Review: Symantec Online Backup

Online backup is a great idea; your data is stored offsite, most services let you set up automatic, unattended backups. And you can restore data from any computer connected to the Internet.

You do have to trust the company you’re dealing with, though, and many of the companies offering online backup services for small businesses are little-known start-ups. But now a trusted name in computer security, Symantec Corp., maker of the Norton anti-virus and Internet security products, offers a backup service of its own.

Symantec Online Backup screen shot
This sample Backup History report shows the detail and historical trending data available in Symantec Online Backup’s reporting engine.
(Click for larger image)

Symantec Online Backup, priced as low as $10 a month for 10 gigabytes (GB) of storage, is the first of a planned suite of online services built on the company’s Symantec Network Protection platform. Symantec designed the service for small and medium-size businesses and made it simple enough to configure and use that even non-technical personnel can manage it.

You can back up as many computers as you want and pay a fixed amount per month for a given amount of data – 10, 25, 50, 100, 250, 500 or 1,000-plus GB – plus a certain amount per gigabyte for “overage,” if your backups take more than the contracted amount of space.

We tested the sign-up, configuration, backup and recovery processes and came away impressed – although with a few reservations.


The sign-up process is a matter of filling out an online form with basic information about your company: name, address, telephone number. Symantec currently offers a one-month no-obligation trial, but you do have to enter credit card data.

The company calls Online Backup a Web-based application. This is a key differentiator as it means you can perform administrative functions from any Internet-connected computer. To configure backups or restores or view reports, you open a browser, surf to the service’s portal site and key in a username and password.

Most services require you to install a large piece of software to perform these functions. With Symantec Online Backup, you do have to download and install agent software, which works in the background to manage backups and restores, but it’s relatively small.

When you add the first computer to your account and download and install the agent software, you also have to input an encryption passphrase – a password that determines how Online Backup will encrypt your data. The agent encrypts the files before they leave your system, which means nobody can intercept and read your data as it passes over the Internet.

It’s vital that you don’t lose the passphrase because you need it to restore data onto  a new system. Symantec does not keep the passphrase or have access to it. This may not sound like such a good thing, but it is. If hackers break in to the Symantec systems, your data will be unreadable. And even if government or law enforcement gets a court order obliging Symantec to give them access to your files, they won’t be able to read anything.

Symantec Online Backup screen shot
You can search or browse for files and folders to recover on the Symantec Online Backup’s Restore page.
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But fear not. The price for Online Backup includes a free subscription to an online escrow service, a secure Web site where you store your encryption passphrase and can always recover it if you forget it.

After installing the agent, rebooting your computer and “confirming” the computer by following a link from an automatically sent e-mail, you’re ready to log in and configure a backup.

Simple to a Fault?

Symantec said that one of its objectives was to make the service so dead simple that non-technical people could be up and running in five minutes. It is a fairly simple process to this point, but five minutes? Excuse me. It took closer to 25 minutes just to get this far.

Making Online Backup an extremely simple browser-based application may make for ease-of-use – and good marketing – but it also means it’s not as configurable as some services, and it’s not very responsive when you’re configuring backups.

You start by using a Windows-like file browser to select volumes (disks or logical partitions of disks), folders or individual files to back up. Like most people, I have a My Documents folder with many subfolders. I wanted to back up only certain types of files in the main folder and none of the subfolders. This proved difficult or impossible.

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