Geek’s quest for perfect backup system continues

A few months ago I wrote about online backups. I need to revisit the subject with more information – and more frustration.

Backups have always been a problem, and I’ve never found an ideal system; as I wrote months ago, for instance, the once-popular tape-backup systems were notoriously unreliable.

I currently use four backup systems. Yes, I know, that sounds compulsive, but let me explain why. First, I have an HP Windows Home Server as the core of my home network. I store data on the WHS that I need to share with my assistant so we can both access important data from the WHS while away from home and all the computers in the house can automatically back up to the server.

Well, they back up in theory, but that hasn’t worked properly for months, and HP’s tech-support staff is unable to explain why. I think I know how I can get it working, and will probably do so soon, though I haven’t felt any great urgency because I’m also using two online backup systems.

Two systems are better than one

Yes, two online systems: iDrive and SugarSync. Until recently I used iDrive and Carbonite, but I stopped using Carbonite because it periodically stops working without informing me. It should send a message, but it doesn’t. I have to notice that the Carbonite icon in the Windows taskbar tray has turned red, so sometimes it goes for days without working. Again, Carbonite’s staff were unable to explain why, so I moved on.

Coincidentally, at the time I experienced these problems, I discovered SugarSync, a very easy to use system. So now I’m using both SugarSync and iDrive. My theory is that none of these online-backup systems is 100 percent reliable, so if I run a couple of systems that are, say, 90 percent reliable, then I’m pretty well covered.

While SugarSync seems to work well, one thing really offends me. The company describes the service thusly: “SugarSync goes where ordinary online backup doesn’t – backing up your files, photos and more in real-time without any manual effort. Guarded with industrial-strength security and encrypted network connections, your data was never so safe.”

But there’s something critical they don’t mention. If you use Microsoft Outlook, your e-mail is not being backed up, because SugarSync doesn’t back up Outlook .pst files. And if you have some kind of data program that you keep running all the time – such as a contact management program like ACT! – your important data is not being backed up, because SugarSync doesn’t back up open files.

This strikes me as incredibly dishonest, and one more example of why you can’t trust these online-backup systems. How many SugarSync clients don’t realize that some of their most important information isn’t being backed up? Why would they even take this kind of risk, promising more than they are delivering?

Still, now that I know the limitations, I’m happy to use SugarSync. SugarSync does real-time backups, copying (most of) my files as I work, and even keeping several versions. Then, at 1 a.m. each day, iDrive does a backup, including my Outlook and ACT files.

Finally, add a hard drive

Finally, one more system. I’ve been using Rebit, an external USB hard drive that backs up my data continually. It’s a very simple system to use: Plug it in, click a couple of introductory screens and the system begins working.

Now, why would I want both online backup and a hard-drive backup? There are two purposes to a backup. First, you want to retrieve an individual file, or group of files, that you’ve lost or damaged. Online backups are good for that (assuming they’re backing up your files properly!). But what if you have a total system disaster? Say, your hard drive dies, or your house burns down, or your laptop crashes completely?

Ideally you don’t want just a bunch of files, you want an actual “mirror” of your drive, so you can copy a “picture” of all your original program files, system files, settings and so on, onto a new hard drive and get back to work right away. That’s what Rebit gives you, allowing you to recover from hardware disaster quickly.

How’s Rebit going? It really is “set and forget.” I’ve checked the backups, and it does seem to be backing up my files correctly. However, there’s one problem. I have a very unusual setup on my machine; I repointed my Windows Documents folder to a different location. (Why? Long story, but I’ve been storing data in a particular folder on my computers longer than Windows has *had* a Documents folder.)

Unfortunately Rebit doesn’t handle this situation correctly on Windows Vista, so I’m not sure what would happen if I had to do a full mirror restore (I can restore individual files, though). I’ve spoken with Rebit’s staff about this, so they should have a fix at some point, but to be fair, it’s a very unusual situation that simply doesn’t affect most people.

So, my backup quest continues. I haven’t found the perfect backup system yet, but I’m getting closer day by day, layer by layer.

Peter Kent is an e-commerce consultant in Denver. He can be reached at www.PeterKentConsulting.com or GeekNews@PeterKentConsulting.com.