Lessons from Sandy: CrashPlan and the importance of off-site backup

When disaster happens, you want to make sure your data is safe. The reality of Hurricane Sandy demonstrated how important it is to store copies of your most precious records, pictures and correspondences off-site.

If you are a CrashPlan backup customer, the company is making it easier for you to get back up to speed on your replacement computer.

CrashPlan is offering a half-off special to any customer affected by Hurricane Sandy. Their "Restore to your Door" service delivers an encrypted physical hard drive from your cloud-based backups.

Restoring a 200 or 300 GB backup might normally take a week or two. With a hard drive, you can get up and running again in just hours.

"Restore to your Door" normally retails for $125, but is being offered right now for $62.50. As the CrashPlan site explains, "The most important thing after a disaster is to return to normal life as quickly as possible."

Today, I had the opportunity to sit down with Mike Evangelist, Chief Marketing Officer of Code 42 Software to talk about the service, the software and off-site backup in general.

"A lot of people use Time Machine," he told me, "and it's a great thing. But for disaster situations like a hurricane or flood, I'd be willing to bet that 90 percent of the time, the Time Machine drives are sitting right next to the computers they're backing up. That's what cloud backup is all about."

CrashPlan offers an off-site solution that provides hourly or daily backups -- you choose how often to back up and what data to back up. For $50/year for one computer (or $120 for up to 10 computers for a single family), you get infinite capacity stored in a secure location.

Evangelist said, "Backup is a hassle, it's painful like doing your taxes or going to the dentist. We want to make it painless but we also want to make it dependable. And dependability has many aspects."

He points out that most data centers tend to be well-protected with backup power. "That's the beauty of the cloud," he said, adding with some humor, "If our data center were on the Jersey Shore, we might have been in a bind."

CrashPlan is engineered for redundancy. "I think the most important thing is the idea that you always want to have more than one backup," Evangelist said. "CrashPlan tries to make that simple. One of the big features of CrashPlan is that you can select which data you want to back up, and then specify where that data is backed up to."

Its application lets you manage additional destinations like thumb drives and external USB drives as well as a feature that lets you save your backups to a friend's computer -- encrypted of course. It's an easy way to add another level of security by backing up to another trusted destination that's outside your home.

"We're huge advocates of backing up to multiple destinations," Evangelist explained. "Not everyone has gigabyte Ethernet. Restoring from CrashPlan is going to take a long time if you've got a huge backup but if you made a local backup, you can restore much more quickly from that."

CrashPlan offers a wide range of end-user customization, so you can schedule your backups with fine granularity. If you want the app to only back up when your computer is not being used, it can handle that for you.

In the end, backups aren't just about obvious storage issues but what Evangelist calls the "emotional and correct" answers. "People make stuff on their computer all the time -- spreadsheets, documents and accounting. They collect bookmarks. All this stuff is not too valuable, but it's a big drag if you lost it. You need to protect that big collection of stuff.

"These days, when I talk to customers, what I find is that people value the most is their photos. Sure, people have video and music collections, in fact all sorts of things that they collect, and it all has value but universally and broadly, the most valuable data people own is photos.

"In the old days, of photos and negatives, if there were a disaster, there would be a shoebox to grab. Digital photos seem safer, because you can create copies from the computer, and they seem not as vulnerable, but they also tend to be collected in one giant digital pile in one place."

That's a vulnerability many people don't consider.

CrashPlan offers a system of "self-healing" archives on their servers. There's a regular process that tests data checksums to ensure information integrity. When the system encounters any problem, the server contacts the client's computer to re-requests those blocks.

"We try to be a good neighbor to your computer," Evangelist said. "Our backup system is incremental in a very clever way. It looks for which bytes of a file have changed and only sends those changes. And because they send the changed bytes, the amount of data to be stored is very, very small, allowing us to save many old versions. Of course, if you want to be a bandwidth hog, crank it up! You can save as many old versions of the file as you want. Time Machine does incremental backups as well, but Time Machine makes entire copies of the file."

Code 42, the people behind CrashPlan, will be donating 10 percent of all sales through the end of November to the American Red Cross. Now is not just a good time to be re-evaluating your offsite data strategy, but Code 42 is offering an opportunity for you to give a little back to the community as well.

You can also help Sandy relief by donating blood.