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Carbonite Review: What’s your digital life worth?

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I’ve been doing local backups of my desktop operating system and personal files for years.  I just use windows image backup and windows file backup.  It works good enough and it’s built into Windows.  Of course the backup goes to a second drive.

The second drive is generally another internal drive to the desktop or an external drive.  Best bang for the buck is a Fantom external drive that has both a USB and eSATA interface.  The eSATA interface lets you connect the Fantom external drive to an existing SATA connector on the motherboard.  This happens via a passive SATA connector that can be routed to the back of the desktop.  Some laptops have a eSATA connector.

So the problem is all these backups are in your house.

My really important stuff goes on a DVD and in a safe deposit box.

Well, there has to be a better way.

Keeping your data safe from local natural and un/natural disasters

I finally got a cloud-based backup solution – Carbonite

Here are a few observations on Carbonite for those considering a cloud-based backup solution.

  1. It’s inexpensive and worth the price.  I opted for the Home Plus subscription for $89/year.  For this price you get unlimited space, the ability to backup an external drive, and drive mirroring.  This is really more than a home user really needs.  The Home plan at $59 should be sufficient for most people.
  2. It knows what to backup.  Carbonite is for backing up your personal files.  If you let it choose, it generally picks the right things to backup.  Carbonite clearly marks folders that it is going to backup.  You have the choice to add or remove folders for backup through an extension to the right-click context menu in windows file explorer. So, by default, it backs up my downloads folder.  For me, this is just a temporary location.  So I removed it as a Carbonite backup target.
  3. It will backup new users as they are created.  I have a number of user accounts on my PC – some which I created after installing Carbonite.  Carbonite backs up new users without any intervention on your part.  (Suggestion for those who want to stay virus-free.  Create a non-privileged, non-administrator account on your PC and use that as your normal account.  Never login with Admin privileges.  Windows will not make system level changes unless you provide specific permission and supply the Admin password while logged in as a non-privileged user.)
  4. Carbonite  works in real-time in the background.  “Set it and forget it”
  5. Detailed information on backup progress.  The Carbonite Info Center desktop application clearly shows what is awaiting backup down to the file level and location.
  6. Use it in conjunction with Windows Image Backup.  Carbonite does not backup your OS.  This is best done with the standard Windows Image Backup that is included with most versions of windows.

Some finer points.

Carbonite does not maintain point-in-time backups.  On my Mac I use the built-in Time Machine backup which is included with Apple OSX.  Time Machine allows you to view your Mac at any point in the past.  So, if you deleted a file a month ago, that you created 3 months ago, that file is still available on Time Machine  (as long as you have enough space on your Time Machine drive).

Carbonite does not work like this.  If you delete a file on your PC and don’t grab it back from Carbonite’s servers in 30 days, it’s gone forever.

The idea is that you need to keep every file you want to save available on your PC in a place that Carbonite expects to backup.

So, the difference can be summed up by saying that Carbonite is not an archive facility.  And sometimes, this is what you want.  For example, you may have some music, documents, videos, photographs, books, etc that you really don’t need right now, so you “archive” them on DVD and put those in a safe place.  Placing these seldom used items on a DVD and removing them from your PC frees up space on your PC.

External Drives.  What was said above applies in an extreme way to an external drive.  Carbonite applies the same rules to external drives.  So, if you have Carbonite backup your external drive you need to keep that drive attached and running.  If you detach the drive for more than 30 days Carbonite will think you have deleted all those files. And, since Carbonite does not keep point-in-time backups, all your files on the external drive will be deleted on Carbonite’s servers.  Again, Carbonite is not for archiving files.

Security and file encryption.  Carbonite says that it encrypts files on your local machine before sending them over the Internet to Carbonite’s servers.  Carbonite says files are stored as encrypted on their servers. Carbonite does all the key management for you.  But, as the iPad app will demonstrate, that key is flying around so that files are viewable in many locations.  Don’t forget that human beings work in data centers and they have access to everything – despite corporate policy, controls, and audits.  There is an option in Carbonite to manage your own keys, but I would not recommend that.  A better option is to encrypt super-secret files yourself using something like AxCrypt and then let Carbonite back up the already encrypted file.

The really good stuff

There are few downsides as long as you clearly understand how Carbonite works.  There are some really nice features.

  1. Access to your files on the web.  Pretty straightforward.  Login to Carbonite on the web and you can access all your files
  2. Access to your files on iPad.  Install the free Carbonite app on your iPad and you can not only see the file names that are backed up but also view them.  The Carbonite iPad app has built-in viewers.  So, if you have some backed up EXCEL worksheets, no problem.  The Carbonite app can display them in all their workbook glory.  (See note above on file security and encryption)
  3. Free backup of your iPad videos and images.  How much better can it get?  The free Carbonite app for iPad will backup your videos and images on your iPad.  No limit.
  4. It all just works silently behind your back and in real-time.  If you have a really important file that you just created you can instruct Carbonite to back it up as soon as possible.  A series of colored dots always tells you the backup status of each file.

The Take

At the time of this writing a 1TB external drive costs about $89.  That money is better spent on a subscription to Carbonite.  Not only do you not have to deal with physical hardware you don’t have to worry about keeping that drive safe against natural (or unnatural) disasters.

Carbonite is “set it and forget it” plus file access from anywhere via web or tablet application.

The “unlimited” nature of Carbonite’s offering for less than $100 is generous.  So if you have multiple PC’s in the house then buy a subscription for each.  However, if you are on the frugal side, there is a way you can have Carbonite backup files from other PC’s via a Windows Homegroup or a traditional file share.

Carbonite is not archival storage.  But, it would be a useful additional optional service element for any cloud-based backup solution to add archival storage.  For example, maybe you have 5 years of historical tax returns or other historical financial information.  You need to retain these records for some period of time.  But, you don’t want it spinning around on your hard disk for security reasons.  So, a possible solution for this scenario would be for cloud-based backup solution providers, like Carbonite, to offer tiered storage.  Archival storage would cost less and be accessible within some period of time on request (maybe 24 hrs).  This would keep your historical data safe and not require it to be continually present on your local hard drive as is the requirement now with Carbonite.

Bottom line, archival storage aside, Carbonite is a “buy”.

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Written by frrl

March 10, 2013 at 12:48 am

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