How CrashPlan cloud backup saved my bacon

How CrashPlan cloud backup saved my bacon

Summary: An entire folder of document scans -- over 600 individual documents -- was now empty. It hadn't been empty last week, but now, for reasons still to be definitively discovered, it was empty. Here's how we recovered it.


UPDATE: Clarification on the Drobo's role in the article.
UPDATE #2: Mozy on Mozy (at end of article)

In the interests of disclosure, I should admit that I haven't had bacon for something like a whole month. So sad. But had I had bacon, real bacon, crispy -- but not too crispy ... mmmm! -- CrashPlan would have saved it.

Instead, CrashPlan, which is a cloud-based backup service, helped my wife and me recover some very important family documents we lost to the weird whims of Windows.

Yesterday, while I was quietly drinking my second cup of coffee and internally whining about the complete lack of bacon within my reach, I suddenly heard what Spider Robinson calls a "scroan" -- half screech and half groan -- coming from my wife.

"Oh, no!"

It turns out that an entire folder of document scans -- over 600 individual documents -- was now empty. We've been serious about becoming a paperless home office, and my wife scans almost every important piece of paper that comes across our desks before shredding and recycling. The folder of scanned documents hadn't been empty last week, but for reasons still to be definitively discovered, it was empty yesterday morning.

The folder was a network share, so if the files had been accidentally deleted, they wouldn't be in the trash (this is a terrible failing of Windows, frankly). She was also missing a pile of desktop icons (no, "Hide desktop icons" wasn't turned on). Weirdly enough, the folder containing the missing files was the only desktop icon that hadn't vanished.

Detailed investigation didn't turn up even a single sign of virus, and many other probable scenarios that would explain the cause were also eventually ruled out. The closest theory we have now is that she'd been trying out a bunch of different, low-budget Bluetooth headphones (and their associated questionable drivers), and something conflicted with something else and ... boom! I know this makes no sense, but neither does any other theory we've come up with.

Anyway, although the cause is important (and I hope we figure it out before it drives us crazy), this is a parable about the importance of backups. I generally have a two stage backup for live data. First, every morning, I have a script that automatically syncs the contents of all our critical folders using SyncBack Pro to the Drobo.

The thing is, to avoid exceeding the Drobo's limited capacity, I have SyncBack set up to remove deleted files from the Drobo if they're not on the original machine and haven't been modified within a week.

So, when I went to the Drobo to recover the missing document scans, they weren't there. The files vanished slightly over a week ago, and we just discovered they were gone yesterday.

UPDATE: Just to be clear, the Drobo did exactly what it was supposed to do and didn't fail us at all. It had backups of the data I put on it. The gotcha was in order to manage space allocation, files deleted from the source drive eventually get deleted off the Drobo as well. Because a week had passed, the procedure I use had deleted those files. I'm actually quite happy with my Drobo. I've pulled data off of it a few times, and it's behaved exactly as it's supposed to do. But there's a difference between a local backup device with four 1-terabyte drives and a cloud backup service with theoretically unlimited storage.

This is why I employ multiple backup methodologies. I also subscribe to the CrashPlan family plan. For about a hundred bucks a year, I can backup all my computers on the network to CrashPlan's servers, with updated backups every fifteen minutes or so.

Now, you might think that if the files were deleted from our network share a week ago, they'd also be missing off the CrashPlan servers. But you'd be wrong, and this is how CrashPlan saved our bacon.

CrashPlan keeps snapshots, for which you can set the granularity. I found that it had kept daily snapshots going back 90 days, weekly snapshots going back a year, and monthly snapshots going back about the 30 months or so since I started using the service.

So I logged into the CrashPlan application, set the recovery date to August 23, looked for the folder, and voila! All 657 files were there, safe, sound, and snug. Five minutes later, I had them downloaded to my machine and another five minutes after that, they were on my network share, back where they belonged.

I want to compare that with my last experience of Mozy. To be fair to Mozy, I haven't used their service since I started with CrashPlan, and they may have improved things. You folks reading can let me know. (UPDATE: See Mozy's invited response, at the end of this article)

But there were two key reasons I dumped Mozy and moved to CrashPlan. First, it would take literally hours to generate a list of what was stored on Mozy's servers, before even attempting to do a restore. Then, once I did a restore for an earlier crash, and I found that Mozy didn't properly back everything up. Worse, there were gaps in the data I'd tried to recover.

By contrast, everything came back in perfect, original condition using CrashPlan.

About a month ago, I'd paid for another year of CrashPlan's service and this experience definitely showed how worthwhile that expense was. We now store a few terabytes of data on CrashPlan (probably a lot more since they have all those historical snapshots), and the recovery was essentially painless.

Even though this experience worked out well, one of my two backup tiers failed. I don't like that. I'm going to add another tier, which is an unused older server I have parked in a back closet. I'm going to power that thing up once a month, do a full backup, and power down. That way, I'll have another snapshot older than the one on the Drobo, just in case.

The moral of this story is that failures do happen and you should backup. But even if you do backup, your backup may fail. Good practice is to layer your backups so that if one fails (as mine did), a second or third tier will be around to save your bacon.

More disclosure: An older version of SyncBack Pro was provided to me a few years ago for my article in Computing Unplugged. I honestly can't recall if Mozy was a provided review product or not. I pay for CrashPlan personally, and I personally purchased the Drobo and its drives.

Mozy on Mozy: If I discuss a vendor's product, I always encourage them to respond if they feel so moved. The following is Mozy's response to my discussion about my experiences with their service a few years ago:

Dave, Since you last used Mozy in 2009 we have made many significant updates. We have completely overhauled Web Access with several major updates. Our North American customer support is 100% U.S.-based. We introduced mobile apps for Android and iOS. And Mozy also has a file synchronization feature called Stash. We'd encourage you to take another look at Mozy. We're much more than just an online backup company now, and we get high marks on these changes from our millions of customers. -- Ted Haeger, Product Manager, Mozy

Awesome! I love it when vendors continue to improve their products and encourage you to give Mozy a try. If any readers have used the service more recently, please share your experiences below.


Topics: SMBs, Security, Servers, Windows


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • Probably a bluetooth OOPS

    It can be easy to do a “send” of documents to Bluetooth and if the device is a headset it can be gone. We are integrating all email, phone, voice, and instant messaging into our mail back end server array. We have seen issues with the default settings for some doing a “save” to the Bluetooth wireless headsets we use.

    My bet is you somehow did a “save” or a “Print” and did it to the default Bluetooth device and it was gone.
    Rick Allen
  • I have a 2GB HDD

    Attached to my WiFi router, I create a "Disk Image" monthly, and save it to one partition, the Other partition is used for incremental backups. I'm looking to get a second stand alone drive, just as a CYA backup.
    Troll Hunter J
    • Great plan

      This is a great backup plan because if your hard drive fails then you loose everything. thumbs up to you.
  • My setup

    I have a Windows Home Server in the basement with many terabytes of pooled space. I save all important files to the network (our "paperless" scans). Nightly backups of computers via WHS backup.

    On WHS, I have hardware redundancy, so if a hard drive fails, WHS should automatically failover with no files lost. I also use Crashplan on the WHS as an extra layer of off-site backup (It works fine)- I went with the 3 year plan to save money. Crashplan is a great value compared to other solutions and I've had no issues.

    Finally, dropbox on my local drive is also an important part of the backup program - I keep active files in Dropbox. So, if a hard drive fails, I restore the disk image from WHS, then dropbox syncs to get me back up to speed.

    Unfortunately, our "bacon" is at risk due to the nature of computers. Best to plan ahead - it's well worth it!

    Hope that helps someone.
    John Garay
  • my backup

    I'm looking at crashplan as a 2nd option.

    I run full backups of acronis to portable hdd. But been looking at crashplan as an off site solution.

    So far I've had to use acronis once with a hdd fail. If your hdd are big enough you can turn on system restore and it will do daily snapshots. However I find windows built in solutions not as good as 3rd party
  • you have a backup system...

    ...that deletes files if you lose them? Isn't that sort of what a backup is supposed to prevent?
  • lessons I'm trying to glean

    Probably the biggest lesson here is the risk of 'sync' style backups. I certainly get that this can save disk space. But it's not really a secure backup method. Anything that mirrors or syncs your deletes is never going to be foolproof. Unfortunately a lot of people use these services like Dropbox or Google Drive or Ubuntu One as backups, whereas they are really just conveniences to mirror your data to the cloud.

    The folder you are talking about sounds like a good candidate for a manual copy once in a while. This is one way I did incremetal backups for years. Purely manual. Automated methods are okay, but how often do you check if they are really doing what they are supposed to do? Probably only once you've lost something.

    My current methods: Crashplan - yes, I subscribed to this a few months ago. Very reasonable prices and unlimited space. So far so good. 2nd, every 6 months when I update Ubuntu, I CLONE my entire 1TB HDD system, data and all, and put one copy in a different building. If my system drive fails or is destroyed, I simply plug in the old one and at least have a computer ready to go, if a bit out of date. Next, I have directories I work on currently, mirrored with Ubuntu One and Google Drive to the cloud and to a 2nd local machine. For certain projects I also have USB HDD's I can copy project folders over to manually at certain points.

    It certainly pays to be a bit paranoid. There's no foolproof backup method and they all have risks. You've got to have different methods, different locations. Distrust automated systems - check up on them. And don't forget the old manual copy method when it makes sense.
  • Cloud?

    That might be great for your business, but I have a few issues. I once priced out a service to back up everything to a cloud but there would be several things here. $0.50 per gigabyte per month and we would need grandfather, father, son backups going back at least 3 months. So, lets, see, 10-20 Terrabytes, times 3 months...

    The other thing is that some of what we have is regulated data. Medical records? Nope. No cloud for that. HIPAA rules say so. How about what most of our stuff is: criminal justice data. Is the public cloud CJIS-compatible? No? Oh, well. How about credit card and bank account data? I guess not. Fortunately, we have a lot of disk arrays for our production environments and tape drives for everything else.
  • Freenas here

    Freenas, ZFS Raidz 5 disk..

    Use it for my windows & system backups plus time machine.. Works like a charm..
    Anthony E
  • Muti-tier backup

    There are some great options for backup and recovery we have today. I use a multi-tier backup strategy of on-site, off-site, and cloud. My current strategy is using CrashPlan as a subscription along with my Windows Home Server with mirrored storage pools and dedicated drives for backup's of backup's

    All my workstations are backed up to WHS with it's native backup capability. None of the workstations are using local storage for files. This is managed via libraries that are pointing to server shares. Again the storage on the server is in a large pool and mirrored. WHS workstation images are backup to a local external HD.

    Using CrashPlan a copy of important files is also sent to one of my relatives house that has a CrashPlan running to a external HD for my most important files and then a full copy of my server files are sent to CrashPlan's central store.
  • Offsite is Important

    I wrote a blog post on back up. Crashplan rocks!
  • convoluted cluster f#$k, lol

    Rather then going though all the crap ya just went through. All you had to do was buy a few licenses of Genie Timeline ;) Install on each machine and have it backup to you NAS and then you CrashPlan to manage you cloud backups.
    Jared Tarbox
  • DO NOT USE CRASHPLAN - worst ever

    Support, when contacting you, takes forever to solve an issue, if at all

    Really, really, really hard to get data off of their app when they do have it

    Hard to search for data / file names.

    So many other issues I can't even remember. Been a SAGA with these people.