Review: Symantec Online Backup

Wednesday May 28th 2008 by Gerry Blackwell
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The company known for protecting data from digital vermin now offers an online data backup service. What's Symantec got in store(age) for you?

Online backup is a great idea; your data is stored offsite, most services let you set up automatic, unattended backups. And you can restore data from any computer connected to the Internet.

You do have to trust the company you’re dealing with, though, and many of the companies offering online backup services for small businesses are little-known start-ups. But now a trusted name in computer security, Symantec Corp., maker of the Norton anti-virus and Internet security products, offers a backup service of its own.

Symantec Online Backup screen shot
This sample Backup History report shows the detail and historical trending data available in Symantec Online Backup’s reporting engine.
(Click for larger image)
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Symantec Online Backup, priced as low as $10 a month for 10 gigabytes (GB) of storage, is the first of a planned suite of online services built on the company’s Symantec Network Protection platform. Symantec designed the service for small and medium-size businesses and made it simple enough to configure and use that even non-technical personnel can manage it.

You can back up as many computers as you want and pay a fixed amount per month for a given amount of data – 10, 25, 50, 100, 250, 500 or 1,000-plus GB – plus a certain amount per gigabyte for “overage,” if your backups take more than the contracted amount of space.

We tested the sign-up, configuration, backup and recovery processes and came away impressed – although with a few reservations.

Simplicity

The sign-up process is a matter of filling out an online form with basic information about your company: name, address, telephone number. Symantec currently offers a one-month no-obligation trial, but you do have to enter credit card data.

The company calls Online Backup a Web-based application. This is a key differentiator as it means you can perform administrative functions from any Internet-connected computer. To configure backups or restores or view reports, you open a browser, surf to the service’s portal site and key in a username and password.

Most services require you to install a large piece of software to perform these functions. With Symantec Online Backup, you do have to download and install agent software, which works in the background to manage backups and restores, but it’s relatively small.

When you add the first computer to your account and download and install the agent software, you also have to input an encryption passphrase – a password that determines how Online Backup will encrypt your data. The agent encrypts the files before they leave your system, which means nobody can intercept and read your data as it passes over the Internet.

It’s vital that you don’t lose the passphrase because you need it to restore data onto  a new system. Symantec does not keep the passphrase or have access to it. This may not sound like such a good thing, but it is. If hackers break in to the Symantec systems, your data will be unreadable. And even if government or law enforcement gets a court order obliging Symantec to give them access to your files, they won’t be able to read anything.

Symantec Online Backup screen shot
You can search or browse for files and folders to recover on the Symantec Online Backup's Restore page.
(Click for larger image)
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But fear not. The price for Online Backup includes a free subscription to an online escrow service, a secure Web site where you store your encryption passphrase and can always recover it if you forget it.

After installing the agent, rebooting your computer and “confirming” the computer by following a link from an automatically sent e-mail, you’re ready to log in and configure a backup.

Simple to a Fault?

Symantec said that one of its objectives was to make the service so dead simple that non-technical people could be up and running in five minutes. It is a fairly simple process to this point, but five minutes? Excuse me. It took closer to 25 minutes just to get this far.

Making Online Backup an extremely simple browser-based application may make for ease-of-use – and good marketing – but it also means it’s not as configurable as some services, and it’s not very responsive when you’re configuring backups.

You start by using a Windows-like file browser to select volumes (disks or logical partitions of disks), folders or individual files to back up. Like most people, I have a My Documents folder with many subfolders. I wanted to back up only certain types of files in the main folder and none of the subfolders. This proved difficult or impossible.

Selecting the My Documents folder, by clicking in the box beside it in the file browser, automatically selected all the files it contained and all its subfolders. The status panel on the left side of the screen at this point estimated the amount of data to be backed up at 84 GB. It was this high because of the hundreds of media files in the My Pictures and My Videos subfolders, which I had no intention of backing up.

I had to open the My Documents folder in the Symantec file browser and de-select each of 25 or so subfolders. (With more sophisticated backup software, you can exclude all subfolders with a single setting.) At this point, I expected the status panel to show a more modest amount of data to be backed up, but it unaccountably showed 0 bytes.

Symantec Online Backup screen shot
Go to the Online Backup service page to configure your backups, perform a restore or clean up protected data.
(Click for larger image)
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Other backup utilities let you filter which files in a selected folder you want backed up. You can tell the system to exclude temporary files with the .tmp extension, for example. You can’t do that with Symantec Online Backup. Instead, the service automatically excludes files it’s sure have no value, such as .tmp files Everything else gets backed up – including, it turns out, valueless files such as temp files starting with the tilde character (~) and Word backup files, which most people don’t need to keep.

The company says its technology has the capability to provide a filtering feature, and it may offer it in future. In the meantime, your only option is to reorganize data so any file types you don’t want to back up are not stored in folders selected for backup – or bear the cost of backing up data you don’t really need.

The problem with the browser-based approach is that the flow of data during the configuration process is unwieldy. The agent software gathers information about files and folders on your system and sends it to the Symantec server, which then sends it back so you can see it on the configuration screens in the browser interface.

In the case of my main desktop PC, this involves a sizeable amount of data going back and forth. Response times as a result were excruciatingly slow. It took over a minute in some cases to display the list of files to be backed up.

Continuous Backups

These are not killer flaws, however, because you configure backups infrequently – ideally only once. The interface is reasonably responsive for other functions such as generating reports and showing you details of the status of backups.

In fact, there is much to like in this service. You can schedule backups, a feature most software and services provide, but by default, the agent will continuously back up your files as you change them or create new ones. This means backups are very current.

Some services copy the entire file to the backup server whenever the file changes. Symantec does byte-level backups, meaning it only copies over the parts of the file that have changed or been added. This reduces computing overhead and the Internet bandwidth required. Furthermore, it retains a year’s worth of versions of a file.

My first backup, which turned out to be 2GB, took a few hours to complete – I was working on the computer for some of that time with the backup going on in the background. Ongoing continuous backup, which includes encryption of data, also occurred without my being aware of it, even when I was working on the computer.

The Restore process is simple. You can restore individual files or groups of files, and you can browse for files in the backup set or search for them.

The search tool works well, but I did uncover a potential bug in the browse functionality. The Modified date for files is supposed to be the date they were last modified on the originating computer. In my backup set, the Modified date shown was the date the files were backed up. The company’s tech support engineers are looking into what might have gone wrong.

To restore a file, you click the box beside it in the list, then click Next. You’re presented with a few clear options – when to start the restore, whether to restore to the same file location or to a new one (if you’re changing computers, for example) and what to do if a file being restored already exists on the destination hard drive. Restoring a single file took seconds. Pop-up alerts tell you when the process starts and ends.

Bottom Line

If you’re considering online backup, add this Symantec service to the list of possibles. It’s not perfect, but it has some nice features – continuous backup in the background, end-to-end encryption, one-year revision history. The price seems fair and Symantec is definitely a company you can trust.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s.

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