Craving unlimited cloud storage? That all-you-can-eat buffet is shutting down

There used to be a bunch of vendors offering unlimited storage in the cloud. Not so much anymore. CrashPlan exited this space last week. What does this mean for the future of cloud storage? We take an in-depth look.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

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Unlimited. It's a word that appeals to buyers of services. Whether it's unlimited traffic from hosting providers, unlimited bits from smartphone carriers, or unlimited storage from backup providers, the idea of unlimited has great appeal, and has proven to be a useful marketing term.

From a marketer's perspective, the business model of unlimited tracks well with the business model for selling gym memberships: most purchasers will barely use the service. This allows marketers to promise a lot, deliver relatively little, share expensive resources among a wider range of customers, and hopefully make some money.

Cloud storage was once a tough sell. At first, people didn't understand it. Then, they didn't entirely trust it. Dropbox broke open the cloud sync market by helping consumers understand the idea of an everywhere-accessible folder.

Backups also proved to be a relatively understandable sell. Rather than having to copy files to disks, burn DVDs, or cart hard drives to and from bank vaults, backups would automatically go to the cloud. It was a set-it-and-forget-it solution that also eliminated an annoying, and often forgotten, chore.

A number of companies competed in this space: Mozy, Carbonite, CrashPlan, Backblaze, and many others. They had compelling offers. For around five bucks a month, they'd just back up everything from your computer.

This was big. You have to remember that a mere few years before, we were paying a hundred bucks or more, just for a good backup software application. Now, the backup application and the destination were sold together, and the package was less expensive. It was a win-win for everyone.

Over time, the plans started to get complex. There were family plans that would backup all the computers in a household. There were business plans. There were pro plans. The hallmark, though, was that the consumer plans were generally unlimited. You could back up as much as you wanted to.

If you recall, this was also the idea with some of the sync services. Microsoft, at one point, offered an unlimited storage plan for OneDrive. Until it cancelled it. Amazon, at one point, offered an unlimited storage plan with Amazon Drive. Until it cancelled it.

Mozy offered an unlimited backup plan. It was one of the early exits, cancelling its all-you-can-eat buffet as early as 2011.

I was once a Mozy customer, but when I actually needed to restore from a backup, I discovered that most of my data was missing from Mozy's archives. That was seven years ago, and as it told me in 2012, it has made substantial improvements since.

CrashPlan offered one of the best unlimited plans. Not anymore.

I have a lot of experience with CrashPlan. After the Mozy experience, I moved my backups to CrashPlan. For many years, CrashPlan was my go-to provider for this sort of solution. I had a family plan. All of my machines backed up to it. I paid something like $150 per year, and backups generally worked. It even versioned, so for a while, I had every version of every file backed up.

About five years ago, I wrote an article in this column describing how CrashPlan saved my bacon. But, as Q once told Jean-Luc Picard, "All good things must come to an end."

For me, the beginning of the end was last year. Many of the old computers for which I had archives stored on CrashPlan suddenly dropped off my weekly backup list. CrashPlan changed its program from backups of pretty much everything, to storing backups only for computers that regularly connected into the service. I made a big fuss about it, which resulted in another article here on DIY-IT.

I did recover my data, but it changed how I felt about CrashPlan. What I had once trusted to be a solid, go-to service was suddenly suspect. I started looking around for other solutions. About six months ago, I noticed that upload speed into CrashPlan had slowed to a dribble. At that point, I decided it was time to turn off my auto-renew option for the service, which I had purchased through August.

Last week, it all became clear. CrashPlan was getting out of the unlimited backup business. It announced it last Monday and -- who knew that many people used CrashPlan? -- the internet erupted.

CrashPlan was good. Yes, it had quirks, like its weird Java client. But it was good. It solved a problem. It was reasonably priced. It was a win.

But here's the thing: It also has to be a win for the company. As is becoming clear with all these unlimited plan exits, the unlimited model does not appear to actually be sustainable for many of these companies.

I think I know why. Or, to be more accurate, I think I know why these plans were profitable to provide in 2007 but not in 2017. In a word: Video. We are a much more video-centric user base than we were back in 2007. YouTube was just getting started. Online video was pretty low-res.

But, today, our iPhones capture 4K video. We capture a lot of it. Many of us also produce it, manipulate it, and edit it. I'll bet there are vastly more people using video-editing programs like Final Cut than using page layout programs like InDesign.

Each of my little 7-minute YouTube videos are consuming 300-500GB in storage, and I produce a couple a month. All that needs to be backed up.

Carbonite is the service that the folks at CrashPlan are now recommending for consumer plans. Carbonite's base plan is notable because it does not back up video files. It does offer three tiers of unlimited backup plans. The ones that back up video are priced at a premium.

I'll say a few things about CrashPlan before I move on to some final thoughts. I was very hard on the company when it changed its policy on archived computer backups. But this time, the company was very clear about its change, took the rage hits for it, and gave consumers plenty of warning.

Yes, it sucks that such a cool service is going away. But CrashPlan does offer a business plan, and it will migrate backups into that plan. Unfortunately, the business plan is not unlimited, and it's more expensive, but it's there.

UPDATE: I got part of that last bit wrong. A rep from the company reached out and told me:

I wanted to clarify that CrashPlan for Small Business does offer unlimited storage to users - there's just a 5 TB limit on migrating an archive from CrashPlan for Home due to some technical platform constraints. Once users are on that platform though, there's no cap on the archive size. Same goes for new CrashPlan for Small Business customers. No storage size limits, bandwidth caps or file-type restrictions.

The company gave consumers more than a year to migrate off the service. It's also providing a good discount on the business plan, if only for a year. Unfortunately, while it recommends Carbonite as an alternative provider, there's no migration available for that.

Is unlimited dead?

So, are there any unlimited backup providers still in operation? Backblaze and Carbonite come to mind. Both offer unlimited backups from a given PC or Mac. Unfortunately, neither offers an unlimited program for NAS backups. If you're backing up a NAS, you're going to pay by the amount of storage you use.

More great project ideas

The surviving unlimited plans of Carbonite and Backblaze are more limited than what I had with CrashPlan, but it's something. To be honest, I'm not sure how long those unlimited plans will survive.

I reached out to both of those companies with that concern. I had a very enjoyable back-and-forth email conversation with Gleb Budman, Backblaze's CEO and founder. I asked him, "Are you just the last stubborn player that hasn't fallen to an unsustainable business model, or is there something about your architecture that bigger competitors can't match?"

Here's what he said:

We bootstrapped for 5 years and only raised $5m in 2012, then no money since. We never had deep VC pockets to burn cash. If we were unsustainable, we would have gone out of business 9 years ago.

Backblaze has spent a decade building the lowest-cost cloud storage infrastructure. The combination of our Storage Pod servers, Vault software, and cost-efficient focused culture enabled us to build storage that's 1/4th the price of Amazon/Google/Microsoft.

I asked a similar question to Norman Guadagno, SVP at Carbonite. He told me:

Carbonite is committed to its customers, no matter how complex their data protection requirements are. We work hard to ensure every customer, from the single consumer to a business buyer, can form a unique data protection strategy with Carbonite, without having to sacrifice value, quality or features.

At Carbonite, instead of focusing primarily on audience, we are focused on what our solutions do, and how they are purchased. Our investments in infrastructure, products features and capabilities allow this focus for the company and it ensures that we continue to build and advance our current solutions and that customers - of all needs - are delivered the best possible data protection services.

The fact is, you pays your money and you takes your choice. This is a big part of why I've put so much attention into the NAS review series I've been running. Cloud backup is just one part of a smart backup strategy. Having good quality local backups is essential, especially since there are only a few players still offering unlimited backups.

The fact is, as long as we keep using more data, we're going to need to pay to store it in the cloud. The days of all-you-can-eat are nearly gone. So, really, it's just "you pays your money."

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.


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