28 June 2008

REVIEW: Carbonite Online Backup

One of the challenges of constantly traveling is ensuring that all of my data is continuously backed up.  Having lost data as a result of either a hardware or software failure, I know I need a backup, but I could never find a good solution. Enter Carbonite.

I happened upon Carbonite about four months ago.  Essentially, they offer an online backup of your machine (Windows only).  For $49/year, they will allow you to backup an unlimited amount of data.  When you sign-up for the service, they require a small agent download and install.  The agent constantly monitors various folders/files on your machine to determine whether they've changed; if they have, it starts copying the file to your online backup.  By default, Carbonite will backup all of your personal files -- on XP, this means anything in your Documents and Settings directory.  In Vista, this would include anything in your Users directory.  If you want to add other directories/files, just right click on the file or directory and pick Carbonite from the context menu and then "Back this up."  With virtually the same operation, you can also exclude certain files.


In addition, Carbonite surfaces in your "My Computer" as another drive.  Double clicking on the icon will show you what's been backed up.  It's presented as an Explorer-like interface, making finding a file pretty easy.


In my own experience, I ended up backing up about 32 Gb of data.  The complete backup took a number of days to complete.  However, Carbonite indicates a particular file's backup status by placing a small "button" on each file -- if the button is yellow, the file is in need of backing up.  If the button is green, the current version of that file is backed up.  You can also look at the Carbonite agent status in your system tray -- green indicates all files are backed up and yellow indicates that certain files require backup.

While backup is one thing, the restoration is entirely a different matter.  I also recently had the opportunity to test the service.  Not being completely trusting, I backed my files to a USB drive prior to wiping out my machine.  I then reloaded by then XP laptop with Vista, reloaded the Carbonite agent and told the agent to start a restore. 

Within a day I had most of my important files back.  That said, it's been about a week since I started the restoration and Carbonite still reports that I have quite a few files left to restore.  In truth, I'm not precisely sure what is missing, but I suspect it's my extensive (legal) music collection, since all of my documents have been restored.  Looking at the restore status in Carbonite has largely confirmed my theory.

My Observations:

  • While backups certainly can happen over a longer period of time, waiting a week (or more) to get all of your files restored is unreasonable.  Granted, I've not been connected to a high-speed connection the entire time.  However, I have had 1 Mb or better connectivity for the better part of four days during week.  I'm not sure if the slowness is simply a function of available bandwidth or how Carbonite prioritizes its use of your bandwidth; throttling bandwidth usage for normal backups is expected, but I would think it would want to consume as much bandwidth as possible for the restoration.
  • I've recently started using the service on a server.  I'm not backing up a ton of data, but the fact that the files are "instantly" offsite is somewhat comforting.  Because there isn't a lot of data AND the server will have a dedicated connection with loads of bandwidth, my guess is that any restore should be pretty snappy.
  • I have tried contacting support regarding my restore speed.  It's been two days and so far I've not heard back.  Their web site did state that they were dealing with "higher-than-normal" volume.  Not sure what that means for them, but I'm growing a bit impatient.

My Verdict:

  • For basic backups of your files, I've been pretty happy with the service.  For $49/year, you can't beat the price, especially since you're allowed unlimited space.
  • Now knowing restores take so long, you may consider just using Carbonite for selected files.  If you have  high-speed connection, the restore should be O.K.  My bread and butter files were restored pretty quick (desktop and documents).

If this service sounds interesting to you, check out Carbonite's web site.  (NOTE: the link is a "refer a friend link")

26 June 2008

Issues with Virtual PC 2007 and Vista

I recently upgraded my primary laptop to Vista Ultimate.  Reluctantly I gave up the security of Windows XP and the comforts of a long-lived laptop build -- not that XP was my dream OS, but I had gotten used to its quirks and I knew what to expect.  That said, it was getting long in the tooth and Vista did have a certain allure.

After the upgrade (actually a reformat and a clean install), I installed Virtual PC 2007 SP1.  When I tried to start my primary development machine, I got the following error:  "The virtual machine [VPC NAME] can't be started because it is being used by another program, or marked as read-only...."  Once my mild stoke abated, I did what every good developer does... I Googled the error and found the following articles describing other experiences with the same (or similar issue):

The trouble was that all of these articles focused on security changes in Vista: either the current user (me) doesn't have access to the files or 2) for whatever reason, VPC needed to run with elevated permissions (as an Administrator).  As it turns out, I did have to adjust permissions on the files.  There were some remnants of permissions left over from my XP machine.  Unfortunately, resetting the permissions didn't fix the problem. 

In looking through various settings, I noticed a curious attribute setting - the "read only" flag appeared to be set.  Unfortuately, unchecking the read-only flag on the folder where my virtual machine was stored seemed to have no effect.  Every time I clicked O.K., closed the properties page and reopened to check the setting, I was presented with exactly the same situation -- the read only flag appeared to be set.  This lead to another Google search and another wild goose chase, that allowed me to learn the read only attribute mysteriously getting set is something that a good many other folks are struggling with when using Vista.  And, in fact, I learned that the read only attribute is only settable at the file level, not at the folder level.  You can click on the check box next to read only flag all day long and nothing will happen to the folder -- it will, however, set the flag on the underlying files.   That said, the read only flag on the individual files was unchecked in my case.

To cut the chase, I had to drop to a command prompt and use the ATTRIB command (DOS old school).  I ran the following:

ATTRIB -R G:\*.* /S 

In this case, G: is the USB drive where my virtual machine is stored.  Once I ran this command, my virtual machine started right up.  Best part... it only took five hours, lots of Google searches and a VERY frustrating, non-productive call to Microsoft support (grist for another post).

From this experience I learned a few things:

  1. MSDN incidents cannot be used 24 hours a day, 7 days a week as the web site suggests (http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/subscriptions/bb266240.aspx).  In fact, even though development is my business and not being able to write code, for me, is by definition "being down,"  Microsoft wanted to charge me $500 to open a "critical business" incident (apparently my MSDN incident can't be used for "production" problems...curious).  If I didn't want to go that route, I had to wait until tomorrow to speak with Virtual PC support.  Why?  Apparently after being transferred to various groups no less than five times, having the CSR tell me "my machine is updating and I can't generate a case number for you" and then being hung up on, the last CSR said I missed Virtual PC support by 7 minutes -- she couldn't transfer because I'd be rerouted back to the level one CSRs.  So much for support.
  2. Google is awesome for finding answers to problems -- assuming you know what to search for.  Having done this a few times, I evening got anecdotal solutions that lead to a fix.
  3. Vista is generally a good operating system -- admittedly my experience beyond this problem -- has been positive.  However, these "minor" security changes seemed to have caused great consternation.

Hopefully this post will prevent others from suffering my fate.