I have much more information below, but if you just want to cut to the chase with some quick recommendations, both of these are worth a look:
The Challenge of Tech Support in a Home Office
There’s a lot to like about working from a home office, and it’s something I’ve been doing for years. But it also brings some challenges.
One of the most important is that there’s no tech support team just down the hall. You are basically your own IT rapid response team. So if your computer is acting up or if you’ve accidentally deleted a bunch of crucial files, it’s on you to solve it. What happens when your laptop dies? Because it’s a truism of tech products that it’s not if it fails, but when. And, chances are, it’ll be at the least convenient time possible.
That makes backing up your data all the more important. There’s a bunch of different ways to do that, but some are more practical than others. And by practical, I also mean reliable. It’s not practical to rely on a backup system that hinges on you remembering to manually start the process. It’s not practical to rely on a backup system that makes you pick and choose what to backup because storage space is limited. It’s not practical to rely on a backup system that makes you jump through too many hoops to get your data restored. And a backup system that isn’t reliable isn’t a backup system at all.
As a photographer, I have a lot of data to backup. My livelihood depends on having access to my archive of hundreds of thousands of photos. And that’s without all the usual files a small business generates–tax records, copies of contracts, model releases, insurance paperwork, and so on.
Over the years, I’ve tried several different backup systems, and the large amount of data I’m working with puts them through their paces. So I’ve had quite a bit of personal experience with managing my own home office backups.
A rule of thumb for the digital era has long been that you should have three copies of your data.
Those copies should also be on different media. And at least one should be in a different physical location (the “what happens if your house burns down?” test).
So an ideal setup would be a layered approach, something like:
- Your master copy on your computer.
- A backup copy on a local hard drive. Built-in services like Time Machine (Mac) or Backup (Windows) are good options for this, conveniently saving to an external hard drive. It’s a cheap and convenient first line of defense, and it’s the first thing I reach for if I need to recover a file.
- A backup copy in the Cloud. This is what I’m focusing on here. So that if your hardware fails, or if you’re out of the office, or if your house burns down or floods, your files are still safe.
Cloud Backup Services
Everyone has heard of The Cloud, but not everyone can really picture what it is. At its most fundamental level, the cloud is made up of computers that are somewhere else. Those are typically in large data centers that are scattered throughout the world. Because they involve massive amounts of funding, expertise, and resources, large corporations set them up to house rows and rows of computers and storage drives.1 Sometimes, they lease out some of the capacity from those data centers to third-party services and app makers.
So, yes, there’s no magic to the “The Cloud”–it’s just computers elsewhere that are interconnected and working together. But the dispersion and scale bring benefits. It means that data can be replicated in multiple places (known as redundancy), and it can be widely dispersed, so even regional issues like hurricanes and earthquakes can be weathered.
Different Types of Backup Services
There are different types of backup services. Here’s a quick rundown.
A very common type that’s often used in home office environments, and even corporate offices, consists of sync services like Dropbox, iCloud, or Google Drive. These are excellent places to start, and they’re very flexible–I use several of them for various functions. They allow things like being able to pick up where you left off on a document even if you move from your laptop to your phone and wherever you are in the world so long as you have an internet connection. They’re great for sharing files with colleagues or clients. And they’re usually very quick. In general, you designate a folder or folders where you’re saving your documents for the service to watch and automatically sync.
Because of their speed, these types of services are geared toward syncing and sharing data. And relatively small amounts of data, at that.2 They also excel at automatically backing up relatively small amounts of data very quickly and very effectively. In my humble opinion, everyone working from a home office should be using one of these as standard. Several of the services offer free plans that can be upgraded to enhanced paid plans with extra space and extra features.
Comprehensive Cloud Backup
While I consider sync services to be essential, my main focus here is on what I’ll call true backup services. These aren’t geared toward syncing files across devices or across locations. They’re designed to backup large amounts of data reliably. These are the types of backup services that can save your bacon when your computer dies.
And while you can certainly roll your own scheduling service and pair it with raw cloud storage, the ones I’m focusing on here are fully automatic and come with their own service that handles everything behind the scenes. In other words, they’re set-and-forget services. And they don’t involve any special tech skills to set up—it’s something you can quickly and easily do yourself.
These are general backup services that are simple, reliable, and cost-effective. These are a good first layer of cloud backup, and they’re great options for an off-site backup of your computer–not just your recent documents.
The first ones I’d say that are worth a look are Backblaze and Carbonite.3 I’ve tried a bunch of the different backup services in the past, and the one I’ve settled on and have become a long-time user of, is BackBlaze.
Backblaze offers an automated set-and-forget online backup service. For a flat-rate monthly fee of $7, it offers unlimited backup, unlimited restores, and is fully automated in backing up. And, as a long-time user, I’ve found it to be both fast and reliable.
Backblaze also includes fine-grained controls over what files get backed up, scheduling when they are backed up, and notifications.
And one of the great features of Backblaze is that you can backup external hard drives as part of the standard service–it’s not an optional extra, and it doesn’t add an extra fee. So long as those drives are connected to your system at least once every 30 days, they’ll be treated just like the rest of your storage. If you’re using something like a NAS, that’s a very useful feature. It supports USB, Firewire, and Thunderbolt external drives but not ethernet-connected network drives.
Restoring a smallish amount of data by downloading is convenient and quick. When you log in to your account online, you’re given a familiar file browser. You can browse for the files you need or search. You can also specify a timeframe within the past 30 days for when the files were backed up, which can come in very handy if you’ve accidentally overwritten files. Once you choose the files you want to restore, they’re zipped up, and you’re sent a direct link to download the zip file. There’s no specified maximum file size for download restoring, but the larger the restore size, the longer it takes in the queue. The largest I’ve done was about 60GB; it took about 24 hrs to be sent the download link. The download link for smaller restores usually gets sent within minutes.
If you need to restore larger amounts of data, you have two further options that are shipped to you: by USB Flash drive (up to 128GB / $99) or external hard drive (up to 3TB / $189, refunded if you return the drive within 30 days). While shipping the data might sound like a slow way to get your data, there’s a pretty good chance that it’s faster than downloading a 3TB restore.
I’ve been using Backblaze since 2009 and have been very happy with it. I’ve had to use the download restore for smaller batches of files many times and have used the hard drive option to restore a large archive when an external drive crashed. More recently, I’ve also added their B2 service into the mix of my automated backup routine.
Backblaze has a very simple pricing structure. It’s $7/month per computer with discounted rates if you pay for a year or two up front. There’s also a business plan that’s a flat-rate $50 per year per computer. All plans include unlimited data storage. And all data is encrypted.
There’s also a mobile app that you can use to access your files on the go.
For extra peace of mind, you can add an optional extended version history, increasing the standard 30-day saving of old versions or deleted files to 1 year or forever.
And unlike many of the other online backup offerings that use Amazon’s or Rackspace’s cloud storage, Backblaze maintain their own datacenter and have custom-designed their own storage pods.
My own experience with Backblaze has been very positive. In the early years, I did sometimes find that the Backblaze app that handles the automatic backup was slowing down my computer. But that seems to have been long since resolved, and I haven’t run into that problem for several years now. And on those occasions that I need to restore lost files, I’ve always been able to quickly find the files in the cloud backup and have been able to recover them quickly.
Thanks to a healthy marketing budget, Carbonite is one of the best-known of the online backup services. In broad strokes, it’s very similar to Backblaze. Both have apps that you install on your computer to handle the automatic backup in the background. Both are unlimited data backup. And both back the data up to highly reliable cloud storage.
Carbonite offers three core plans which varying degrees of features and priced accordingly. The one I’m focusing on here is the Home Plan (the others lean more toward business and enterprise customers).
And then, within the Home Plan, there are three sub-levels: Basic, Plus, and Prime. The Basic plan does not include external hard drives. For that, you’ll need to step up to the Plus Plan, which comes out to $6.99 per month (billed annually). So it’s essentially the same price as Backblaze. And, like Backblaze–and any other reputable cloud backup service these days–all your data is encrypted.
CrashPlan is another general backup service. It’s an automated service, with a Java app running in the background on your computer.
For a monthly subscription (with discounts if paid yearly), you get unlimited online storage. You can back also back up external drives. And as an extra precaution against accidental deletions, they also keep all of your deleted files unless you explicitly tell them not to. That can come in very handy if you discover a few days later that you accidentally deleted something.
They’ve now shifted their focus away from individuals to small businesses. The CrashPlan for Small Business plan is a flat rate of $10 per month per computer or file server.
CrashPlan also offers a seeded backup option where they send you a hard drive, which you fill up and send back to them to get the backup started. It can save a lot of time with that initial backup. The seeded backup service includes return shipping. And if you need it, there’s also the option of restoring your data by them sending you a hard drive with the data loaded on it. There’s a charge of $164.99 for that.
Backblaze and Carbonite are the two I’d recommend first. Both are solid, reliable, and convenient, and I’ve had good personal experiences with both of them. But they’re by no means the only contenders. Here are some other notable alternatives.
PolarBackup is a newer service based in the United Kingdom; I haven’t personally tried it yet. They have a few different products. The Personal product is an automated set-and-forget backup service that offers similar functionality to Backblaze and Carbonite, with unlimited backup to the cloud on Amazon’s AWS infrastructure. It’s also aiming to beat the other services on price, with a $4/month personal plan (when paid annually). Overall, it looks like a promising option.
Zoolz has been around for a while but has been changing their product offerings. They’re now increasingly geared toward business users rather than individual users. And their services and prices reflect that. So they’re more expensive than some of the other options here.
But I include Zoolz for some specific reasons: they put an emphasis on GDPR and HIPAA compliance. Those are quite specific requirements, but if your work involves a lot of contact with Europe or involves medical records, these might be important to you.
Things Worth Knowing
If you require HIPAA compliance for the storage of the data on your computer, it’s not safe to assume that all cloud backup providers automatically meet that requirement. All of the services I mention here address the issue of HIPAA compliance on their websites. Most likely, you will at least have to reach out directly to them to set up a Business Associate Agreement. And you should confirm that the service meets specific HIPAA compliance requirements of your field, workplace, and location.
Similarly, GDPR compliance varies. If this is a requirement for your work, be sure to investigate each service’s compliance.
- An exception is a peer-to-peer system. It’s still underpinned by computers that are somewhere else, but they’re often widely dispersed in tiny segments rather than consolidated into massive data centers. ↩
- Several of these services routinely offer 1TB or 2TB of space for very inexpensive fees. And that might seem like a lot of storage space, but it can fill up quickly if you’re using any space-hungry data like photos or videos or animations or graphics. ↩
- I also used to recommend CrashPlan, but they’ve moved more towards the enterprise end of things, and their products have become less geared toward individual users in terms of features and ease of use. ↩