First Look: CloudBerry Online Backup

by Gerry Blackwell

Still in its beta testing phase, this online backup service works in conjunction with Amazon’s A3 storage. We take a preliminary look at this very affordable, but not-yet-ready-for-prime-time service.

Amazon’s Simple Storage System (S3), one of the online bookseller’s Amazon Web Services (AWS) products targeted mainly at developers, offers some of the cheapest online storage available. Given Amazon’s size and how critical its IT/Internet infrastructure is, it’s also a good bet S3 will be among the most reliable and secure storage going.

But to make effective use of Amazon’s cheap online storage, you need an S3-compatible program. One of the first commercial developers with an S3 backup solution suitable for small businesses is CloudBerry Lab, a Russian company.

The combined price for CloudBerry Online Backup and S3 storage is hard to beat. The program, still in beta testing as of this writing, is not quite ready for prime time – but it shows promise.

Inexpensive Storage 

CloudBerry charges a one-time fee of $29 for a software license, which includes one year of free updates and e-mail support. Then you pay Amazon for storage and other fees. S3 storage fees start at a high of 15 cents per gigabyte (GB) per month for the first 50 terabytes (TB), and they go down from there.

Cloudberry welcome screen
CloudBerry Online Backup welcome page.
(Click for larger image)

Transfer fees are a flat 10 cents per GB to transfer data into S3. Transfer fees to get data out of S3 start at a high of 13 cents per GB for the first 40 TB and go down from there. And each time you request a transfer or a list of files or  a request to copy or move files, Amazon charges you one penny. (Requests to delete files are free.)

Say you have 20 GB of data you want to protect with daily backups using CloudBerry. You’ll pay Amazon about $2 ($0.10 x 20GB) initially to transfer data into S3. Storage will cost $3 ($0.15 x 20GB) per month. Add 30 cents ($0.01 x 30 days) a month for daily backups.

Total, including the cost of the software, transfers of incremental backups and occasional recovery of files: less than $100 a year.

Features: The Good and The Missing

CloudBerry Online Backup includes some good features that not all competing solutions offer. You can filter backups, by specifying types of files to include or exclude so you don’t backup unneeded files.

And while some backup systems over-write files at the destination when the source changes, CloudBerry retains multiple versions so you can revert to an earlier one if needed. It even lets you choose how many previous versions and how long they’re kept.

But the CloudBerry software also lacks a few features – at least for now. Most importantly, it cannot backup open files.

This means you must remember to close important files before a backup starts. In the case of some, such as Outlook database files (.PSTs), you have to shut down the program itself and any other programs using the file.

This is inconvenient if you’re doing manual backups. If you schedule unattended backups, there is also the potential for data loss. Most people leave Outlook running all the time and will likely forget to close it. Result: vital data not backed up.

Open-file backup is one of several features on the company’s to-add list. Another is “virtual disk drive” – so your S3 “bucket” appears as a disk drive in Windows, and you can use Windows Explorer to access and retrieve files.

Simple Setup

Our out-of-the-box experience with CloudBerry Online Backup was a long way from perfect. But remember: this is a beta product, meaning it’s a work in progress, possibly with unresolved problems.

Signing up for Amazon S3 is simple enough. If you’re already an Amazon customer, simply log in to your account, choose a billing address and credit card to bill charges to and click the button to complete the transaction. If you’re not a customer, you’ll have to choose a password and enter address and credit card information.

Amazon sends you an e-mail with a link to a page where you retrieve your “AWS Access Key ID” and “Secret Access Key,” two long strings of characters that you’ll need to access your S3 space from CloudBerry (or any S3-based application).

Downloading and installing the CloudBerry software is uneventful. And the interface is simple and intuitive, with four tabs across the top: Welcome Page, Backup Plans, Online Backups and History.

The first step is setting up a first Backup Plan, using a wizard launched from the Welcome Page.

The wizard includes a Windows Explorer-like interface for selecting folders and files to back up. The default option is backing up all files in selected folders. Or you can enter types of file you want included (e.g. *.doc to back up only Word documents), or excluded (e.g. *.tmp to prevent it backing up temporary files).

CloudBerry offers the option to compress files for backup or not. Compressed files take up less space but compressing and decompressing slows transfers. And you can choose to encrypt files – to prevent prying eyes seeing them – or not.

The Backup Plan wizard also lets you customize version retention options, specifying how many previous versions of a file you want to retain and for how long.

Tweaks Needed

We’d like to see a few aspects of the interface improved ‑‑ some minor, some more substantial.  

When you set up a scheduled backup, the Online Backups tab, in its simple, default mode, doesn’t tell you when the backup is actually running. It only displays the next scheduled start time.

Cloudberry backup wizard
CloudBerry Online Backup wizard.
(Click for larger image)

This is confusing if the time has already passed. Only by clicking the down arrow beside the start time do you see a detailed view with status, elapsed time, expected complete time, etc.

Another flaw – or missed opportunity: the interface doesn’t report S3 costs incurred. It should be easy for the software to calculate, based on volume of data selected, frequency of scheduled backups and published S3 prices.

CloudBerry should also hire a copyeditor who’s fluent in English to clean up grammar and spelling in the program messages and labels.

A Few Glitches

Again, this is a beta program, but you should be aware of certain issues before diving in.

CloudBerry Online Backup crashed a few times during our testing. In one case, it wouldn’t restart until we used Windows Task Manager to manually end a CloudBerry service. The good news: backups that were running when the program stopped restarted when it launched again.

The Backup Plan wizard worked fine the first time we used it, but on subsequent attempts – after a few crashes – it wouldn’t let us set up a schedule. An error message in non-standard English told us we didn’t have “enough permission” and that we should use a Windows administrator account – which we already were.

These kinds of problems are common with beta programs. But given the cut-off date for adding new beta participants, CloudBerry seems intent on launching sooner rather than later, and it’s hard to see how this product could be ready for its mid-August launch.

Slow Going

It’s hard to tell what impact each component – the CloudBerry software, the Amazon storage server and our network connection – might have on performance, but it wasn’t good in our testing.

The software does let you control how much network bandwidth it uses, but even with the default option of unlimited bandwidth, transfers were painfully slow, with reported speeds of between 600 and 900 bytes per second.

This translates into the more standard metric of 4.8 to 7.2 kilobits per second (Kbps). (The uplink speed on our Internet service is typically about 500 Kbps, suggesting the problem was with S3.) An initial backup of a little over 5 GB was estimated to take more than 24 hours.

Bottom Line

Despite the problems, CloudBerry Online Backup has promise. With the addition of open-file backup and virtual disk drive, and with the glitches and performance problems cleaned up, this could be an ideal – and very economical – backup solution for small businesses.

In the meantime, you can sign up for S3 and use CloudBerry’s free downloadable CloudBerry Explorer Pro program to experiment and manually transfer files to S3. Even if CloudBerry Online Backup doesn’t pan out, other S3 backup programs are sure to emerge.

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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This article was originally published on Wednesday Jul 15th 2009
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