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Okay, this post isn’t exactly about, but it is cloud-related.

After some extremely heavy rain here in Sydney (wettest July ever recorded), a friend asked me about online backup options. It seems that the threat of flooding led him to think about protecting his data. At least he thought about it before he lost any data!

As it happens, I had recently researched this topic for my own backups. I always do nightly backups to a second hard disk, but I had wanted some extra protection against theft or fire, so uploading to the Internet sounded like a good option. I looked at various online backup providers like Mozy and Jungle Disk but noticed that services like DropBox were also promoting themselves as a form of backup. I found this interesting, because I see DropBox as a synchronization tool rather than a backup tool, but I investigated the option nonetheless.

What I found changed the way I view backups. Rather than thinking of backups as batch copies with full/incremental options, I came to appreciate that synchronization tools actually have advantages over traditional backup methods:

  • They work instantly, rather than in batches
  • The concept of full vs incremental backups is no longer relevant since they’re always updating incrementally
  • They can handle multiple computers
  • Web access is extremely useful

My selection set quickly came down to DropBox vs SugarSync, which are both “sync to the cloud” tools.


I love DropBox and it seems that everyone at Atlassian (my workplace) loves it too. It’s great for sychronizing files between computers. I have used it for years, primarily to move files between home and work. I just drop a file into the DropBox folder and it automatically copies up to the cloud. It automatically syncs to my other computer (or, if the other computer is off, it does so as soon as it is turned on).

I love playing games with this technology. If I have two such computers in one room (eg a laptop and desktop), I delete a file on one computer and see how long it takes to delete on the other (Answer: it’s effectively instant). I’ve also deleted files via the provided web interface, which instantly deletes the file from the computer I’m using. DropBox also keeps copies of deleted files for 30 days for recovery.

DropBox is renowned for its simplicity. For example, it simply syncs anything put into the DropBox folder. However, this simplicity made DropBox less-than-perfect for my backup requirements. I’d like to specify folders anywhere on my computer that I’d like copied — my documents, my photos, my work notes. They’re all in different places and I didn’t want to change my work habits and move them all into a single DropBox directory.


I also came across SugarSync, which is very similar to DropBox. There’s probably many differences, but the  most significant for me were:

  • The ability to specify any folders to be synchronized
  • The ability to sync multiple computers independently
  • Not having to sync to other computers

The folder bit is self-explanatory. I can select any folders/subfolders and tell SugarSync to sync them to the cloud.

The multi-computer aspect turned out to be most handy because I can sync my home computer to the ‘cloud’ and I can also sync my work computer to the cloud. The files are kept separately and are identified by the computer from whence they came.

Here’s an example… If I’m at home and I want a file from my work computer, I can access the SugarSync web interface and download the file. I don’t need to sync whole folders from one computer to the other. In fact, I specifically don’t want this to happen — I don’t want my personal home files copied to my work computer (which administrators can access) and I don’t want all my work files copied to my home (because they’re mostly irrelevant for my home life). However, I do want the ability to access the files if necessary.

Also, the storage space purchased on SugarSync is shared between all computer uploads, without needing separate accounts for each computer.

The Choice

I decided to go with SugarSync due to the above differences, but also because I got a limited-time offer that gave a 50% discount (yes, pricing matters!). I received that offer by simply being a user of the free 5GB plan, so I’d at least recommend signing-up for that to get any future special offers.

I’m very happy with the way it has worked out. It is rare that I have to access files from other computers, but it does happen once or twice a month. I also enjoy the fact that I can access my photos via web browser, which is very handy when I’m visiting friends and want to show off. (Both DropBox and SugarSync have the ability to view photos via the web and to share photo folders with other people.)

I enjoy the piece-of-mind whenever I save a file and see the ‘sync’ icon activate, which tells me the files are already being copied elsewhere.

So, I would highly recommend using sync tools as a backup system, since they have several benefits over traditional backup. They shouldn’t be your only form of backup — I would still recommend a local hard disk backup, which has the advantage of being able to restore a computer to bootable state if something goes wrong (which the sync tools can’t do).

If you’re going to look at the above tools, feel free to use the links below. They’ll give you extra benefits and will give me a reward, too (full disclosure!). I guess it’s cheaper than advertising!

DropBox: Free 2GB DropBox account, plus bonus 250MB via this link

SugarSync: Free 5GB account, plus 500MB extra, or 10GB extra on a paid account

Oh, and remember — paper is a perfectly good form of backup, especially for short documents. It’s hard to erase and survives for years!

If you’ve found other good backup options, feel free to leave a comment!

The Bottom Line

  • Backups don’t have to be done in batches
  • Sync tools offer benefits over traditional backup techniques
  • Always have multiple forms of backup

7 Responses to “Recommended cloud ‘sync tools’ for backup”

  1. Varun Says:

    Thanks for the information :-) but you might want to correct something regarding Dropbox now, they do allow selective sync (I noticed this option in Dropbox version 1.x and above), now you can sync different folders on different computers in dropbox also.

  2. The Enforcer Says:

    Ah! Yes, but no.

    The “Selective Sync” feature in DropBox lets me specify which subfolders within the DropBox folder I’d like to sync (“Select which folders sync to this computer”). The advantage is that I wouldn’t have to copy every folder to every computer. However, it still does not allow me to select ANY folder on a computer — the folders must be within the DropBox folder.

    I guess I could get fancy and create subfolders for each computer, which would then sync upwards always, but downwards only as desired, but I like the way SugarSync clearly shows from WHICH computer the files came. Other people might prefer the DropBox method.

  3. Tom Davies Says:

    If you want to backup a lot of data, rather than just a few files, see CrashPlan — they will allow you to back up hundreds of GB cheaply.

  4. The Enforcer Says:

    Ooh, I do like CrashPlan’s offer of seeding a backup from hard disk, rather than having to upload all historical files. And they seem to have the ability to backup to multiple locations.

    I’ve also seen systems that let you backup to friends and they can backup to you, so you use each other’s spare disk space rather than having to pay a third-party.

  5. Tom Davies Says:

    CrashPlan does the backup to/from friends thing — if you just do that then it’s free.

    While my initial backup to CrashPlan’s servers took weeks, due to the limitations of ADSL upstream bandwidth, the incremental backups don’t tax my net connection.

  6. Randy@CloudBackupReview Says:

    The drawback with dropbox is, their Customer Support is not good.

  7. The Enforcer Says:

    Hi Randy! Just looked at your SOS Online Backup service but saw it doesn’t support Macs, so not applicable for my situation.