SOHO backup that works: why is it so hard?

by Robin Harris on Wednesday, 19 March, 2008

Moving to a small town in northern Arizona from Silicon Valley has enriched my perspective on many things, including how the industry develops products. The consensus is that if we take datacenter technology and put in enough defaults it will be “simple” enough for consumers. Wrong.

Memo to developers: it is ALL consumer IT
The consumerization of IT is usually means the adoption by IT of high volume consumer technologies. The PCI bus, Microsoft Windows, USB, x86, SATA disks and Wi-Fi all started in the consumer space and displaced more sophisticated and expensive IT.

But consumerization also means taking tech first developed for IT and making it easy enough for consumers. Ethernet LANs, symmetric multi-processing, external disk systems (well, really only Drobo) and what we used to call “office automation” software are now usable by non-geeks.

Pro vs amateur
Amateurs like GUIs. Pro’s like CLIs. Why do we have both on “enterprise” products? Because we are all amateurs – at something.

The third shift guys are all amateurs. They may want to be “professional” but they aren’t now.

Backup: the highest failure rate in IT?
Who knows how good the numbers are. A 40% enterprise backup failure rate is frequently bandied about. Whatever the “real” number is, it isn’t good enough.

If “professionals” with “industrial strength” backup hardware and software can only achieve a 60% completion rate – a failing grade anywhere – why does it surprise us that only a tiny percentage of small office/home office people backup regularly?

And further, why do we assume that SOHOs will never backup? “Americans will never wear seatbelts.” “People will never recycle.” “SOHOs will never backup.”

Yet the record is clear. If you take an education and ease of use approach, people will change their behavior. They will wear seatbelts. They will recycle. They will even learn to deal with PITA child seats. And they will backup.

But not if it is presented as a “junior” enterprise backup. Make it easy and affordable. Mostly easy. And people will do it.

A couple of backup products that work
On ZDnet I reviewed a Windows backup product that I could recommend to any small business here in the red rock-strewn desert, Backupkey. Plug it in, hit “enter” twice, and all your valuable Windows data gets copied.

Did this simple, useful product come from Boston? Silicon Valley? Redmond? Denver? Nope. Charleston, South Carolina? Bingo!

I suspect Backupkey got built there because the developer actually knows small business people. Knows their frustration and their intolerance for stuff that doesn’t work as they think it should.

Most Windows backup software is simply dumbed-down “real” backup. Backup sets. Incrementals. Images. Bootable. Whatever. But non-IT folks don’t know those words or concepts. Why can’t it just work?

On a Mac both Carbon Copy Cloner and SuperDuper work great and are almost easy enough for complete idiots to use. Partial idiots only, please. Apple’s Time Machine, which I finally set up last night on a new 500 GB USB/eSATA drive, is totally easy. Mindless bliss.

The StorageMojo take
I cringe every time I hear the big companies proclaim a new focus on the SMB market. Usually it is some shrunk-down enterprise product with incentives for the channel.

But what doesn’t change is the thinking behind the product. The assumptions about the consumer – “like us, only dumber” – and how the problem they are trying to solve rarely get the kind of re-think that went into Time Machine.

But the logic is inescapable: the more pervasive IT becomes, the more the technology must adapt to people. Backupkey does that for low-end Windows backup. Time Machine does that for Mac OS X. Who, and what, is next?

Comments welcome, as always.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

PJ March 19, 2008 at 9:11 pm

Couple of things:

For really easy backups see JungleDisk(windows) and duplicity(linux); personal backups (even SOHO) to Amazon S3 make a lot of sense time & trouble-wise.

Also, you’re right about the SMB market – SMB shouldn’t be looked at as a scaled-down enterprise, but rather as what it more often is: a scaled up SOHO, with all the homogeneity, bailing wire, duct tape and general “uniqueness” that should be expected of a pile of people putting their SOHO setups all in one place now that they can afford real office space.

tim wissman March 20, 2008 at 12:10 am

having been dealing with backup vendors for longer then i could have ever imagined, the SOHO market should be a free-bee. the prices they ask (and get)
for enterprise level backup solutions like legato, veritas (symantic), bakbone, etc
should easily cover the money lost on a 5 to 10TB license.

Marc Lachance March 20, 2008 at 3:11 am

Your comments related to backup also apply to the way most IT support companies approach small business…with technical tools that force them to learn more and do more about it, rather than just getting the job done. You are right. Small businesses don’t always recognize the need (as with any insurance), but they are ready to take care of it if they don’t have to stop running their business to do it. What they are sold is something that doesn’t solve the problem unless they put a lot more effort into it.

Pete Steege March 20, 2008 at 7:52 am

I’m seeing SMB solutions coming up from the Consumer market for a change, rather than trickling down from Enterprise. For example, Maxtor One Touch is being used by a lot of SOHO users. It’s often about ease of use, as you point out.

Marc Farley March 20, 2008 at 8:45 am

Online backup for consumers has two uncertainty problems: Recovery and subscription. Will I be able to recover and how do I pay for (and stop) subscriptions. It sounds easy, but check your own thinking on this. How many online subscriptions have you had problems with on the billing end with things like credit card number changes, etc where your service was turned off? I’ve certainly had a few. Not sure that I want to pay for months and then find out that I can’t get my stuff back. I like Pete Steege’s solution, which is to buy a big brick with 1394 or USB 2 connectivity and copy my data files to it. I’ve lost systems before and this approach lets me get rid of all the worthless software I’ve installed and never used. I guess I just like brute force and I don’t get that brute force feelgood from an online service.

A final comment on product development. Enterprise products “dumbed down” don’t work, won’t work and generally suck. The approach at EqualLogic was to start from scratch – and it worked and is still working in the SMB space.

Matthew Geddert March 20, 2008 at 9:02 am

I absolutely agree. SOHO solutions, and pretty much all other backup solutions are completely unnecessarily complex. But, I am worried that people are relying on solutions that only solve half the problem. People need two things from backups, both of which need to be able to be done automatically:

1) Disaster recovery (with off-site data storage) – not just for natural disasters, but also for the day your backup hard drive decides it doesn’t want to work any more.

2) Archives for deleted/destroyed files that are reasonably accessible (meaning a person doesn’t need to feel “dumb” about having to ask the IT department to restore their file, and thus instead re-creates their work)

Although Time Machine like solutions solve the number two problem we have yet to see a SOHO solutions for extremely easy to setup automated disaster recovery (i.e. off-site backups). I use rsync and ssh and that is not nearly easy enough. We also need a device like the Time Capsule to automatically sync its files to the cloud (maybe through a .mac account) and somebody from the windows world to copy that functionality before we can say that these simple solutions are “enough” for SOHO users.

Eric Grancher March 23, 2008 at 10:55 am

good afternoon,

thank you for your always very interesting site.

Backing to an external disk has imho a number of drawbacks like the fact that a power issue / theft / virus could affect several / all of your disk devices.

Remote backup has the drawback to be slow, expecially for complete restore.

Just to mention that I am impressed with Mozy (now an EMC company) for remote backup, very simple. It offers web restore from anywhere (a computer where you have not installed any special sofware). It runs on both MacOSX and Windows (and I use both versions) and is very stable.


PS: I am not linked in a way or another with Mozy or EMC, just a happy customer

Judith April 9, 2008 at 12:54 pm

What a timely article! Though we support lots of server-based backups (mostly BEX, some BrightStor), we also have a number of SOHO and individual customers who have been using tape backup systems for years — DAT and TRAVAN. Now we have no affordable TB solutions to offer them. My concern about backups to USB drives is that there is a single point of failure for the single-drive solutions, and lots of expense for the drive-cartridge ones (e.g. REV). I suppose online backups are okay, but some have security concerns/connectivity issues/confidentiality — they like knowing they have a backup in their safety deposit box if disaster strikes. We are “angsting” with them over this…while tape backups are (yes yes yes) unreliable, subject to hard and soft failures, I miss ’em. Maybe I’ve been around too long…

Michael Van Der Beek April 24, 2008 at 9:55 pm

There are many backup solutions targeted towards servers. Few target towards disaster recovery for personal PCs. Especially when VIPs of your organisation travels you might have a situation that your VIP is a thousand miles from your IT guy and his harddisk just crashed.

One product, that the company I work for is being picked up by the local government and DHL is a product called Exboot.

What it does it backups to an external USB drive. What so surprising you ask.
Well what it does is make it bootable. If your system’s Bios has an option for USB boot. You’ll find your entire OS is now bootable off the external drive. The VIP can take his time to return to the office and get the faulty drive in the laptop replaced. This means your entire system, applications data is still live an available to you. We’ve been told that some companies are beginning to change their notebook buying policy to ensure that the bios has full capability to boot even Vista off the Exboot drive.

Check out

Had one customer that uses it for their front desk machines. This is in case of a HD failure, they just plug it in boot up the Exboot and their queues don’t get longer, the same number of counters are still available. Their IT guys can come later in the day to fix it.

And yes it does do incrementals as well. No its only designed for PCs OS (XP/Vista) not server OS.

Peter Elliman August 8, 2008 at 1:35 pm

Robin – While I find the premise of your article interesting, I disagree with your hypothesis that SOHO backup does not work.

There are a number of SOHO solutions on the market that work very well. The question is are you talking about SOHO’s who are really 3 people working together in an office with laptops and no server?

First, should differentiate between laptop/desktop backup and server backup. You typically have different needs with there two approaches.

Second, you should differentiate between individual file recovery and disaster recovery (aka everything lost from my office / house, how do I rebuild).

I’ll disclose that I work for a company with backup products – Symantec.

I’m not going to talk about our products, but I will throw the following out for consideration.

1) Continous data protection (CDP) ideal for laptops.

This type of backup approach for laptops is ideal for traveling PC users (sales, tech, lawyers, etc). I’m one such user, and I’m rarely connected to my external storage drive.

Their are CDP solutions out there that backup to cloud storage or your office network storage. Symantec has several including Symantec Protection Network (SPN) and Backup Exec.

2) Recovery without your PC (mentioned in your article)

Accessing your files when you’re PC has gone walking (e.g. stolen or coffee spilled into keyboard). Most services that backup to the cloud allow you to go online and access / recover those files without your original PC. I find this to be a lot more handy than waiting to get home and connect to my external drive.

So one great strategy is cloud backup for the critical files and local backup for the rest of it.

I would be curious to know how you draw the line between SOHO and SMB. I think a lot of SMB products work fine for SOHO, but SOHO’s are even more price sensitive. This is partially due to lack of appreciation for the total cost of using technology for your business. It’s one think to have an iPod or camera break, it’s another thing to lose your data.

Here’s a parallel for you. When you buy a camera and lens, are you done with your camera purchase? No. You need a case, you need memory, you filters for your lenses, you made need cases for your lenses, etc. Often, these end costing as much as the camera. When you buy your business PC and basic business software, are you done with your IT costs? No.

HOME vs SOHO – what’s with those big media files
One area where home backup technology could get smarter relates to big files – say archived CDs, HD video etc. I want to backup & recover that data differently then my everyday files and content. In fact, a lot of that data I want to put on an external drive that I leave somewhere else because I don’t want to wait to pull down 500GB of data online (and I don’t want to pay to store largely inactive data online either). This is where a little flexibility in the backup application can be handy.

Moving that external HD offsite too much hassle? Well I think people used to do this with other valuables like jewelery etc in something called a lock box. Who is to say that 10 years worth of pictures is not worth a little extra effort? Or that 1 year project to rip your CDs to your HD? I’d hate to lose all that work.

As home and SOHO environments begin to store TBs of information, the need for better, more automated approaches to archiving will be important. A little archiving can make that backup process easier, especially if your prone to rearranging files and directories on your computer or doing image backups. More automation is the key here and having that archive be searchable is the other important part.

My personal two cents – not the opinion of my employer.

Nevertheless, I enjoy many of your articles.

Eric Fouarge October 13, 2008 at 6:41 pm

Being part of one of more prominent SOHO directed backup software development companies. I’ve personally noticed a substantial change in how the SOHO environment has became in the past year. The biggest thing that has changed is the immense amount of storage that is being put at the user’s finger tips at a very respectable price for the budget minded individuals, and securing their data is sometimes on their backburner when they decide to keep their sensitive home office data files on the same storage as their day to day family data that may or may not be as sensitive to them. What I’ve came across with the majority of mid-level products that fit the SOHO budget is that once you dive into this “data protection” journey there isn’t much direction given and the utility that was purchased doesn’t help them make proper decisions in completely protecting their data in the most secure and proper way possible. Another pitfall that is common that I have observed is that most SOHO products aim for one part of proper data protection whether it be online backup, disk imaging, secure file backup, or native file backup.

One product that is taking the route of encompassing all of this aspects of a best practice data protection environment for a very reasonable price is Novabackup 10 ( ) Being one of the pioneering companies in the online backup world and a long time survivor in the local backup industry brings everything to you in one easy to use package (CD,DVD, Blu-Ray, Tape, Disk Imaging, FTP, Amazon S3 and full disk imaging). Having a solution that allows you to have managable versioning of your file backups on your External HDD and automate performing offsite backups to Amazon S3 or your Webhosting account ( has an amazing storage promotion going on for dirt cheap) and giving you what everyone wishes to have is that of full Disaster Recovery by way of Drive Imaging. Novabackup gets you to place of best practice of industry standards without the overhead of what many of you had mentioned with the dumbed down enterprise or smb products that are “SOHO” friendly.

These are just my personal observations from being involved in the backup industry as tightly as I am currently.

Ritchie Fiddes March 23, 2009 at 9:42 am

This is a an interesting read as the waters between Home User, SOHO, SMB, and Enterprise backup solutions seem to have been muddied by providers claiming that their services can operate in multiple sectors.

It is clear that there are many home user backup products that are trying to attract business customers with very low prices, but every week there are horror stories in the press about slow recovery speeds and failed restores.

It is important to weigh up your RTO (Recovery Time Objective) against your budget and ultimately settle for a solution that satisfies both elements.

I think that as the market matures over the coming years, people will perform more Disaster Recovery tests which will highlight any weaknesses in their existing backup solutions.

At ( we are seeing a sharp increase in the number of customers looking into DR services. Stringent DR testing by customers should in turn lead to an overall improvement in the quality of Online Backup services, as eventually all solutions will need to provide Continuous Data Protection and Bare metal Restores.

logicrules July 11, 2009 at 9:47 am

I would be interested in your thoughts of using a product made by DataStor,

I have worked with DataStor, but do not work for them.
Best Regards,

Pierre April 5, 2012 at 9:40 pm

I consider myself a “pro”. I have more than 30 years in on systems and programming.

I DO NOT LIKE CLI. Give me a GUI and RAD IDE anytime.

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