Review: Symantec Online Backup - Page 2

By Gerry Blackwell
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Selecting the My Documents folder, by clicking in the box beside it in the file browser, automatically selected all the files it contained and all its subfolders. The status panel on the left side of the screen at this point estimated the amount of data to be backed up at 84 GB. It was this high because of the hundreds of media files in the My Pictures and My Videos subfolders, which I had no intention of backing up.

I had to open the My Documents folder in the Symantec file browser and de-select each of 25 or so subfolders. (With more sophisticated backup software, you can exclude all subfolders with a single setting.) At this point, I expected the status panel to show a more modest amount of data to be backed up, but it unaccountably showed 0 bytes.

Symantec Online Backup screen shot
Go to the Online Backup service page to configure your backups, perform a restore or clean up protected data.
(Click for larger image)

Other backup utilities let you filter which files in a selected folder you want backed up. You can tell the system to exclude temporary files with the .tmp extension, for example. You can’t do that with Symantec Online Backup. Instead, the service automatically excludes files it’s sure have no value, such as .tmp files Everything else gets backed up – including, it turns out, valueless files such as temp files starting with the tilde character (~) and Word backup files, which most people don’t need to keep.

The company says its technology has the capability to provide a filtering feature, and it may offer it in future. In the meantime, your only option is to reorganize data so any file types you don’t want to back up are not stored in folders selected for backup – or bear the cost of backing up data you don’t really need.

The problem with the browser-based approach is that the flow of data during the configuration process is unwieldy. The agent software gathers information about files and folders on your system and sends it to the Symantec server, which then sends it back so you can see it on the configuration screens in the browser interface.

In the case of my main desktop PC, this involves a sizeable amount of data going back and forth. Response times as a result were excruciatingly slow. It took over a minute in some cases to display the list of files to be backed up.

Continuous Backups

These are not killer flaws, however, because you configure backups infrequently – ideally only once. The interface is reasonably responsive for other functions such as generating reports and showing you details of the status of backups.

In fact, there is much to like in this service. You can schedule backups, a feature most software and services provide, but by default, the agent will continuously back up your files as you change them or create new ones. This means backups are very current.

Some services copy the entire file to the backup server whenever the file changes. Symantec does byte-level backups, meaning it only copies over the parts of the file that have changed or been added. This reduces computing overhead and the Internet bandwidth required. Furthermore, it retains a year’s worth of versions of a file.

My first backup, which turned out to be 2GB, took a few hours to complete – I was working on the computer for some of that time with the backup going on in the background. Ongoing continuous backup, which includes encryption of data, also occurred without my being aware of it, even when I was working on the computer.

The Restore process is simple. You can restore individual files or groups of files, and you can browse for files in the backup set or search for them.

The search tool works well, but I did uncover a potential bug in the browse functionality. The Modified date for files is supposed to be the date they were last modified on the originating computer. In my backup set, the Modified date shown was the date the files were backed up. The company’s tech support engineers are looking into what might have gone wrong.

To restore a file, you click the box beside it in the list, then click Next. You’re presented with a few clear options – when to start the restore, whether to restore to the same file location or to a new one (if you’re changing computers, for example) and what to do if a file being restored already exists on the destination hard drive. Restoring a single file took seconds. Pop-up alerts tell you when the process starts and ends.

Bottom Line

If you’re considering online backup, add this Symantec service to the list of possibles. It’s not perfect, but it has some nice features – continuous backup in the background, end-to-end encryption, one-year revision history. The price seems fair and Symantec is definitely a company you can trust.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s.

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This article was originally published on May 28, 2008
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