. There are no limits on the size of each backup, and you can create as many backups as you want. The backup schedule can be customised for convenience and to minimise disruption. Alternatively, you can run backups manually. Retention is customisable: files will be stored for 30 days, 60 days or indefinitely. Email notifications let you know when a backup has been completed successfully, or else when it fails.

Before files are backed up, they are de-duplicated and compressed. This is said to reduce backup times and file sizes by up to 20x, along with the associated cost and speed benefits this brings. ‘After the initial backup of a data set, block-level deduplication saves time and storage space by only backing up files that have changed since the last backup.’ Security is strong (but optional), with AES-256 and a private key known only to you. Data is encrypted before it leaves the server, so it is secure whilst in storage.

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Symantec. Symantec is another big name and offers a similarly broad cloud backup service. Symantec’s NetBackup platform is extremely versatile, working well with all kinds of storage media: physical, virtual, arrays, or big data. Storage options include tape, 3rd party disk, appliances (including the NetBackup Deduplication Appliances and Integrated Backup Appliances), or the cloud.

Tape offers the most cost-effective long-term storage. Disk-based storage is combined with deduplication for efficiency and greater speed. Appliances can be used to reduce complexity and expenditure. The cloud, of course, brings great flexibility and scalability and is another vital strand of a disaster recovery strategy. NetBackup uses well-known cloud storage providers: Amazon, AT&T Synaptic, and Rackspace Hosting. If you want a private cloud solution, you can use a NetBackup 5230 Appliance.

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Zetta. A zettabyte is a billion terabytes, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Zetta specialise in very large datasets. They don’t quite go as large as the name suggests, being optimised for datasets in excess of 500 GB. From $175 per month you can backup 5 TB in 24 hours.

‘The typical Zetta customer lies in the middle ground between cheap personal applications and expensive enterprise solutions. It could be a law firm, a university department, or a regional office. Backup requirements are in the range of 10 to 50 terabytes. The operating systems are mostly Microsoft Windows, with a heterogenous sprinkling of Linux and Macintosh OSX.’ – Nick Hardiman, TechRepublic 

Zetta DataProtect backs up files, applications and full server images directly to the cloud. There are no appliances or other intermediaries. It supports 18 different flavours of Windows, Linux and Mac OS. Snapshots capture the state of your data at a given point in time, and granular versioning means you have access to different states depending on when you want to revert to.

Zetta’s emphasis on large storage volumes partly comes from its approach of choosing not to compress its snapshots, or use a proprietary format. Although this comes at the expense of space, it means that disaster recovery can be carried out extremely fast. ‘Replication makes your backup a fully instantiated file system – in its native format – so disaster recovery becomes as easy as pulling a file off a file server.’ There’s also a local option which allows you to back up data to a local drive, as well as the cloud. Although there’s a greater volume of traffic, it’s optimised for WAN for faster backup and recovery times.

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Cloud backup in detail

Cloud backup should be a mainstay of any enterprise’s IT strategy. It’s a straightforward and convenient way to back up data that would otherwise have to be entrusted to local or private off-site storage devices, with all the costs and potential difficulties these entail. For individuals, cloud backup offers an easy way to copy files to a secure location in the background, without worrying about actively saving valuable documents and photos to an external drive. More and more, cloud backup is being integrated with devices and office systems off the peg – Apple and Microsoft 365 being two obvious examples. These enable you to save files to the cloud by default, with an always-connected approach that means you shouldn’t lose documents in the event of a lost or damaged device.

Like all cloud services, there is a huge variation in cloud backup platforms. You’ll have to assess their suitability alongside each other across several different dimensions:

  • Some platforms (like Amazon) have enormous infrastructures and hundreds of global data centres, that they already use for their own businesses. Others may be relative newcomers with smaller infrastructures, unable to capitalise on the same economies of scale that the big companies can. The result is a significant variation in pricing for services – and that’s before you start taking into account other factors, such as the added value of the extra services offered. The result is that a like-for-like comparison can be extremely difficult – although, for simpler options, it’s not such a problem. Most cloud backup services charge per GB per month, and most offer large discounts if you choose to pay upfront for one or two years. The upshot is that you should spec out your needs carefully before undertaking a comparison, because the headline price alone is not enough to make a good decision.
  • Price tag isn’t the only factor you should consider. There are also indirect costs that depend on other aspects of the service. One of these is the speed and timing for backups to occur. If you are moving large amounts of data to and from the cloud, that has implications for your bandwidth and the effect it has on other aspects of your network. There’s a balance to be struck here. Ideally, full backup will only happen at a time that’s minimally disruptive to your organisation – when the load on the network is low, and users aren’t impacted. However, that necessarily means that you can’t have a live backup to the cloud, so there’s still the problem of potential data loss. There are ways around this. Different platforms adopt strategies including compression and taking ‘deltas’ (only saving changes in files, rather than the whole file), but it’s still something you need to weigh up in order to get the best and most appropriate service for your needs. You should also be able to schedule backups for regular intervals, and some cloud providers have an always-connected approach (though that also has bandwidth implications).
  • Which files will be backed up? Local documents, of course, but sometimes that may be all. You may not be able to backup apps, though lots of cloud providers allow you to take snapshots of your entire system, so you can recover it when you need to. Versioning means you can recover a snapshot from any time in the past. You will need to check whether retention is temporary or permanent – many cloud services store old versions for a month or two, and then delete them. Permanent retention means your files are accessible at any point in the future, but of course this comes at the cost of extra storage space. As well as the files and folders you can backup, you should also consider network and external drives – many providers don’t include these in their plans.
  • One of the downsides of the public cloud is the security vulnerabilities that come with entrusting your data to a third party. Once the files have left your system, you are reliant on the integrity and competence of the provider. Depending on your needs and the sensitivity of your data, you will need to undertake a thorough assessment of their security. This includes how often your data is backed up, since if you are making many changes every day then the loss of these can carry a high cost. But you should also look at the encryption used, and where this occurs. Few providers enable client-side encryption, whilst encryption for data in transit and on their own servers is more common. Unfortunately, as plenty of organisations have found out to their cost, server-side encryption is not always enough to protect data from prying eyes. A few zero-knowledge providers exist, and they’re worth a second look. Client-side encryption means that not even the cloud providers’ employees can access your documents. The downside is that it makes sharing and collaborating that much harder, because another associate can’t simply download a document from the cloud and start working on it with you straight away.
  • If the worst comes to the worst, you’ll have to recover your data from the cloud. Even if it’s all there, stored in its entirety and completely up to date, not every service is equal. Depending on how the data is stored, reinstantiation can take anything from a few minutes to many hours. If your business is critically reliant on this backup, that will make a big difference. Compressing data or storing it in a proprietary format may speed up the backup process, but it will mean additional delays when you retrieve it.
  • Operating Systems. Different cloud providers will work better with and sometimes only support specific OSes. If your storage provider is aimed at knowledge workers and others who predominantly use Windows and iOS, there’s a good chance these are the only systems they will support. You’ll also need to check whether Android is supported for mobile devices. A web interface will allow you to sidestep this problem to some extent, but not all providers have these – they prefer you to download their app. If you’re working in something like software development and are looking for a complete platform and backup, then you’ll likely be after something that supports Linux. Linux systems are generally more flexible, powerful and customisable – but are best suited to those who know what they are doing.

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Backup options alongside the cloud

There are numerous ways of backing up your data, and each has pros and cons. As the quote at the beginning demonstrates, Microsoft believes that if cloud backup services had been developed a decade ago, these would not exist. This is not entirely true; the cloud has revolutionised backup, but it does not fully replace other means of securely storing data. Instead, it can be used alongside these other methods to complement and support existing backup measures, as part of a holistic strategy. The cloud is also necessarily dependent on your internet connection, meaning that if there is a problem with either connection or power supply, then you will temporarily lose access. This is not the case with other systems.

On-site backup, either on a server or tape drive, has the advantage of being significantly more secure than uploading data to the public cloud. It is also more cost-effective under certain circumstances. Under the right conditions, this can be extended to a hybrid cloud system, where the most sensitive and mission-critical data is kept in the private cloud, and large quantities of data that are less sensitive are uploaded to the public cloud .

All backups are time-consuming, particularly tape drives – though these offer the most effective and secure long-term storage. The downtime or network impact of saving large amounts of data to tape backup means that it is not something that can be undertaken regularly. However, as a complement to cloud storage for additional safety, it is still a solution that some organisations use. Few cloud providers support external drives, but there are a handful that will work with such storage, so if this is part of your strategy then it’s worth checking these out.

Snapshots are another common way of capturing the state of your system at a given moment, and should not entail extensive downtime. Backups to cloud or other media can then be taken from the snapshots, preventing file corruption and disruption to users.

Conclusion

Cloud backup, like public cloud services more generally, comes in a huge variety of forms. They are not all alike, and direct comparison is often difficult. When choosing a cloud backup service, you will need to consider the requirements of your organisation (or personal needs), along with the specific nature of the services offered by the provider. What works for one business will not necessarily suit another. As an example, a small business that mainly uses Office to create and share documents can manage with a fairly straightforward solution that simply integrates with the cloud in real-time – as, in fact, Windows 8 and upwards do by default. At the other end of the scale, a large software development firm like a game maker will be dealing with extremely large files. A permanent connection to back these up would be slow and unwieldy, so bespoke systems that take deltas might make more sense, as well as on-site failsafes to ensure that data is never out of reach. A financial or legal firm will have high security requirements, and may be concerned about the vulnerabilities of the public cloud. Zero-knowledge solutions that use client-side encryption enable secure backup, such that data is never available in plain text, either in transit or in the cloud itself. These have other limitations, though, in the scope there is for sharing files and collaborating.

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4 Comments
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  • Michael
    March 10, 2016 at 12:37 pm

    I would of taken this article seriously if you didn’t have dropbox and symantec in the ‘enterprise’ cloud backup bit. I’ve worked for a cloud backup provider for over 10 years and this is misuse of trust.

  • Jack Naroth
    September 13, 2016 at 11:08 am

    good ratings, thanks!

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