CrashPlan Central Review - The Perfect Online Backup Solution?

Many of you read about my poor experience with the Carbonite online backup service. After that experience I was ready to throw in the towel on online backup and not think about it until the market got a little more mature. This plan was cut short when my already favorite home backup solution CrashPlan lowered their online CrashPlan Central prices and made all of their plans unlimited. What might have been $169.42 a year limited to 200GB could now be as low as $41.64 a year (3 year plan) for unlimited storage as well as introducing a new family plan for $60 a year (3 year plan) that will cover all the computers in your house. At these prices I had to give them a try and see if they were the solution I had long been looking for.

About CrashPlan

multiple-destinationsCrashPlan from Code 42 software is an always on backup solution that runs in the background either backing up according to a schedule you set or continuously if you have CrashPlan+. It can backup over your home network to another computer in your house, to an external hard drive like Apple’s Time Machine does or even to a friends computer over the Internet and is a free download for personal use (They have a Pro version for business).

I started using CrashPlan in 2007 and upgraded to CrashPlan+ in Feb. of 2008. Since then I’ve used CrashPlan to backup my laptop to my home server (a trusty Dell server with a 4TB RAID 5 array). I had carefully configured an opening in my home firewall as well which meant that even when I was in the office or on the road my laptop was backing up to my home server.

This was a near perfect solution for me. The CrashPlan client was easy to use, unobtrusive, straight forward in letting you choose what was being backed up with no hidden limitations (unlike what I discovered when using Carbonite). But all this time I had a gap in my backup strategy, what about my home server? With everything I had being backed up to my home server I wanted to make sure my home server was backed up offsite in case of fire or theft. Enter CrashPlan Central.

About CrashPlan Central

CrashPlan Central provides CrashPlan users a convenient option to backup their files online and they offer a free 30 day trial. It’s clear that the CrashPlan team takes pride in their datacenter which is where your data ultimately ends up with full details available on their site. While some of these details are clearly more than the average home user might need I find it very refreshing that they are so upfront in describing where and how your data will be stored. A lot of online backup companies seem to go out of their way to not tell you where your data will live and take a “just trust us” attitude when it comes to your data. The only company that comes close to this level of transparency is BackBlaze which is also upfront in describing where and how your data is stored including an interesting overview of the hardware BackBlaze uses.

Going beyond their physical datacenter, CrashPlan Central also has some of the best data encryption options available. With three options you can choose to secure your private key with your account password, a specific password you choose or even replace your private key with one of your own. The easiest option is to just use your account password but keep in mind that this means that your private key is stored at CrashPlan. While you might trust them, if they were ever subpoenaed they may be required to hand over your data and private key. Choosing a private password is the best option to keeping your data and your private key private. Just don’t forget that password! If you loose it, you loose your data and the folks at CrashPlan have no way to recover it for you.

CrashPlan Central also offers online web access to your backed up files which is useful in a pinch although I found it easier to just install the CrashPlan client and restore files that way.

With regard to pricing, CrashPlan is a few dollars less than Carbonite or Mozy when comparing single computer costs. If however you choose a multi-year plan or the family plan option the cost savings are pretty significant. CrashPlan has a price comparison tool that when I checked it looked pretty accurate.

Evaluating CrashPlan Central

I started my evaluation of CrashPlan Central at 10 PM on August 27th, here are the details of my evaluation environment:

Hardware: Dual Core 3GHz Intel Pentium D with 8GB of RAM
OS: Windows Server 2008 64-bit
Backup Set: 133.3 GB (Various files including, pictures, MP3’s, ISO images and Movies)

I also have a Laptop running Windows 7 beta (which seems to run CrashPlan fine) and a Intel iMac running Mac OS 10.6 (just upgraded). Both are running CrashPlan to backup to my home server. I also have one friend who backs up to my system remotely. All of this backup activity is centered around my home server which is the same system I used to test CrashPlan Central with making it a pretty good stress test for anyone. My home network is a mix of WiFi (802.11 n/g) and Gigabit Ethernet. Ultimately I have about 2.5 TB of data I plan to backup but I wanted to start with a smaller set to experiment with.

Thankfully I have a pretty fast Internet connection but as I found with Carbonite the speed of your own connection is not all that matters. If your online backup provider chooses to throttle your connection like Carbonite and Mozy do then you are not going to get the full value of your fast Internet connection.

I configured CrashPlan to use up to 100% of my CPU when I was away and 20% when I was using my computer and left it running almost 100% of the time during my evaluation. Here is an overview of the activity I documented during my test:

Date/Time GB Completed
Aug. 27th 0
Aug. 28th 9.8 GB
Aug. 29th 20.1 GB
Aug. 30th 30 GB
Aug. 31st 44.8 GB
Sept. 1st - not recorded -
Sept. 2nd - not recorded -
Sept. 3rd 85.3 GB
Sept. 4th - not recorded -
Sept. 5th 133.3 GB DONE!

That’s right, in 10 days I backed up 133.3 GB or an average of about 14.9 GB a day! This is the same set of data that never finished backing up in the several months I had a Carbonite license. The entire time I watched my backup for any signs that CrashPlan was throttling my upload speed and could find none. I double checked to make sure that all of my files, no matter what the file type, were being backed up and could find no discrepancies. CrashPlan Central appeared to be extremely fast and accurate. Throughout the backup I continued to use my computer daily, as I normally would using programs like Word, Excel, Photoshop, Google Chrome, Firefox, Picasa, iTunes, Dreamweaver and even Intellij IDEA 8 to do some Grails development. My computer usage was not light.

The performance of CrashPlan Central, even while still heavily using my computer, appeared to be simply amazing and just as important not disruptive to whatever it was I was working on at the time.

The truth is however that my backup time could have been even faster had it not been for a few issues I encountered while testing CrashPlan.

Issues Encountered During the Evaluation

Tthere were a few hiccups during the evaluation that are worth mentioning. Before I decided to try CrashPlan Central I had already been backing up to a friends computer who was also running CrashPlan. When I added CrashPlan Central as a destination it added it to my list of backup destinations (CrashPlan supports multiple backup destinations). At first this didn’t seem to be an issue but when I started to backup extremely large files (one file was over 4GB) my backup ground to a halt.

I wrote to CrashPlan’s support team and in about 24 hours I received the following response from Renee:

"CrashPlan prioritizes destinations based on which destination will finish first. Say you're backing up to both CrashPlan Central and a local hard drive. CrashPlan is smart enough to know that it will finish backing up to your local hard drive sooner than it will finish backing up to Central, so it will complete backup to the hard drive (assuming the drive is connected, mounted, etc.), then it will switch to backing up to Central."

What this meant was because I was constantly producing files that needed to be backed up CrashPlan was delaying every 15 minute my backup to Central so it could back up to my friends computer. It could never finish that 4GB file in 15 minutes so it kept on restarting. Once I understood this behavior I configured CrashPlan to only backup changed files after 2 hours and my backup was flying along again.

The other issue I encountered during the evaluation was with the “analyzing” phase. If you should ever interrupt your backup while it’s backing up a file it will pick up where it left off. However before it does is must first analyze the file to check for changes before it resumes. If this file is particularly large this analysis can be extremely CPU intensive and does not obey the CPU limits in the settings. Indeed this was my first indication that something was wrong with my backup when my CPU would go to 100% for 15 minutes every 15 minutes.

Missing Features

While CrashPlan Central really did impress me there is always room for a few improvements, here is what I would change or add to CrashPlan given the chance:

  1. Better handling of large files when using multiple destinations.
    • If CrashPlan always finished the current file it was working on before pausing one destination for another there would be less issues for users with multiple destinations.
  2. The ability to manage and have different backup selections by destination.
    • My friends are generous, but not 2.5 TB generous. If I’m going to want to back up my entire system I’m going to have to stop backing up to them before I enlarge my backup set since you can only have one backup file selection for all your destinations.
  3. Application profiles.
    • For the advanced user this isn’t really important but for home users it’s getting increasingly hard to keep track of where the applications you use keep their settings. For example being able to easily backup your web browser settings and bookmarks as well as easily restoring them without accidentally also backing up your cache files would be nice addition. I plan on describing how to optimize CrashPlan settings and backup file selections in a future article for those looking for some advice.
  4. Better online web access to files.
    • CrashPlan does provide simple web access to your files but it’s pretty basic. A more functional online system for accessing your files with the ability to browse through their contents before downloading them or the ability to package up a set of files and download them as a single zip would transform their online web access from simple a tool you use in a pinch to one you might use everyday to get to your files when you are working remotely. Perhaps borrow a few features from the excellent folder synchronization tool, DropBox.

Product Support

While I had a few issues and questions during my evaluation it gave me a chance to interact with the CrashPlan support team. I generally got a response in about 2 to 3 days, the responses were always from the same person (Renee) who I started speaking with at the start. Her responses were never canned and always helpful. Most importantly they also generally resolved my problem or answered my question. While I would have liked a faster response to my questions this was another huge difference from my experience with Carbonite support. CrashPlan also has a pretty comprehensive set of online support options including a wiki and support forums.

Final Verdict

Before I finished this article I decided to purchase a CrashPlan Central 3 year family plan. The price, performance and ease of use just can’t be beat. Comparing my CrashPlan experience with my experience using Carbonite has been like night and day, CrashPlan Central is what online backup was meant to be – fast, trustworthy and unobtrusive.

Thumbs UpIf you had been waiting on the sidelines like I had looking for the right online backup solution, look no further than CrashPlan. With it’s ability to backup to just about any destination you choose it’s already one of the most flexible backup solutions available. Add online backup using CrashPlan Central backed by what seems like an fun and honest company and you have all your bases covered at a cost that won’t break the bank.

Click here to download CrashPlan