“My wife’s computer crashed first,” lamented Francis Wade. Then his followed a few weeks later, as if part of some malicious digital conspiracy.
“God knows what happened to it. Windows started to misbehave. I couldn’t get into anything. It got progressively slower and slower.” It was so slow he couldn’t even make a backup.
Fortunately, everything worked out as well as it could for both of them after Mr. Wade, a business consultant, reinstalled a clean version of Windows and restored his and his wife’s personal files with Mozy, an online backup service that maintains a copy of all of the files in a distant electronic bunker.
Online backup services are proliferating as users are discovering that it can cost less than a fancy cup of coffee to keep a second or third copy of your working data. The number of good services is expanding rapidly and the marketplace is splitting into niches as the companies develop features for businesses and home users. Further good news: prices are dropping and options are multiplying.
The idea is simple. The user installs some software, chooses a schedule and then makes sure the computer can connect to the Internet at the right time. The software uploads only new files and any modifications made since the last backup session. In some cases, it even acts as an archive and stores former versions in case they’re needed later.
As long as your credit card keeps working, there’s no need to think about the backups unless disaster strikes. The credit card isn’t even a strict requirement because some services like idrive.com, eSureIt and box.net offer free accounts with smaller size limits to attract customers.
Much of the competition revolves around the amount of data and the price. Companies like Mozy and Carbonite offer an unlimited amount of backup space for a fixed price, currently $4.95 a month or $50 a year. Competitors snipe at these grand, all-you-can-eat offers, whispering that the services use slow Internet connections to prevent people from taking advantage of all of this space. This accusation is impossible to verify but it may not matter because most home users have connections that make it practically impossible to upload more than several gigabytes a day.
These services are ideal for backing up e-mail, text documents and other ephemera that takes up several gigabytes at most. Big video files are better saved with local hardware like an external hard disk drive.
Other services offer defined limits and charge for extra storage. IDrive Pro offers up 150 gigabytes of space for $49.50 a year (or $4.95 a month). Either way, that’s around 3 cents a gigabyte each month.
While keeping a duplicate set of files sounds simple, backup companies are becoming remarkably adept at identifying different needs and addressing them with more sophisticated features. The marketplace is fragmenting as some services target the home user while some aim at businesses large and small. Some are even partnering with hardware manufacturers to offer the backup as part of the hardware.
“We really designed our product for a company with 75 employees and two or three servers,” said Eric Webster, the sales director of Intronis. The product, eSureIt Business, keeps track of individual employees’ computers and sends only one bill. The corporate version, unlike the simpler eSureIt Home, also has special routines for backing up the databases and e-mail servers that businesses often use; these routines can make intelligent decisions about the type of data being stored.
“If the compliance department says seven years of e-mails and three days of spreadsheets, you can specify complex rules,” Mr. Webster said. This means that the backups can act like an archive. Also, messages and files can be recovered.
There are nuances here too. Raghu Kulkarni, the president of Pro Softnet Corporation, says his packages offer true archiving. Competing products, he contends, mirror the backed-up computer and remove a file from the archives soon after the user deletes it. His packages, iBackup.com for businesses and iDrive.com for home users, keep copies of everything ever saved, giving the user a custom archive.
The services are also experimenting with offering different layers of security. Users who want complete privacy can choose to encrypt their data on their own computer before uploading it to the backup servers. The password is stored locally, and the services can’t help recover any of the data if you forget the password.
Intronis, for instance, has never received a subpoena for stored data and couldn’t provide the information even if it did. “We don’t consider ourselves as having access to customer’s data. It’s not even a thought,” said Mr. Webster.
Some companies are not following this path for their data because they want to offer more services. Box.net, for instance, allows a user to view and edit documents from a Web browser, a feature that’s often useful while traveling. The data can also be shared with a group and everyone can make changes as they collaborate on the document. Encrypting the data would make this impossible.
Aaron Levie, the chief of Box.net, said that his company concentrated on protecting the data while it was being transmitted. “We rely on multiple layers of security on our network,” he said.
There are even nuances about how and where the data is stored. Intronis, for instance, stores copies of the encrypted data in two places, Toronto and New Jersey. IDrive.com and its corporate cousin iBackup.com use slightly different solutions. Two copies of the iDrive data live on distinct servers, but both are in the same data center. The two copies from iBackup, though, are split between two of the company’s four centers in Northern California and Southern California.
Backing up the data in a different region is especially attractive to anyone who lives where storms, fire or worse could devastate large areas. For example, Mr. Wade said, “I live in Kingston, Jamaica. We have hurricanes coming in every year or so. Backing it up here in Jamaica doesn’t make sense. I need to back up in Iowa or wherever Mozy has its server. A hurricane could come through and tear up the place.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: October 29, 2008
The Basics column in the Circuits pages on Thursday, about ways to back up computer data automatically online, misidentified the chief executive of Intronis, a company that markets one such backup system. The post is held by Sam Gutmann, who also co-founded the company not by Eric Webster, who is the company’s sales director.