Today, I thought I’d share some of my experiences with image backup. It’s not been an easy journey, I can tell you!
Safely backing up one’s images seems like common sense, right?
As many of us know from bitter experience, mishaps happen. Internal hard drives get fried, laptops get stolen (or left on the bus!) and external hard drives fail. Quite apart from the fact that it would be devastating for me personally to lose all my images – years of work and an almighty investment of love as well as money – I need to be able to assure my clients that what they’ve commissioned is safe in my hands.
I frequently shoot over a thousand images in an assignment, and every single one is typically around 30 Mb in size as I shoot in RAW format. No laptop’s hard drive can hold this much data, so I store my original images on 1 Tb and 1.5 Tb external hard drives. Every image is copied to a similar external drive for safekeeping. I’m globally mobile, however, so simply keeping a copy of everything on an external hard drive is not enough. If I’m carrying the external drive holding my original images in one bag and the external drive holding my backups in another, there is still the possibility that I might get mugged and lose the lot.
Enter online backup
To begin with, I used Carbonite to back up everything on my laptop’s hard drive to the company’s state-of-the-art data centres that are guarded 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The programme would operate silently in the background, detecting any small change to my files and ensuring that it was reflected in the backup. If I suffered a loss of any kind, I could retrieve my files any time via download.
That was great… until I became a photographer! With all those RAW files, I outgrew my laptop’s internal hard drive in no time at all. At the time, only Mozy offered to back up external hard drives, but they charged a fortune for it (I just checked again: they still do). Then, late in 2011, I discovered Backblaze. For around US$ 50/year, they will back up everything. Yes, including external hard drives. And they’ll even courier very large recoveries for a small fee (unlike Carbonite). What a relief!
Or so I thought. I was not allowing for the fact that I would frequently be travelling in places where my Internet speed would be slower than a snail’s pace. Sadly, even today, there are places where one must endure upload at half of the speed (sometimes less) of what we were getting via dialup connections in the UK back in 1995. In fact, I seem to be in such places most of the time! So here I am, nine moths after first installing Backblaze, and my initial backup is only just nearing completion. Every time I’m somewhere where I get fast Internet access, I leave my machine on 24 hours a day to let the backup process continue. In fact, I even select places to stay on the basis of the Internet speed available to me. None of this is Backblaze’s fault, of course. They do not throttle uploads (though one can choose to do so oneself via the programme’s preferences panel).
So, on the face of it, it would seem that Backblaze is an excellent solution for photographers living anywhere where there they can be sure of a fast upload speed. Well… not necessarily. There have been times when things have gone wrong, and I’ve found Backblaze maddening to say the least. The biggest headache is the fact that they offer only e-mail support from their offices that work according to US Pacific time. If I’m in India, that’s when I’m asleep, meaning that an e-mail sent one day will get a reply only once I’ve gone to bed. So a troubleshooting session that involves five of my e-mails and five of theirs in the thread takes two working weeks!
One issue I’ve experienced more than once is that after unplugging my external drive, Backblaze does not always ‘see’ its contents again after the drive is plugged back in. It typically takes some time for this to happen anyway, and the company says that the data remains stored with them for up to 30 days, even if it doesn’t show up in the Backblaze panel on one’s computer. But I have experienced instances of the programme not seeing the data again at all. This leads to a troubleshooting session over e-mail (with admittedly very nice people) that takes literally weeks to complete. When I’ve had this particular problem, I’ve twice spent around two weeks in e-mail exchanges and troubleshooting procedures that take up to an hour of my time to work on each day until the problem gets rectified.
I’ve asked to speak to the troubleshooting team on the phone, but each time I’ve been told that “As we provide a completely unlimited online backup service for just $50/year, we do all of our customer support via email, not phone. We also find that email is a better tool for most issues since we can send links, screenshots, email addresses, etc”. The fact that this is standard text that gets repeated verbatim each time I make the suggestion implies that I’m not the only customer who wants it! I have suggested that they could introduce an option of costlier unlimited backup with telephone support, but this has unfortunately fallen on deaf ears.
So now what?!
Continuing to think it through, I wondered whether I might be able to return to Carbonite, since they now offer external drive backups in their unlimited plans. I had experience of their phone support previously, and found it excellent. If need be, the operator could give me a small programme to install that would enable him to take remote control of my computer for that session only in order to do whatever’s necessary. It really was hassle-free, and the US$ 50 over and above what Backblaze charges seemed worth it for this support alone. However, when I checked again just now (as I’ve been scrapping with Backblaze again for the the past couple of weeks), I found that external hard drive backups are not available to Mac users. Which, like most creative professionals, I am. Dammit.
At the end of all this, I’m afraid I can’t really suggest fellow photographers a definitive solution (beyond lobbying Backblaze to offer telephone support, or Carbonite to facilitate external drive backups for Mac users!). I’ll update this post if I hear of one. For now, I’m glad that I at least have about 90% of my images backed up at my friend’s office… though I can’t say that it’s a ‘state-of-the-art data centre that’s guarded 24 hours a day, seven days a week’.