Earth Notes: On Google's New "Backup and Sync", and G-Drive: Reviews

An efficient and simple backup scheme that works, and that does not carry a big price tag or carbon footprint.
G DRIVE 2TB landscape

How I back up without boring myself silly, and reviews of my just-retired 1TB USB G-DRIVE, my new 2TB USB G-DRIVE and, confusingly, Google Drive now aka "Backup and Sync" also!

Backup Scheme

Generally with a backup scheme you'd like something which does not cost a fortune, doesn't take much time or effort, and that also ensures you're unlikely to lose more than (say) one day's work if your gadget is lost or stolen or the building it's in catches fire. Maybe you'd like to defend against the current round of ransomware contagions too.

I've designed and implemented backup systems for me and my businesses for decades, involving everything from paper hardcopy through tape to cloud, and even in the past for a major international bank. KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) is best, or it won't happen! And run an occasional test so that you know that your files are there when you need them back.

I have two or three things to backup, mainly my MacBook (which I'll focus on here), my Raspberry Pi (RPi) server, and a second (Windows) laptop.

What I avoid is leaving any networked backup systems switched on permanently, drawing power, and being at risk of failure or compromise. Just using an USB-powered external disc, and unplugging it when not actually backing up (all will become clear later) saves ~3W continually, ie maybe ~£3 and ~26kWh and ~10kgCO2 per year, and uses only a tiny amount of energy when active (typically tens of minutes per day at ~5W).

I make the assumption that cloud storage by the byte stored per month will be far more efficiently managed in terms of energy (and thus carbon) than I can manage at home with an always-available solution beyond the small-scale Flash-based storage that I make available from my off-grid server. Indeed, real cloud storage should be much cheaper and more capacious, and resistant to being destroyed if my house burns down... The ability to supply reliable cloud service cheaply is one measure of resource efficiency.

Second Lappy and RPi

To get the Windows laptop out of the way: we back that up with a copy of files we care about to a memory stick, keeping a current and previous copy at all times. Periodically I copy the memory stick to my Mac, so that the files make their way into my main backup as described below.

And actually I mainly treat the RPi the same way; I move copies of some of its key files, such as backups of some repositories, to the laptop to be backed up from there. Everything ends up on an Apple "Time Machine" backup on a USB-connected external drive (see below), and public stuff gets put in the Google Drive to end up in the cloud. By and large I try to keep other people's personal data, and any passwords, away from Google Drive, as the US government does not have a good record on respecting privacy, and I might even be breaking UK/EU law to store that stuff in a place where they can grab it. So, a little less money to Google each month for storage fees, for a start.

I tend to do significant backups of my RPi content, such as copies of entire SVN repositories, one or two times per year. I've been doing some of those today. Copies of individual file updates for Web sites, etc, tend to be captured for backups daily.

So for me, my Mac is the centre of my backup attention.

Daily Tea and Toast and Backup

2TB G-DRIVE

Typically once per day, while drinking my first cup of tea and with my brain still too asleep to do much else, I plug in to my MacBook my G-DRIVE USB external disc/disk/HDD, and let Time Machine take a backup, usually lasting a few minutes. When it's done, I eject and unplug the G-DRIVE, saving power (and carbon), untethering my laptop from the desk, and making a calamity such as a ransomware virus or a power surge or other bad bug, or just a fumble-fingered 'delete everything' command, much less likely to wipe out my backups along with the laptop itself.

Backups are there to protect both against hardware failure (and malware), and also against a user error deleting more than they intended. Quite different animals, both important.

Just occasionally I open up Time Machine and make sure that I can pull up an old version of a file, ie that the backups are actually doing something!

Weekly Cloud

About once a week, or maybe when I'm not at home near my external drive, I fire up Google Drive itself (otherwise off to save power and bandwidth and snooping opportunities) and let it sync stuff to the cloud. Now I'm protected against my house burning down, along with laptop failure/theft and fumble-fingered idiocy! Hurrah!

Review: Google Drive (now Backup And Sync) 100GB + 31GB Free

  • Google Drive - Cloud Storage & File Backup for Photos, Docs & More
  • Reviewed by: Damon Hart-Davis on 2017/08/05
  • Generally reliable cloud backup and collaboration tool.
  • An application that integrates with my Mac desktop, and Firefox and Chrome browsers, making cloud backup easy and cheap with a bit of command-line stuff from me. On top of that Google Docs is an excellent collaboration tool, and anything in one of Google's formats doesn't count towards the storage limit. There are a couple of gotchas (see below), particularly after a significant computer calamity needing general restore from some other backup; expect to download all your Google-hosted files again, so watch out for download limits! You may also wish to be wary of putting anything confidential or personal in Google's clutches, given that US administrations consider your data to be theirs when managed by a US company...
  • Rating: 4.5 out of 5

I currently have 131 GB total Google Drive storage at 2017/08/05 (with less than 90GB used) for US$1.99 / £1.59+VAT per month.

I auto-sync copies of my Web sites, public repos*, and selected personal files, plus many work-related files (Google Docs don't count against storage allowance.

* For the technically inclined, I basically check out extra working copies of my SVN and git repositories under the Google Drive area, to make it easy for Google Drive to sync them to the cloud, but I don't use those copies for development for example.

I use Google Drive also as a collaboration tool within my businesses, and other companies and organisations, and occasionally a way to directly publish documents on the Web.

Misfeatures

Last time that I did an OS (re)install on my Mac, after a disc failure, there was no way to make Google Drive use the files restored from my backup disc, but rather it insisted on downloading them all again from Google's cloud copy, blasting me through a broadband usage limit that I didn't know I had (and delivering an unexpected bill as a result). This misfeature (tying the file to its "i-node" number on disc, which is not preserved on restore from backup) is still present as far as I know. This is poor design and may double people's pain after some major computer snafu, unless they have really unlimited bandwidth. (I had to visit a friend and use some of his at one point, to get up and running again!)

Also, I have to be very careful when using Google Drive to backup checked-out git working copies; if Google Drive is trying to sync while git is running on the working copy then silent corruption is highly likely, only detected by running git fsck, and only easily repaired by checking out from scratch. Definitely don't actually do live development in that Google Drive working copy!

Backup and Sync: The Upgrade

2017/09/08: naturally, no sooner have I written the above review then Google Drive is announced to be end of life from 2017/12/11!

Note that the basic behaviour of Backup and Sync matches that of the Google Drive application, ie:

If you use Backup and Sync, your local files will remain in your Drive folder on your computer, and a synced copy is also stored online. You can also configure Backup and Sync to delete local files and keep them safe in the cloud.

This is not the same as Drive File Stream:

If you use Drive File Stream, your Drive files are moved to the cloud, freeing up disk space and eliminating the network bandwidth needed to keep all your files synced from your computer to the cloud. You can stream Drive files on demand, or make them available for offline access.

This seems to me likely a way to get people to pay (more) for Google's services, and though I do pay for my storage, I use it for a mix of purposes and Google's docs seem to assume a single use within a single organisation/role. Google already has failed for years to understand that my ID, which is a personal mail address, is not theirs to send/forge mails from, resulting in tens of bounced mails and failed diary syncs every day for me. Blinkered thinking I fear. This may be a mess.

Anyhow, I downloaded from the link on Google's page above, closed Google Drive down, and started Backup and Sync via the icon that replaced Drive. I was given a small time to set preferences before that menu disappeared, worryingly, but I was able to get back to it.

Backup and Sync can backup more than the top-level Google Drive folder, and for me the preferences allows me to tick (but has thankfully not preselected) folders such as Desktop and Documents. There are more creepy options such as automatically uploading new photos and videos (defaulting off for me, good). But also options to upload the contents of USB devices and SD Cards which worryingly seemed to be on without that being clear from the menu. Google may end up with another 'WiFi snooping' lawsuit on its hands if it doesn't fix that as there will be all sorts of privacy and confidentiality issues with slurping every USB/SD device silently...

(Even if limited to just auto-uploading photos, it's going to end up sucking up a bunch of private photos (kids, wild parties, whatever) that should not be shared unexpectedly. If not limited to photos, think how many businesses exchange moderately- to very- sensitive documents privately in person, if too private to put on-line? Hmm, USB sticks... You can disable this feature if you notice the option and realise that it is enabled, but it's tucked away at the end and without a checkbox like other items in the same view. Indeed, it looks at first glance to be informational. Someone in the UX team may have thought that they were being clever, but like the Windows 10 "cancel means upgrade" debacle, it'll cause trouble.)

Backup and Sync has preserved under 'Settings' my Google Drive request not to open on start-up (for a bunch of reasons): good.

While I was typing these first few paragraphs, Backup and Sync ran a small sync and stopped, and I shut it down as I have done with Google Drive when not actively using it.

Then I updated some files that I've worked on today in the Google Drive area using SVN, forced another sync by firing up Backup and Sync from Mac's Luanchpad, and shut down Backup and Sync after. Behaviour much the same as the old Google Drive with a little bit better UI (more feedback) while it was running.

OK so far, but I am anticipating problems with possible interactions with "Drive File Stream" and cross-origanisation collaboration that we do extensively.

Review: G-DRIVE mobile USB 1TB

  • G-DRIVE mobile USB 1TB External Hard Disc
  • Reviewed by: Damon Hart-Davis on 2017/08/05
  • Has been quiet and reliable and has provided three good years of service.
  • Small, quiet, cheap, plugs straight into my MacBook Air USB port (without needing an external power supply) and has worked nicely with Apple's "Time Machine" backup utility to perform daily backups and at least one restore from disaster. Power-efficient, so helps trim my carbon footprint. Has survived being unplugged without a proper 'eject' more than once. Excellent product!
  • Rating: 5 out of 5

From the label: 0G03235, GDRMOUEA1000ABB, 5V~900mA.

I bought my G-Technology 1TB G-DRIVE from my local (Kingston-upon-Thames) Apple Store three years ago, and it has done what it said on the tin (well, the cardboard box) ever since.

Because it is getting close to capacity, and this could be a good time to add some extra annual backups then lock it away in a fire safe somewhere, I have decided to upgrade to a slightly bigger model of G-DRIVE, leaving the current one as a permanent backup.

This was first used with Apple's "Time Machine" backup system 2014/08/18.

As of 2017/08/05:

  Available:	196.69 GB (196,694,163,456 bytes)
    Capacity:	999.86 GB (999,860,166,656 bytes)

Because this device is powered by its USB cable, power consumption is limited to ~5W; in practice measurements agree, and I unplug the drive from the USB when not actively backing up to save energy and for added security.

By comparison, a previous mains-powered Iomega drive used ~8W in use, ~3W when put to sleep, so the G-DRIVE is 3W less all the time!

Review: G-DRIVE mobile USB 2TB

I bought my new G-Technology 2TB G-DRIVE from my local (Kingston-upon-Thames) Apple Store today 2017/08/05, for £89.95, no fuss.

On the box: USB 3.0/2.0, macOS and Windows, 3 year warranty.

Label: 0G05450, G-DRIVE mobile USB 3.0, 2000GB Black WW v2.

Still rated 5V at ~900mA, ie ~5W.

Volume capacity: 2,000,054,960,128 bytes.

The 2TB device is twice the thickness of, and heavier than, the 1TB device, which is reasonable, though we get spoiled by tech toys getting smaller and lighter and cheaper all the time. I still tell anyone who will listen that when I arrived at Edinburgh University in 1986 its entire computer storage was at about the 1.5GB mark, so I should not begrudge a little more heft from something three orders of magnitude more capacious! (Official dimensions of this 2.5" drive: 129mm x 82mm x 20mm.)

Shifting my Time Machine backup to the new device is easy but when the backup then started automatically, I was confronted with "Backing up XX GB of 500.92 GB, About 5 hours remaining," as of 18:30! Whoops! I should have planned ahead!

(In the end the backup finished after just over three hours.)

  • G-DRIVE mobile USB 2TB External Hard Disc
  • Reviewed by: Damon Hart-Davis on 2017/08/05
  • The double-thickness matt-black twin of the 1TB slab: shades of 2001 and Arthur C Clarke.
  • Still small, quiet, cheap, plugs straight into my MacBook Air USB port (without needing an external power supply). Have swapped it for its 1TB brother in Time Machine effortlessly, and it's claiming that it will back up at 100GB/h the initial 500GB image. Subjectively seems faster than the 1TB drive. All good so far; I may review the rating if something bad happens.
  • Rating: 5 out of 5

Sources/Links

  • G-Technology: makers of the G-DRIVE.
  • Google Drive: "A safe place for all your files."
  • Michael Bluejay's notes on computing electricity/energy use: "As long as your computer goes into sleep/standby when you're not using it, your computer doesn't use squat for electricity, compared to the rest of your household.".