I’m a fan of cloud storage, internet backups, and automatic file synchronization between computers. For years my solution was centered around JungleDisk, but a change of ownership led to a switch to GoodSync. Then a recent decline in GoodSync reliability and support inspired me to write about these cloud technologies, the products I evaluated, and the strategies I followed to optimally leverage them.
What is Cloud Storage?
You may be familiar with cloud storage products like DropBox, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, and Apple iCloud. These let you keep files on the internet, which is sometimes referred to as “cloud storage.” The awesome benefit of internet storage and access came into sharp focus for me after losing a laptop to a burglar in 2010. Cloud technologies allowed me to survive the loss of that computer and its files. And cloud access let me remain functional and keep my momentum until I could purchase a laptop replacement. Depending on the product, you can leverage cloud storage in additional and useful ways. Here are some of the top benefits:
Files created on a computer or a device automatically get copied to storage on the internet. Online backups can be a component of a backup strategy, but by itself it can lead to trouble. If you accidentally corrupt a file, or if a malicious virus were to encrypt your files, that damage would propagate and thus destroy any “backup.” Also consider how you will be impacted if the vendor has technical difficulty and goes offline. See my discussion of the 3-2-1 best practice below. It lists the other factors that can supplement your cloud storage so that you have a real backup.
Because the files are copied to the internet, many vendors will let you access that copy from a browser or mobile device. JungleDisk even let you map a drive letter to the internet storage so it would appear like normal storage to all your programs. Some solutions also support standard protocols like WebDAV, SFTP, or Amazon S3 to allow apps to access files in cloud storage. I would avoid products that limit your access via a proprietary client program. I’ve often found those clients have small feature sets, awkward interfaces, unreliable behavior, and a limited number of platforms.
I’m too frequently disconnected from the internet, so I need offline access and local copies of my files. Therefore, my cloud storage needs to be compatible with synchronization. Since synchronization can leverage the backup copies in cloud storage, it would be even better if the synchronization were automatic and built into my cloud solution. That is, after new files or changes are copied up to the internet, those same changes can be copied down to other computers connected to that account. Designated folders can be kept in sync across multiple computers, without requiring them to all be connected to a single local network. Some products also give you the option to configure “master” folders, so that changes only flow in a single direction. That is, changes on the master always propagate to the other connected computers. But changes, additions, or deletions on non-master computers do not propagate back to the master. Instead those changes are eventually overwritten and lost, and forced to match the master copy (also known as an “echo”). For example, I have a two-way sync between my laptop and desktop. I can switch between computers and all changes are automatically synchronized to the other machine. But I only echo that folder to my wife’s laptop (which I can access in an emergency). She doesn’t care about or use those files, so to prevent accidental changes from her end, the sync is one-way only. In between all these computers is the cloud storage copy, which I can access from my phone, tablet, or even a guest computer.
Some cloud solutions (e.g., SpiderOak) allow you to encrypt your files (with a key held only by you) to keep them secure. Others, like DropBox, allow your files to be visible to some of their employees. The ability to control the encryption key protects you from a disgruntled employee or a security breach at the service provider.
I Miss You, JungleDisk Desktop
JungleDisk Desktop had all the features and options listed above and was extremely reliable and easy to manage. I used it for many years and its pricing was very reasonable: they charged only a few cents per gigabyte for storage consumed and bandwidth utilized. They were purchased by Rackspace in 2008 and at first it looked like the parent company was going to invest and improve on an already great product. Unfortunately, about 2014 Rackspace changed to a direction that was consumer unfriendly. Rackspace’s focus for JungleDisk changed to big enterprise, their product emphasized only the backup feature, and their pricing model added per-seat licensing and payment minimums. Rackspace then announced that JungleDisk Desktop would be discontinued in September 2017 and forced all customers to either cancel their service or upgrade to the enterprise product (called JungleDisk Workgroup) . Although the enterprise solution still supported the same features as the “Desktop” product, none of those features were mentioned in any documentation or communication. You could only find out about them by contacting support, and Rackspace never made any efforts to correct this oversight. These portents strongly suggested the impending death of all these extra features, so I began searching for a substitute in the months preceding JungleDisk Desktop’s termination date.
There was no comparable competitor, so I had to cobble together multiple products to approximate a replacement. For cloud storage I settled on Google Drive Sync after OneDrive suffered synchronization corruptions (I’ve since heard Microsoft has fixed this issue). Google Drive Sync also has the advantage of adding photos found on your local drive to Google Photos. Dropped from the running was Apple’s iCloud since it is the most expensive solution; DropBox which had a smaller feature set; and SpiderOak whose complexity was more than I wanted to manage. I do, however, still use iCloud and DropBox in a limited capacity because some iOS apps and Windows programs only work with those products.
UPDATE (May 20, 2018): Despite advance notice, Google failed to address known issues with Windows 10 update 1803. Nor were paying customers notified so they could prepare and prevent the issue. Nor did they respond to customers impacted by the failure.
Consequently, I found that my backup configuration was wiped out and I was faced with starting all over. I would be charged double because their product would erroneously create a duplicate instead of updating the backup already made. And the massive duplication would consume an enormous amount of bandwidth over an extended time period.
So, instead, I cancelled my account and now I'm using a solution hastily cobbled together. While it may not be optimal, it made for a quick and affordable replacement. I set up GoodSync to perform backups to subdirectories beneath a OneDrive folder. This allows cloud access and also serves as a backup. The strategy has two weaknesses. Fist, OneDrive only works with a single folder so I have to duplicate everything beneath a OneDrive folder. Luckily, that drive is large enough to easily accommodate that duplication, but it is a product deficiency. Second, that duplication requires periodic manual backup jobs. However, I can configure GoodSync to automate them once I’m satisfied they are stable. Since I already have Office365 the storage was included in that subscription cost. So, the money that had been going to Google is now going to Backblaze. While Backblaze gives me the constant live backups (because I can’t fully trust or rely on GoodSync due to past misbehavior), it unfortunately handles cloud access of files in a cumbersome and unfriendly fashion.
The 3-2-1 Backup Strategy
Google Drive also fulfills a portion of my backup strategy, supporting the “3-2-1” best practice:
- 3: Until there are a minimum of 3 copies of a file, you don’t really have a backup
- 2: Your backups should use a minimum of 2 different media types
- 1: At least one backup needs to be off site (e.g., if your house burns down)
For synchronization, I opted not to use Google Drive Sync so that any file corruptions would not automatically propagate. I only use the sync feature to propagate from one “master” computer for backup, storage, and cloud drive functions. All other synchronizations would be manually initiated and configured to synchronize or echo with the master copy. A synchronization that goes wrong can result in massive destruction, so I wanted granular control until the reliability of the replacement solutions had been established.
One of the backup and sync tools that I have used for a decade is the free Microsoft SyncToy. And for massive ad hoc backups I would sometimes use the free utility FastCopy. Both products require that the source and target drives must be visible to the computer where these utilities run. So they can’t be used with remote computers across the internet. To fill that need I researched various solutions and decided upon GoodSync and purchased a license for each computer. Some advantages of GoodSync is that it can synchronize across the internet or access local network and drives directly (i.e., faster). If you’re only doing local synchronizations, I recommend SyncToy instead as it is much easier to use and is free.
GoodSync chugged along happily for six months. And I was about to schedule some automatic synchronization jobs when I began to run into problems. The first was self-inflicted, although non-obvious. Depending on how you set up a sync job, administrator credentials may get stored in that job. So when I changed the login password on one of my computers, GoodSync jobs would lockout the account on that computer because it was submitting the old password. It took me quite awhile to figure out what was happening, but after recreating the jobs (so they’d use the updated password), everything started working again. That was only done to test my theory, and I was unhappy with this arrangement. So I reconfigured the sync jobs so they “pushed” instead of “pulled” from that computer. With that change the credentials did not have to be stored with the job.
Then in January I had one sync job stop running. Change is the main cause of computer issues, but I’d not made any changes to these jobs or computers. I validated the failing job against a working job and they were both configured identically. So GoodSync was the primary suspect and I opened a support ticket with the vendor. The technician working my case was lazy and incompetent, basically telling me to “read the documentation.” I pointed out that I had, and found deficiencies in said instructions and asked a series of questions for clarification, which were ignored. In the interim, I did the technicians job and did my own investigation. These were highly technical aspects and no customer should be expected to know about hidden file ownership attributes and ACL policies. I was eventually able to identify that the problem was indeed caused by GoodSync. It would intermittently create a file named “_file_state_v4._gs” in a hidden directory named “_gsdata_” but omit the ownership. Without an ownership attribute, it couldn’t determine access permissions and the job would fail. If the owner was correctly populated the job would work. I eventually found a work-around: create a remote control session for the other computer, log in using an administrator account (full control permissions so the omission is overruled), and then run the job. It’s definitely a pain and I almost abandoned GoodSync completely over this issue. Because if it won’t run, what’s the sense of having it?
A few weeks later, all sync jobs on one computer refused to run. It was a new and different error and I validated that it wasn’t the owner attribute issue at fault. I couldn’t even recreate the jobs, so I opened another support ticket and got the same lazy and incompetent technician. So this might be a small, if not solo, business. Which does not bode well for long term viability. The first suggestion was “Upgrade to the latest version.” Hey, idiot, minutes before you made that stupid suggestion, I sent you the log files you requested and it shows that I’m already on the latest version. Then they reply “Disable your security software.”
Let me be clear, run (do not walk) away from any idiot that suggests you disable security as one of their first troubleshooting options.
Luckily, I persisted, and they eventually found and acknowledge that the problem was on their servers. After they fixed their issue, the jobs resumed running without requiring any changes on my end. All these issues do not bode well for GoodSync. On some days it still takes some prodding when GoodSync fails to set ownership attributes correctly. Although the work-around isn’t terribly hard, finding it was way beyond the technical expertise of an average person. Consequently, I have contingencies ready, and my worst case scenario includes a USB thumb drive and old reliable SyncToy. Below are a couple of USB storage options that I’ve been using.
The Samsung features a good balance in performance and price. But of particular importance is its full metal case, which is important for keychain carry. Too many times, I’ve had thumb drive plastic attachment points break. Luckily, when they’ve broken they’ve not been lost, giving me time to replace them. And I use TrueCrypt to create encrypted volumes on my thumb drives and my external drives to protect sensitive files in case they should get lost or stolen.
Metal Samsung 128GB USB 3.0 Flash Drive BAR
The one “plastic” exception is the speedy SanDisk Extreme CZ80. At 64GB it’s still roomy enough for my needs. To mitigate the plastic attachment point, I use a small key ring between it and the main key ring. This strain relief strategy appears to be working since I’ve had a couple of these drives for two years now.
SanDisk Extreme CZ80
The products already mentioned and linked in this article are some of the big players which I’ve already researched. They are a good place to begin your search. But there are some equally big and capable offerings which I haven’t mentioned, and the following resources will include them. These resources also catalog and review features which might apply more significantly to your specific needs.
- “Comparison of Online Backup Services” by Wikipedia
- “Comparison of File Hosting Services” by Wikipedia
- “Comparison of File Synchronization Software” by Wikipedia
- “Best Online Backup Service” by The Wirecutter
- “The Best Online Backup Services of 2018” by PCMag
- “Which Cloud Storage Service Is Right for You?” by CNET
- “The Best Cloud Storage and File-Sharing Services of 2017” by PCMag
- “The Best Cloud Storage Services of 2018” by TechRadar