pne: A picture of a plush toy, halfway between a duck and a platypus, with a green body and a yellow bill and feet. (Default)

You may have heard how Mat Honan’s accounts got hacked and most of his data wiped.

Today, I read a story of how he got his data back.

One bit that resonated with me was a Catch-22 he described about getting his passwords back:

I’m a heavy 1Password user. I use it for everything. That means most of my passwords are long, alphanumeric strings of gibberish with random symbols. It’s on my iPhone, iPad and Macbook. It syncs up across all those devices because I store the keychain in the cloud on Dropbox. Update a password on my phone, and the file is saved on Dropbox, where my computer will pull it down later, and vice versa.

But I didn’t have it on any of our other systems. So now I couldn’t get to my keychain. And so I was stuck in a catch-22. My Dropbox password was itself a 1password-generated litany of nonsense. Without access to Dropbox, I couldn’t get my keychain. Without my keychain, I couldn’t get into Dropbox.

And I have pretty much the same setup (with s/1Password/Password Safe/).

So perhaps I should write down at least the Dropbox password somewhere safe, so that I can get back at my password safe database.

Though I do also have a copy of the password safe database on an external hard drive (which may be out of date since I do that backup manually, with Unison, but the Dropbox password is not likely to change so even a two-months-old password safe database would help) and use CrashPlan to backup my main computer (including the Dropbox folder) both to the CrashPlan cloud and to that external hard drive.

Now, I’m not completely safe since I don’t have a hard drive I store off-site, but I think that might help.

Still: back up your data regularly! Have a backup plan in place! Best if it works automatically so that you can’t forget to backup updated data. I’m fairly happy with CrashPlan so far, but go with whatever works for you.

Ideally, test your backups to make sure they still actually hold your data. Admittedly, I’ve never done a full restore simulation from CrashPlan, but I have restored individual files and folders occasionally through their web interface (mostly as a way of accessing files from my home computer on another one, such as my work computer), and did get my data. (The metadata was sometimes off, though; at one point, everything was dumped into a single folder in the ZIP file rather than in the original folder hierarchy, and at another, the timestamps were all “now”, or maybe that of the most recent backup event, rather than the timestamps as they were stored on the disk.)

pne: A picture of a plush toy, halfway between a duck and a platypus, with a green body and a yellow bill and feet. (Default)

Today, while I was musing, I thought that it would be really useful if online backup services could agree on some kind of standardised archival format that they could use to interchange data, for when you want to change your backup provider.

The use case I was thinking of is that for me, and I’m sure for other people too, an online backup is not only a backup of the current state, but an archive of former states. This is useful for things such as restoring previous versions of a file which you changed (whether on purpose or inadvertently) as well as for restoring files which you had since deleted.

As far as I know, if you want to change your backup provider, the only way to seed the new backup is by sending the contents of (part of) your hard drive to it. You may be able to speed up the process by sending them DVDs with data on them or by filling a hard disk they provide, but ultimately, the initial backup will reflect the then-current state of your hard drive. Specifically, it will not include any deleted files, nor will it include previous versions of changed files.

And it’s a pity to throw away history like that when the data is there, stored at your previous backup provider, and they could (technically speaking) hand over the versioned data to the new provider if there were some standardised format to do so. (For example, it could be modelled after the repository and/or wire format of version control software such as Git, Mercurial, or Subversion.) Besides, if the providers were to interchange the data amongst themselves, the initial transfer would probably go a lot faster than if you had to upload the lot over a residential Internet connection.

Obviously, backup providers have little incentive to provide such a capability and every incentive not to: it’s one way to “lock you in” softly by making it not impossible but still a hassle to switch. And most companies that have paying customers will find it more advantageous not to make it easy to stop being a paying customer.

Still, a guy can dream, can’t he?

pne: A picture of a plush toy, halfway between a duck and a platypus, with a green body and a yellow bill and feet. (Default)

Dear Lazyweb,

I've been vaguely considering online backups, but there seem to be a zillion companies out there in that business.

Does anyone have any experiences with specific online backup providers, or any recommendations or warnings to share?

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pne: A picture of a plush toy, halfway between a duck and a platypus, with a green body and a yellow bill and feet. (Default)
Philip Newton

June 2015

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