Seven free or open source backup tools

Looking for some new backup software? On a budget? This review of seven free and/or open source backup tools could be what you need!

Data backup used to be pretty simple. Both Windows NT and Unix included basic backup utilities that could easily be used to back up the operating system to tape. A simple script would run the backup utility at a given time in the evening, and that was that. However, as technology has evolved, the requirements of a backup system have gone beyond a simple full backup every night. Handling scheduling, particularly without having to edit or write scripts, can be greatly simplified with a GUI interface. Handling open files, backing up to devices other than tape drives, reporting tools, notification of failed backups and easy handling of incremental backups are all reasons to use products other than operating system backup utilities.

Given the possible consequences in lost productivity when applications or data are unavailable, such as the time necessary to recreate lost intellectual property, the cost to purchase good backup software is not generally a stopping block for many backup/storage administrators. Furthermore, many backup devices, even inexpensive NAS systems, ship with backup softwarethat can back up servers or workstations to the NAS system.

However, administrators may be looking for additional features, or may have budgeting issues that make it necessary to consider free or open-source software. This review will cover a representative selection of downloadable backup software as well as the backup software included with the Buffalo TeraStation NAS system. There are many more products available -- this review isn't intended to be a comprehensive roundup of all available products, but rather a sampling to illustrate the kinds of features available in free backup tools.

There are several categories of products available: limited versions of commercial products, full-featured freeware products and open-source projects. Quite a few limited versions of commercial products are also time-limited, which may not be obvious when you initially download them but will be apparent during installation. (Free time-limited versions aren't included in this review.) Software is available for Windows Server versions, Windows XP/Vista (and previous versions of Windows workstation), Linux, Unix (including Solaris, HP-UX and other commercial Unix versions), Mac OS and even lesser-known operation systems like BeOS.

In addition to standard backup utilities that can back up either an entire hard drive image or all the files to an attached device like a tape drive or external hard drive, or networked storage, there are utilities that can synchronize files between a folder on a local system and another folder on another system. Each of these have their uses -- backup utilities can back up email files and other open files, while the synchronization utilities may be used to create second versions of important files that are immediately accessible without requiring a restore operation.

In the freeware realm, image restore backup products are rare. This type of backup creates an image of the entire hard disk that can be used with a bootable CD to restore the entire disk in the event of a hardware failure.

AceBackup 2.2.0

OS: Windows 98, WinME, WinNT 4.x, Windows 2000, Windows XP, Windows 2003, Windows Vista

Size: 5.09 MB

AceBackup 2.2.0 offers an easy-to-use interface, and allows backups to local drives, whether its tape, a CD-ROM/DVD-ROM or a hard disk, as well as network drives or FTP servers. When you create a "project," you specify the file format -- either AceBackup's proprietary format or an "as is" format that simply stores the files in their original form. You also can select encryption, compression and overwriting options. The project contains the path to the backup location, so it's easy to set up several projects that each back up different sets of files to different drives. Once a project has been created, adding files is a simple drag-and-drop affair. The program also features integration with Windows Explorer, which means you can add files and folders to be backed up without having to open the AceBackup application.

The program has some features that go well beyond the basics, such as email notification of failed backups, extensive reporting and logging capabilities, versioning (capturing multiple versions of files), password protection of archives, and the ability to run applications before or after the backups -- e.g., to shut down an application, back up the data file and then restart the application.

Installing AceBackup is straightforward, and worked well on Windows 2003, XP and Vista. Backups run smoothly, and can be scheduled to run at any time. Files that have been changed can overwrite existing files in the archive or can be saved as additional versions. This allows older versions to be recovered if an important file is accidentally changed.

AceBackup offers excellent functionality and support for a multitude of Windows versions from Windows 98 on, including Windows Server 2000 and 2003. While it doesn't give you the ability to handle open files as many commercial server products do, it will handle backup chores for most small to midsized businesses with aplomb.

Cobian Backup 9

OS: Windows NT, Windows 2000, Windows 2003, Windows XP, Windows Vista

Size: 9.16 MB

Cobian Backup 9 is a freeware backup application that can be run as an application or as a service, and it can create backups to local CD/DVD/tape drives, network drives or FTP servers. The install is quick and clean, and the interface is also easy to use. Each backup task can include multiple folders or drives, and each can have separate encryption and compression settings.

Cobian doesn't include the option to create file archives that retain the original file structure as AceBackup does, but since it uses a standard compression algorithm (zip, by default), archives can be unzipped even if the backup application is unavailable for some reason. The downside is that creation of zip archives can be slower than some other compression methods.

Cobian also offers email notification and can email the log files to the administrator. It can shut down and restart applications before and after a backup, and offers the advantage of being able to run as a service, which means you can run the application as a different user from the standard user on a system. This is extremely useful if you want to back up multiple workstations or servers to a central backup server. The application can also be run from the command line, which some administrators who do a lot of scripting will find useful.

FileFort Backup Software (1.00)

OS: Windows NT/2000/XP/2003

Size: 268 KB

FileFort Backup Software is a very simple backup program designed for backing up workstation files. It's not server-oriented, and has relatively limited features, but works very well at backing up the user directory (other directories can also be added). It offers the option of zip compression or BKF compression (NTBACKUP must be installed), and can encrypt data as well.

FileFort can do incremental or full backups, and can back up to a network drive, a local drive such as a CD-ROM, USB drive or second hard drive, an FTP server, or an AltoVault Internet storage account (which can be created through FileFort). Backups can be scheduled to run at any time, but will only run if the user is logged in. Email notification and reporting tools are not available. A basic job log is shown through the interface.

FileFort is basic compared to AceBackup or Cobian, but the limited options may appeal to administrators who need to give end users a backup app for laptops or PCs at remote locations.

Memeo AutoBackup

Memeo AutoBackup is included with Buffalo TeraStation NAS products. It's a full commercial product that can back up to a NAS drive or other network drive, an iPod, the Memeo Internet backup site, a local drive or removable storage, including CD/DVD or tape. It offers encryption and can also back up additional versions of files to avoid problems with the most recent version being corrupted. It offers an interesting "smart picks" option to select files in My Documents, on the desktop, browser favorites, Outlook Express email files, and specific types of files such as .jpgs or MP3 files, as well as the usual folder selection process.

AutoBackup can also copy a one-click restore application to the backup location to ensure that files can be restored regardless of whether the application is installed on the system to be restored to or not. The one-click application is a "light" version of the application that just does a restore. This means you don't have to install the application again on the target system to do a restore -- you just run the on-click app and do the restore. It doesn't do email notification of backup success/failure or generate reports beyond basic log files. It does, however, detect changes to files or folders designated for backup and will back up any changed or new files whenever changes occur, rather than waiting for a scheduled backup time. This means that every time a file is changed, the new version is backed up immediately, providing the maximum level of protection for each file. Licensing for the AutoBackup version provided with the Buffalo TeraStation is good for up to five workstations without additional fees.

Microsoft SyncToy 2.0

OS: Windows XP, Windows Vista

4.15 MB

Microsoft SyncToy 2.0 works in a similar fashion to Unixsn (see below), though it's only compatible with Windows XP and Vista. It synchronizes two folders, which can be on the same system or on different systems, updating any changed files to the latest version. Unlike Unison or the offline files feature, synchronization can be either bidirectional, or work only in one direction, so that changes to files in the primary folder -- additions, changes or deletions are made to the secondary folder, but changes made directly to the secondary folder are not repeated on the primary folder. There's a third option that only adds new files or updates changed files, but doesn't delete files that are removed from the primary folder, so that all old files are archived. Scheduling isn't built into the application, but it can be done through the Windows Task Scheduler. Files can be included or excluded using wildcards. While SyncToy is limited to XP and Vista, it is substantially easier to install and use on those systems, and has a better GUI than Unison.

Toucan 2.01

OS: Windows XP/2003/Vista

2.29 MB

Toucan 2.01 can perform both synchronization and backups, including image backups of drives that allow restoring all data to the same or a different hard drive. You can also create an image copy from one drive to another. In addition, there are five synchronization modes: copy, update, mirror (copy), mirror (update) and equalize. Copy simply copies all files from the primary to the secondary folder. Update overwrites old versions of files; mirror (copy) copies all files and removes anything that has been deleted from the primary folder; mirror (update) does an update and then removes anything that has been deleted from the primary folder, and equalize updates changed files in both directions. This is the most flexible synchronization product of any tested, even before considering its backup capabilities.

Installation is quick and straightforward, although it's not perfectly integrated with the Windows installer -- using a directory other than the default can cause errors, and the directory is not created by default. The application isn't added to the start menu by the installer, and help is hard to find. The documentation is simplistic, and setting up rules and scripts is not well-described. Reporting and email notifications are not available.

Still, investing the time to learn this program will give you capabilities that the other programs reviewed here don't offer, including both image backups of drives and the wide variety of synchronization options. These can be scheduled to run at designated times, but not through the GUI interface, instead requiring some scripting to get it operational. The program uses Microsoft's Volume Shadow Services (VSS), which means that even open files can be backed up safely.

Unison 2.27.57

OS: Windows, Unix, Linux, Mac OS X

Size: 2.57 MB

Unison 2.27.57 is a file-synchronization tool for Windows Unix/Linux (including Mac OS X). It can update changes from one folder with files and subfolders to a second copy of the same folder, ensuring that any files that have been changed are updated in the second location. It supports bidirectional changes, so if either version of the same file is changed it's updated in the other location. If both versions are changed, the program will notify you and let you choose which version to keep.

The basic functionality of Unison is similar to the offline files feature in Windows XP and Vista, but with some added benefits. First, the application is available for Linux and Unix as well as Windows, and it will run on Windows Server, too. Second, it can run in a fastcheck mode that checks the modification date rather than scanning the file for changes, which makes it substantially faster than the Windows offline files feature. Unison can also synchronize files between two different systems, although synchronizing files from Windows to Unix can lead to issues due to the difference in file naming between the two systems. For example, FOO.DOC and foo.doc are two different files on a Unix system while they would be the same file on Windows.

Installing Unison is simple, although the Windows install requires the GTK 2.12 runtime environment, which isn't necessarily clear from the documentation. Even after installing the toolkit, additional tweaking was necessary to get the Unison installer to run correctly.

Given the capability of AceBackup to create an archive with the files in their original formats, there is little need for Unison in a Windows-only environment, but if you have a mixed environment with both Unix/Linux systems and Windows, Unison is useful.

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