Five Online Backup Services Keep Your Data Safe

If you know you need to back up your data, but keep putting it off, one of these online services may help you keep your backups up-to-date.

April 9, 2007

20 Min Read
Network Computing logo

Few people need to be convinced of how important it is to back up their data. However, the way that data is backed up -- and how reliable the backup is -- is just as vital. Imagine trying to restore the one backup copy you have of that irreplaceable Word document or spreadsheet only to find the disk you burned it to can't be read anymore.

In my case, I don't have to imagine that particular scenario: it happened to me. I lost over 5 GB of images that I had stored on a hard drive, and my one DVD-R backup couldn't be read at all. Thankfully the missing data was also backed up to another computer -- in itself an argument for the usefulness of remote backup.

Five Backup Services

•  Introduction

•  AT&T Online Vault•  Carbonite •  eSureIT •  iBackup •  Mozy

•  Conclusions

Remote backup services have been gaining ground for individual and small-business users in the last few years, thanks to the proliferation of broadband connectivity and cheap server-side storage. Also, people are a little more comfortable now than they might have been a few years ago with trusting their data to an online service, especially if the data's encrypted on the user's computer and not readable by the provider.

For this roundup, I looked at five popular online backup services -- AT&T Online Vault, Carbonite, eSureIT, iBackup , and Mozy -- with plans that start at free and scale up to professional-level tiers costing hundreds of dollars a month. I put together a sample batch of backup data -- about 200MB of documents and images -- and performed both backup and restore operations on this data with each service.Surprises abounded: The biggest name in the lineup -- AT&T -- had the single least impressive product, and the one service with a free offering was among the best. I was also pleased to learn that at least one of the backup plans (Carbonite) allows theoretically unlimited storage. This doesn't mean you can actually store terabytes of data (you can only upload so fast, after all), but it does mean you won't run into any sudden and inconvenient capacity limits.

AT&T Online Vault

AT&T Online Vault follows much the same pattern as the other products profiled here, but it's been so ferociously dumbed-down that few except the most novice users will want to work with it. or Carbonite are just as easy to use and don't insult the user's intelligence.

The basic backup plan with AT&T Online Vault costs $5.95 a month per PC, with $2 for each additional gigabyte, and a maximum fee of $17.95 per month. When I opened the program to set the backup options, I ran into the its first and most obvious limitation: You can only back up either the Documents and Settings directory, or the entire C: drive. There's no way to specify another drive, or even to include or exclude specific directories. You can exclude four generic file types -- e-mail, images, music, and video -- but the inability to get finer-grained control over what's backed up and from where is really irritating. AT&T's only suggestion for working around these limitations is to move files out of the Documents and Settings directory (which is dumb, to put it mildly).

Five Backup Services

•  Introduction•  AT&T Online Vault•  Carbonite •  eSureIT

•  iBackup •  Mozy•  Conclusions

It gets worse. Scheduled backups take place every day from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. (i.e., whenever the system is running and connected to the network during that time period), but there's no way to change this schedule. You can trigger backups manually, but you can't change the time window or set backups to happen on a specific day -- in fact, there are no controls for the schedule at all. Finally, there's no control over the encryption key (AT&T has the keys to everything, presumably, which isn't very reassuring), but by this point, that's merely adding insult to injury. At least the backup process didn't slow down my system to any noticeable degree.The restore process has its own share of frustrations. When you want to restore a file, you first have to choose the date you want to restore from. Not a problem, unless you don't remember the exact date, and just want to pick a file and work from there.

Once you pick the date, you're presented with a directory tree that you can dig through to select folders or files to restore. However, the restored files are not restored to their original location, but to a folder on the desktop labeled "My Restores." The files are stored in directories that are labeled with their backup date and time.

This part actually makes a fair amount of sense, since it prevents multiple restores from potentially overwriting each other. But the competition, all of whom do far better, makes Online Vault look too brain-dead to even bother with.

The name brings to mind the substance used to freeze Han Solo into suspended animation in The Empire Strikes Back. Likewise, Carbonite deep-freezes your data , brings it back to life on demand, and lets you store as much as you like for $49.95 a year. The only restrictions are that no one file can be larger than 2GB, and the 15-day free trial version will not let you back up music or video.

When you first install the Carbonite client, you're given a few choices as to what to back up automatically: the My Documents directory and the Desktop, all documents and data, or whatever files/directories you manually configure it for. You don't set these through the program itself, but through Explorer -- you right-click on a folder and select "Back this up" in the Carbonite context menu. Consequently, there are no backup "sets"" -- there's just whatever you've selected to be backed up on your system.

Five Backup Services

•  Introduction•  AT&T Online Vault•  Carbonite •  eSureIT

•  iBackup •  Mozy•  Conclusions

I admit, I had a little trouble getting used to this, since most backup programs I've dealt with still use the backup-set metaphor, and that lets me see everything to be backed up at a glance. But I was able to get the same information by simply looking at the Carbonite Drive folder tree in Explorer (which lists all your backed-up files), and I honestly didn't miss having to go through the separate step of making backup sets.

Once you tag files or folders to be backed up, it's essentially a set-it-and-forget-it operation. The first round backs everything ups, and then every subsequent round of backups (which happens once a day) simply echoes any changes. Consequently, there's no actual scheduling for backups, but you can right-click on a file and select "Back this up as soon as possible" if you want to force a given item to be backed up immediately.

If you just want to flag a whole drive for backup, you can use the right-click method on the drive icon. The program's tray icon changes color depending on what's going on -- green for everything being backed up, yellow for files queued to be backed up, and red for a problem that needs user intervention. Another feature, which I really liked and is enabled by default, tags each Explorer folder with a colored dot that indicates its backup status at a glance.To restore files, you need to turn on "Recover Mode," which pauses any pending backups and allows you to explore the backed-up files in the Carbonite Drive folder (which appears in Explorer under My Computer). Restoring files from the backup repository is as easy as copying them back out to wherever you want them to be, or you can right-click on a directory and select "Restore To" to have everything in that folder restored automatically. Other Carbonite options include "Lower priority," which reduces the amount of network and CPU utilization required by the program, and "Stop for 24 hours," which lets you pause any backup activity for a whole day.

One thing that Carbonite doesn't offer is the ability to restore files directly from its Web site. If you set up a new computer and want to recover files from your Carbonite backup, you'll need to install Carbonite first, turn on Recover Mode, and then do the restore that way. But that's really a tiny complaint about a program that's solid and simple without being simple-minded.

eSureIT is for moderately experienced to advanced users, since it includes the ability to perform direct backups for Exchange, SQL Server, and mapped drives (within some of the pricing plans). This puts it roughly on the same level as iBackup -- while the higher-end pricing plans will be useful for those who can afford them, the low-end plan is also more expensive than many of the other services profiled here. eSureIT also runs on just about every extant version of Windows, too: everything from Windows 98 and NT 4.0 through Vista.

The backup plans for eSureIT come in two tiers, home and business. The business end is a little more cost-effective. Home plans go from $10 to $20 and 1GB to 4GB of storage a month, and include automatic backups for common document types. Business plans go from $25 to $200 and 5GB to 50GB a month, and also let you perform backups of SQL Server and Exchange repositories. There's also a referral program: if you recommend the company to someone else and they buy service, you can get a month's backup for free as incentive.

Five Backup Services

•  Introduction•  AT&T Online Vault•  Carbonite •  eSureIT •  iBackup

•  Mozy•  Conclusions

When you set up eSureIt on your PC, you'll be asked to create an encryption key, which consists of a 48-character alphanumeric string. This can be anything you want (although spaces and punctuation are not allowed), or you can just let the program randomly generate a key for you. As with the other backup programs that let you use your own encryption key, you're also given the option to back the key up somewhere before you start encrypting anything with it. Lose the key and your backups are unrecoverable, so be careful.

eSureIt lets you configure multiple backup sets, each with its own choice of file types or directories, and scheduling. Backup sets can be cloned or edited (and, of course, deleted), and even if a backup is set to run on a schedule, you can always run it on-demand. You're automatically notified about finished backups in e-mail, but you can always turn that function off through the program's monitoring options.

There are several ways to restore backed-up data. The easiest is just to explore the backup repository (by directory and file or by backup set), which you can do through the eSureIT client. Another option, Recover Catalog, lets you download a catalog of the backed-up files from the remote server so you can perform a restore operation on another computer. Backed-up data can also be sent back to you on CD, DVD, or even an external hard drive, depending on the amount to be restored.

If you want to delete files from the backup server, you can do that one of two ways: selectively, by exploring a directory tree and removing files manually; or collectively, by checking off a backup set and deleting everything associated with it. I liked how the delete function also allowed for some pretty fine-grained actions, such as being able to delete all files older than a certain date, or by revision.The eSureIT client also has a plug-in architecture, but right now only two plug-ins are available: one to unlock Outlook PSTs and back them up on the fly, and another to perform actions before and after backups. A "Revision Rules" plug-in comes preinstalled, which allows you to remove old revisions of backed-up files based on user-created rules -- for instance, you can remove the x oldest revision of a document (the default is 10). This particular plug-in is pretty handy since while you don't have an unlimited amount of backup space, you can backup an unlimited number of revisions for any given file.


iBackup seems to be aimed at moderately advanced to expert users, and this tendency shows up in many different ways. Some of the prompts and configuration options require more tech savvy than a product like Mozy, for instance. But it also has that many more advanced features to tickle a techie like me, such as being able to automatically back up system files or data from business applications like Exchange and SQL Server. A free 15-day / 5GB trial version is available, although you need a valid credit card to try it out; pricing plans range from 5GB a month to 300GB.

Actually, the first hint that iBackup is for more advanced users comes when you run the program's setup and are asked whether or not you want to install iBackup's components in a standard way or as an NT service. If you know what an NT service is, you'll probably have little trouble with iBackup; if not, the more technical bent of the program could be frustrating. I would have liked to see beginner / advanced options during setup, so that the more complex prompts could be hidden by default and exposed if needed.

Five Backup Services

•  Introduction•  AT&T Online Vault

•  Carbonite •  eSureIT •  iBackup •  Mozy•  Conclusions

Once things are installed, there are three wizards that make the configuration process simpler: Automatic Selection, which pre-selects common file types; Restore, which steps you through the process of what you want to recover and from where; and Advanced Backup, which helps you back up things like the system state data, or SQL Server and Exchange Server data.

When you select files for backup, you can also create universal exclusion rules to screen out certain directory paths or file types. A number of common system files that don't need to be backed up, like the hibernation file, are pre-excluded. Everything that's backed up is encrypted locally and sent via 128-bit SSL; you cannot provide your own encryption key. At the end of the backup process, you'll be notified via e-mail; the program also keeps its own detailed logs of everything that's transpired.

Restoring files from the backup repository isn't too hard. The program provides you with an Explorer-like tree view of the backed-up files, and all you need to do is check off what to restore, then pick a location (with the original file locations as a default possibility). Another way to restore files is to use the "Snapshots" window, which lets you see point-in-time versions of all your backups -- for instance, you can see the nightly or weekly versions of files, if you back up very frequently. (I should point out that the economy-level plans available through iBackup don't support snapshots; the cost difference for snapshots is typically $5 a month extra.) Finally, backup sets can also be deleted manually from the server.

The program's bandwidth or CPU usage can't be set manually (at least, there's no public interface for that), but I didn't experience any noticeable system lag when running a backup.

Of all the solutions tested here, Mozy was probably the best of the bunch --easiest to work with, least intrusive, and most versatile. The free, no-hassles version of Mozy (for Windows 2000, XP, and Vista) provides you with 2GB of backup space; the unlimited-storage version is $4.95 a month; and the business-grade plan is licensed both by PC/server and the amount of storage. To that end, the free version is a great place to start, and if you outgrow it you can migrate to the for-pay plans easily enough.

When you install the Mozy Remote Backup software, you're given two ways to encrypt the backed-up data: you can use Mozy's own 448-bit encryption key, or you can create your own key (which I preferred). The custom key can be generated from any plain-text phrase, but you're responsible for backing it up yourself -- if you lose the custom key, Mozy won't be able to get your data back. Files are encrypted on the PC itself using industrial-strength 448-bit Blowfish encryption, then transferred to Mozy's via 128-bit SSL, so there's two levels of encryption at work at all times.

Five Backup Services

•  Introduction•  AT&T Online Vault•  Carbonite •  eSureIT

•  iBackup •  Mozy•  Conclusions

After running a speed test to determine your upstream bandwidth, you're ready to begin backing up. Mozy defines the files to be backed up via backup sets, and includes a couple of basic sets by default -- IE favorites and My Documents -- but you can easily create others and edit existing ones. You can't add the contents of network-mapped drives into a backup set (that's a feature for the business edition of Mozy), but any local fixed drive will work.Backup sets can also have rules applied to them -- for instance, a given backup set can be used to exclude files from other backup sets, or to only include files that match specific criteria. The backup process can run on a fixed schedule or whenever the system has been idle for X minutes / hours, or just triggered on-demand. Both CPU usage and bandwidth can be throttled as needed, and even changed on the fly during the backup process.

When a backup is running you can bring up an activity window, which shows two progress meters (one for the encryption process and the other for the actual uploading of files), an estimated time for completion, and a slider for adjusting Mozy's use of system resources. Even with Mozy running at full speed I didn't notice much, if any, impact on system performance. Completed backups are logged in the program's history buffer, which contains full reports about all files and their transfer times and speeds.

If you want to restore files from the backup pool, you can do that one of two ways. The first and most common is through the Mozy Remote Backup folder in Explorer which lets you browse and copy file backups as though they were available locally. This is basically the same approach Carbonite takes.

The other way to restore is through Mozy's Web interface, which is a bit slower, but it's useful if you're trying to restore to a system where the Mozy backup software isn't available or can't be loaded. I really liked this feature -- if I'm on the road and I want to grab that one important file I didn't bring with me, this is a good way to do it without having to resort to a remote-access solution or having someone else e-mail it to me.

I also liked the flexibility of Mozy's retention policies. All backups are retained for one month from the time they're made, but only the most recent backup set counts towards your quota, and you can always restore all versions of a file backed up in that month's window. Finally, restore files can also be burned to DVD by Mozy and shipped to you for a handling fee.Mozy's Web site and documentation explain everything in plain and friendly English, leavened with occasionally droll humor. If you elect to use your own encryption key, you get a confirmation dialog which reads "I understand that if I ever lose this key, that neither I nor Mozy will be able to decrypt my data and I will be hosed." I laughed, but I also got the point.


The all-around winner for regular users and small business from this bunch was definitely Mozy, both for its plan structure and its unobtrusive client. Carbonite came in a close second, because of its even more elegant client design.Of the more professional-level services, I gravitated a bit more towards eSureIT thanks to its slightly more flexible handling of backup and restore operations, although both it and iBackup supported SQL Server and Exchange data. The big loser was AT&T Online Vault, which would be hard to recommend to anyone at all, especially given how much better all the competition is.

Stay informed! Sign up to get expert advice and insight delivered direct to your inbox

You May Also Like

More Insights