Cheap Hosting + Cheap Software = Secure Offsite Backups

Okay, we all know that we should be backing up our computers regularly. We have our entire lives on these machines. All of my digital pictures, music, every word document and spreadsheet I’ve done in the last 15 years. If I were to lose that data… well, I don’t even want to think about it. Here, we’ll look at a dirt cheap way to automate your backups to a secure offsite location.

In fact, backing up is easy; pick up one of those external USB hard drives install the software and it all happens automatically. The problem comes in what we call in the business, “disaster recovery”. From a personal perspective, think about the worst case scenario: your house goes up in flames, or gets flooded, rendering both your computer and your precious backup useless. Even though you have been backing up, you are still without your data! The solution is offsite backups. This has been used by businesses for years, but as the value of bandwidth and disk space has dropped to almost nothing, this is now feasible for individuals at just a few dollars a month, by combining a couple of cheap, existing services.

Web Host as Storage
First, you need a place to store your files. Here, we think a little bit outside of the box. Look for a cheap, high-capacity web host! Why a web hosting company? They give you lots of disk space, have a fast connection to the internet, and any files you place there will be backed up (a backup of a backup… now thats safe!). We’ll talk about file security a little later.

There are many webhosting accounts that you can get that provide 100+Gb of storage for just a few dollars a month! I use Dreamhost, which offers about 150Gb for $7.95/mo, or 290Gb for $15.95/mo (They are constantly increasing this amount, so it may be different when you look). If you use the promocode “BACKUP“, it will double those numbers to 300Gb or 580Gb!

You don’t have to use Dreamhost. This will work with any host that provides a large amount of disk space. By the way, I don’t necessarily recommend Dreamhost for webhosting, as they don’t tend to be the most reliable, but for offsite storage, it’s great!

Backup Software
Next, you’ll need backup software. The only requirements are that the software has to be able to do incremental backups with encryption to an FTP site. Your External USB drive may have been packaged with some for free. Just check the features.

If you don’t have software, or yours doesn’t support FTP, incremental and encryption, I use Handy Backup version 4.0 which does everything we need here. There’s a 30-day free trial, and it’s $30 to buy after that.

Putting it all together
Now, you sign up for your hosting, and they will create you an account with FTP access. They’ll ask you which domain you want to host. If you want to use it for hosting as well, go for it. If not, it doesn’t matter what you put in here. Try leaving it blank, or try “demo.com”. If those fail, just smack your keyboard and come up with something like “gdsagkjhklfdj.com”.

Next you will need to FTP into the account. Most providers will have a WebFTP or FileManager in their control panel. If you are using Dreamhost, it’s under “Users/Manage Users” and click on WebFTP.

When you FTP into this account, you will probably see a directory called “gdsagkjhklfdj.com” (or whatever you put in). Any files you place into that directory will be published to the web. This is not what you want, since you probably don’t want your private documents available to the world. Create a new directory called “backup” (not within the public directory!). If you want to use this for multiple machines, name it appropriately: “laptop”, “office” or “joespc”

Now, you’ll need to load up and set up your backup software. Each software is different, but generally speaking, you’ll need to set up a backup job and take the following steps:

  • Select the source directory. In this case, choose “My Documents” or whereever else you have files.
  • Select the destination directory. Here you are selecting “FTP”, and you will need to put in your username and password from your webhost.
  • You’ll also need to set the “folder” or “root directory”. Here, select the directory you created earlier (/backup)
  • Make sure you select “Incremental” backup, instead of “Full backup”. Otherwise, it will try to re-upload your entire directory every day!
  • Make sure that the option to encrypt the files is on. You are uploading your files to a shared server with potentially thousands of other people. While it’s not easy for other people to get into your directory, with that many people, there are potentially some knowledgeable kids that can work their way in there. If your files are encrypted, they won’t be able to open any files.
  • Set up a schedule to run this daily, or several times a day. In a typical day, you will only touch a dozen files or so, and so these files will be updated to your offsite storage. If you only run it weekly, it will need to transfer hundreds of files that will take a long while.

The first run
The first time you run this, your backup software will look at your directory and the directory on your host, and find that there are a lot of files that need to be transfered. Depending on the size of your documents folder, expect this first backup to take several days! You are transferring many Gigabytes of data, and this will take some time. Take heart in knowing that this only has to happen once, and you won’t need to do this again! Once all of those old photos have been copied, they won’t be changing and won’t need to be copied again later.

You might also want to grab a copy of the backup software you used, and its licence key and FTP that to your host as well. If you do need to restore it, you may need the key, and find that the only place you have it is in an encrypted file in your backup!

How did this work for you? Do you have any other tips? Let me know in the comments!

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