Return to Digital Photography Articles
Choosing the Best Backup Software
As a digital photographer, it won't take long before you have amassed tens of thousand of photos on your hard drive. Hard drives fail. When your hard drive fails, you will probably lose your entire photo collection and documents files. Assuming that you have already adopted an effective backup scheme, this will only be a minor inconvenience, not an upsetting disaster!
What is an effective backup scheme? One that is automatic, redundant and resilient. The backup software that you use to accomplish is critical to this end goal. Backup utilities vary widely in capability, performance and implementation. I have been looking for the ultimate backup software that enabled me to create the perfect backup scheme.
This page includes a brief summary of the requirements I looked for in my search for the ultimate Windows backup program. While some emphasis has been on ensuring that the utility can easily protect my photo collection, I have an equally strong requirement to protect my documents. Similarly, as I have a keen interest in using an offsite backup mechanism, some of my requirements are designed with that in mind.
In searching for an effective backup utility, I realized that it needed to satisfy a series of mandatory requirements, and potentially a few optional features on my "nice-to-have" list. With these features in mind, please see the comparison of backup software.
Backup Software Requirements
- Incremental backup with Catalog / Database
Incremental backups must be done by a means other than using the Archive bit. Most simple backup programs use the archive bit to indicate when a file has been last backed up or changed. This is extremely inflexible as it prevents one from using multiple backup schemes concurrently.
- File Update Criteria
When comparing a file set for differences (i.e. incremental mode), it is important that the program offer the option of using CRC, not just Time & Size. Some external tools might annotate the metadata of your images without affecting Time & Date or Size. CRC is quite a bit slower, but may be required in some environments. Some programs support XCRC which allows a faster method of checking CRC on the remote FTP server. Please see my article on incremental backup methods.
The backup software must include a strong industry standard method, such as AES. Many programs now rely on the Zip engine, which means that AES 128, 192 and 256-bit encryption is fairly standard. The need for encryption is two-fold: protecting your backup files on the storage device (should it be stolen/hacked) and protecting your backup transfer (if you are using a remote / offsite backup method).
- Large Backup Jobs
It seems that a number of backup utilities haven't been properly tested with large backup jobs (e.g. 80 GB). The tool that I use must be robust while working with large backups. Several well-known utilities have crashed or abort during large operations, while others don't provide features that assist with large backups.
As I have a strong desire to keep my backups offsite, I will be reliant on the ability to send my incremental backup jobs over a network to the storage device. Most Network Attached Storage (NAS) boxes have a built-in FTP server, which provides this capability. Unfortunately, transfering across the internet is inherently insecure. Due to processing power requirements, many affordable NAS boxes don't provide secure FTP, but it having this capability (SSL, SFTP, etc.) in the backup software would be advisable since the feature may become more commonplace in hardware. Since remote backup is often over a connection that is occasionally interrupted (especially if the PC is connected to a wireless router), it is important to have some degree of automatic recovery / resume.
Want to be able to run the job unattended, and even have the job start and shutdown the computer automatically. Most programs either offer their own scheduler or interface with Windows XP Scheduled Tasks. I often rely on the latter.
- Compression with Filters
While the majority of my files for backup are photos which will not compress well, the working documents and other file types can benefit from file compression. This is even more important when you are backing up your files to an offsite location (such as with a remote NAS). In offsite / online backup environment, you are going to be heavily restricted by your upload bandwidth, therefore you are better off taking more time on the PC compressing files prior to upload. The savings in transfer time will easily outweigh the extra processing time on the PC. That said, some files (such as digital photos) will not compress (and may even increase in size), so it is extremely important that the backup software provide a means to select file compression filters or exclusions for these file types.
One of the main benefits of this backup strategy over simple mirroring is that I want the ability to roll-back to previous versions of files. This is known as change-sets, revisioning or version sets.
On the first pass at storing the backup data to the external device, it is extremely important that some mechanism is in place to validate the files after transfer (especially if they were burned to DVD or sent across the network to a remote NAS). Therefore, a verify after copy option should be present. This verification should allow choices between Time & Size (which is the fastest but not guaranteed) and CRC (which is nearly guaranteed to catch any differences).
- Non-Proprietary Format (Extraction by Other Utilities)
Many of these utilities use the ZIP format for not only the compression capability but also the encryption capabilities. It is highly desireable that the backup utility generate files that can be opened by other utilities (just in case your program fails to run someday). Some programs try to work around this concern by providing their own free decoder utility. I am less keen on this as you are still reliant on a single company to suppor this decoder well into the future (when your hardware/OS may have changed).
Backup Software Optional Features
While I am transitioning to an archiving workflow that doesn't need to rely on manual removal media output, I still would like to fall back on this method occasionally. Therefore, I would prefer that the tool has stable support for DVD writing. Must support disc spanning. Unfortunately, the DVD writing support often means the software requires constant updates to handle newer drives. To get around this, some backup programs simply offer to use a pre-existing burning engine already installed on your system.
- In-use Files Backup
Several programs offer the ability to backup files that are in use. They do this by either using the volume shadow copy service of Windows XP or else they wait for the file lock to be cleared. As I don't back up system files, and generally run the backups unattended (so applications won't be open), this feature is less important to me.
- Test of Integrity
For piece of mind, it is extremely useful if you can run a periodic test to ensure that the backup matches your local files.
- Pause / Recovery
It is extremely useful for the utility to resume an operation if it failed (i.e. disconnected) or was paused manually. Most programs require you to start from scratch. If you were in the midst of an 80GB full backup set, restarting could be a huge waste of time. Similarly, you may need to use your network connection for web surfing and would want the ability to pause a transfer that is currently consuming your connection.
Being able to specify a script to run before and/or after a backup job can be very useful. One can use this to simply shut down the computer after a backup, or do more complex tasks such as post-processing or file reorganization.