SpiderOak Backup First Glance

While I don’t have an immediate need for “cloud” syncing, now that I’ve dropped Dropbox I’ve started looking at alternatives. I’ve been using Windows Live Mesh and it’s been working fine, The main benefit to me is that it can sync between computers without involving the internet. This works well for large video files where I don’t want to burn the bandwidth and also for files I just don’t want or need on the internet.

But after thinking about this some more there are some things I might want to sync to the internet, or update while I’m on the road. SkyDrive can provide this ability but has the same limitations as Dropbox – it’s not encrypted by me. This isn’t a problem in many cases but having to keep track and think about encryption seems to be asking for trouble as it would only be a matter of time before I slip up. Along those same lines (me slipping up) having to remember to encrypt before uploading wouldn’t be a good idea,

SpiderOak came to my attention awhile back when I was looking at possible backup solutions. It has the benefit of being cross platform (Windows/Mac/Linux). SpiderOak’s features include syncing and sharing in addition to backup. Another must have feature is that they encrypt the files on the computer before sending them and they don’t have the encryption password. (I do have to take their word that they don’t nab the password.)

SpiderOak offers a free 2 GB account, just like Dropbox. Additional storage is $10/mth for each 100GB increment. This is cheaper than Dropbox but more expensive than many other backup services. Especially since you pay for 100 GB no matter hove much you use. There is a discount for pre-paying for a year.

The features that drew me to try their free 2 GB plan were:

  • Local encryption on the PC and only I have the password.
  • Backup (or sync) can be continuous or can be scheduled.
  • Directories can be synced between PCs and like Mesh they don’t need it be in a set directory structure.
  • iPhone/iPad App
  • Paid plans include 2-factor authentication.

What I don’t like so far:

  • The account password is the encryption key (technically it’s not the actual key but it can be used to unlock the files). I’d prefer I’d be allowed to enter a key that’s different than the password. They say as long as I access their site through the client software that the password is never sent to them. If I access through their website the password is sent to them and kept in server memory for the duration of my session.
  • Only files being backed up can be synced. This means I can’t realistically sync large video files between PCs, so I’ll need to continue using Mesh for this.
  • It’s pricey, especially if I’m well below the 100 GB increment. Other backup options are generally cheaper although may have some limitation (number of PCs, local drives only, etc…).

Since SpiderOak also runs on Ubuntu it would be a backup option for my web server. The drawback to this is the cost since the 2 GB plan would be too small so I’d have to buy the 100 GB plan. Since this doesn’t really give me any benefit over my current backup method I’m unlikely to go for it.

Initial Impressions

SpiderOak seems to be a better choice than Dropbox except in the area of 3rd party app integration, especially for the paid plans where SpiderOak is half the cost. As a pure backup solution it’s a bit pricey unless you need all it’s features (cross-platform, no device limits, external & remote drives allowed, unlimited file history) . The bite is a bit less if the backup is close to the 100 GB available (or whatever 100 GB increment you pay for).  If I actually had close to 100 GB to back up the price would be comparable to Amazon S3 (using reduced redundancy storage). But my current backup to S3 is only about 10 GB. Amazon does charge for more than space so my costs are closer to the SpiderOak charges as I have a lot of transfers, but it’s still less than SpiderOak in actual dollars.

I set SpiderOak to sync my Bento database to see how it handles a OS X bundle (seems fine so far – but backing up after every session) and set it to sync my Windows Live Writer drafts (like this one) and I was able to move across PCs. I’m still using the default to do automatic backups & syncs which may create more traffic than is necessary but we’ll see. I have had one problem so far – the app crashed on my MacBook Air while I was setting up a sync, Other than that there haven’t been any issues.

I’ll try setting up some more syncs and try some iPhone access to view files. There’s a series of PDFs I like to keep on my iPad for reference so I’ll see how SpiderOak handles those. I have a hard time justifying the cost so I probably won’t rush to test the backup features since if I actually liked it I’d have to pony up the money.

It’s only been a couple days but so far I’m happy with SpiderOak and look forward to continuing with it.

Anyone have experience with SpiderOak?

First Glance: Windows Home Server Vail

Windows Home Server LogoWindows Home Server “Code Name Vail” (WHS Version 2) has been in public beta for awhile, in fact it was refreshed over a month ago. I finally got around to installing it last weekend and I really, really like. Of course, I haven’t really dug into it so there may be some ugliness under the covers.

It’s beta software so bugs are to be expected. I ran into a couple minor or annoying things that already had a bug report opened for them. But for the most part I like what I see and I’m even more eager for the final release.

Some random comments and observations.

Data Protection – The amount of disk space allocated to “Data Protection” seems high. I did find information that there’s approximately 12% of overhead for data protection.

To protect against silent storage errors (bit flips, misdirected writes, torn writes), additional information is appended to each 512-byte sector stored on drive. In particular, each sector is protected by a CRC checksum, which enables Drive Extender to detect data read errors, perform realtime error correction and self-healing (up to 2 bit errors per sector if duplication is disabled, and any number of bit errors if duplication is enabled) and report the errors back to the user and application. The overhead for this additional data is roughly 12% of drive space.

To turn that into real numbers, I turned off all duplication and shadow copies and it still said 891.2GB was allocated to data protection which was 11.9% of the space in my storage pool. This was for a 7452.1GB storage pool with 341.8GB of data and 6GB worth of computer backups. When I turned on duplication for the data and backups the amount used by data protection skyrocketed to 1273.1GB, an increase of 382MB for 365MB worth of data.

Exclude the system drive from the storage pool – I like that the system drive can be explicitly excluded from the storage pool. When Vail installed it created a 60GB system partition for the OS, and the rest was a data partition that could be used by the storage pool. This excludes the data partition from being used for data storage. In theory, this should improve performance by not having the system related i/o mixed with data i/o. It does mean that the data partition is “wasted” space. Since I’ll be going this route (excluding it from the storage pool) I can go with a small system drive.

Hardware Limits – Vail does have some hardware limits. Despite being based on Windows Server 2008 R2 Standard Microsoft made a “business decisions” to limit CPUs and RAM. It will only recognize one physical CPU and up to 8GB of RAM. That one CPU can have up to 4 cores although my test server has only two cores.

While this has brought some complaints on the forums it tends to make sense from Microsoft’s pov considering the market they see for this home server. The new business server (Aurora) will have greater support (and probably cost more).

While I would like the flexibility of multiple CPUs this isn’t something that would impact my current plans.

Improved Storage Pool & Backups – While I haven’t tested each of these bullet points, I’m excited about the benefits they promise.

  • Folder duplication happens in real time, not in regular hourly passes. This should provide better data protection. I also hope it improves performance as I sometimes see a performance hit in v1 when demigrator runs.
  • File Level Encryption is supported by drive extender. This could be a benefit to security although I;’m not sure I’ll use it.
  • Files in use are properly duplicated so the file conflicts they generate are gone. If I leave iTunes open for a long time (as I’m likely to do) I often get file conflict errors because the library file couldn’t be duplicated. Not a huge deal as shutting iTunes long enough to allow the duplication resolves the error.
  • Storage operations occur in the background. The server doesn’t go offline during drive removals (this is the one item in this list I have successfully tested)
  • Drives can be names in the console, making identification easy.
  • Storage operations are a low priority i/o to avoid impacting media streaming.
  • Data drives in storage pools can be migrated between servers. This provides some interesting possibilities for moving to a new server. But it also scares me. One thing that’s lost is the ability to read a data drive on another Windows PC. In version 1 the drives were formatted NTFS and could thus be read on another computer. In v2 the drives can only be read by Vail.
  • Computer backups are prioritized if there are multiple computers queued to backup. The computer with the least current backup gets priority. Frequently disconnected computers, such as laptops, will backup outside the scheduled backup window if they can reach the server.

I’ve still got a lot of testing to do. I’m impressed with Vail so far but I’m resisting the urge to move my stuff over to Vail for my day-to-day usage. It’s still beta and probably has bugs. Plus I want to do some more testing to come up with an optimum configuration. I want to break free of iTunes for my Video library (just so damn easy to use) so I want to dive deeper into the video streaming options that Vail will open up.

Now that I’ve got the test box up and have had some hands on I’m more comfortable ordering hardware that will be my new Vail server, the first system build on my system roadmap.

The Vail beta and information is available from Microsoft Connect (Connect registration required).