Windows Backup Solutions: trying out Acronis True Image Backup 2020

One of my computers is my Gamestation, which to be honest has not ran a game in many months now, which runs Windows out of necessity, but also because honestly sometimes I just need something that works out of the box. The main usage of that computer nowadays is Lightroom and Photoshop for my photography hobby.

Because of the photography usage, backups are a huge concern to me (particularly after movers stole my previous gamestation), and so I have been using a Windows tool called FastGlacier to store a copy of most of the important stuff to Amazon Glacier service, in addition to letting Windows 10 do its FileHistory magic on an external hard drive. Not a cheap option, but (I thought) a safe and stable one. Unfortunately the software appears to not being developed anymore, and with one of the more recent Windows 10 updates it stopped working (and since I had set it up as a scheduled operation, it failed silently, which is the worst thing that can happen!)

My original plan for last week (at the time of writing), was to work on pictures, as I have shots from trip over three years ago that I have still not wandered through, rather than working on reverse engineering. But when I noticed the lacking backups, I decided to put that on hold until the backup problem was solved. The first problem was finding a backup solution that would actually work, and that wouldn’t cost an arm and a leg. The second problem was that of course most of the people I know are tinkerers that like rube-goldberg solutions such as using rclone on Windows with the task scheduler (no thanks, that’s how I failed the Glacier backups).

I didn’t have particularly high requirements: I wanted a backup solution that would do both local and cloud backups — because Microsoft has been reducing the featureset of their FileHistory solution, and so relying on it feels a bit flaky. And the ability to store more than a couple of terabytes on the cloud solution (I have over 1TB of RAW shots!), even at a premium. I was not too picky on price, as I know features and storage are expensive. And I wanted something that would just work out of the box. A few review reads later, I found myself trying Acronis True Image Backup. A week later, I regret it.

I guess my best lesson learnt from this is that Daniel is right, and it’s not just about VPNs: most review sites seem to be scoring higher the software they get more money from via affiliate links (you’ll notice that in this blog post there won’t be any!) So while a number of sites had great words for Acronis’s software, I found it sufficiently lacking that I’m ranting about it here.

So what’s going on with the Acronis software? First of all, while it does support both “full image” and “selected folders” modes, you need to be definitely aware that the backup is not usable as-is: you need the software to recover the data. Which is why it comes with bootable media, “survival kits”, and similar amenities. This is not a huge deal to me, but it’s still a bit annoying, when FileHistory used to allow direct access to the files. It also locks you in in accessing the backup with the software, although Acronis makes the restore option available even after you let your subscription expire, which is at least honest.

Then the next thing that was clear to me was that the speed of the cloud backup is not the strongest suit of Acronis. The original estimate for backing up the 2.2TB of data that I expected to back up was on the mark at nearly six days. To be fair to Acronis, the process went extremely smoothly, it never got caught up, looped, crashed, or slowed down. The estimate was very accurate, and indeed, running this for about 144 hours was enough to have the full data backed up. Their backup status also shows the average speed of the processes, that matched my estimate while the backup was running, of 50Mbps.

The speed is the first focus of my regret. 50Mbps is not terribly slow, and for most people this might be enough to saturate their Internet uplink. But not for me. At home, my line is provided by Hyperoptic, with a 1Gbps line that can sustain at least 900Mbps upload. So seeing the backup bottlenecked by this was more than a bit annoying. And as far as I can tell, there’s no documentation of this limit on the Acronis website at the time of writing.

When I complained on Twitter about this, it was mostly in frustration for having to wait, but I was considering the 50Mbps speed at least reasonable (although I would have considered paying a premium for faster uploads!) the replies I got from support have gotten me more upset than before. Their Twitter support people insisted that the problem was with my ISP and sent me to their knowledgebase article on using the “Acronis Cloud Connection Verification Tool” — except that following the instruction showed I was supposed to be using their “EU4” datacenter, for which there is no tool. I was then advise to file a ticket about it. Since then, I appear to have moved back to “EU3” — maybe EU4 was not ready yet.

The reply to the ticket was even more of an absurdist mess. Beside a lot of words to explain “speed is not our fault, your ISP may be limiting your upload” (fair, but I already noted to them that I knew that was not the case), one of the steps they request you to follow is to go to one of their speedtest apps — which returns a 504 error from nginx, oops! Oh yeah and you need to upload the logs via FTP. In 2020. Maybe I should call up Foone to help. (Windows 10, as it happens, still supports FTP write-access via File Explorer, but it’s not very discoverable.)

Both support people also kept reminding me that the backup is incremental. So after the first cloud backup, everything else should be a relatively small amount of data to be copied. Except that I’m not sold onto that either, still: 128GB of data (which is the amount of pictures I came back from Budapest with), would take nearly six hours to back up.

When I finally managed to get a reply that was not directly from a support script, they told me to run the speedtest on a different datacenter, EU2. As it turns out, this is their “Germany” datacenter. This was very clear by tracerouting the IP addresses for the two hosts: EU3 is connected directly to LINX, EU2 goes back to AMS, then FRA (Frankfurt). The speedtest came out fairly reasonable (around 250Mbps download, 220Mbps upload), so I shared the data they requested in the ticket… and then wondered.

Since you can’t change the datacenter you backup to once you started a backup, I tried something different: I used their “Archive” feature, and tried to archive a multi-gigabyte file, but to their Germany datacenter, rather than the United Kingdom one (against their recommendation of «select the country that is nearest to your current location»). Instead of a 50Mbps peak, I got a 90Mbps peak, with a sustained of 67Mbps. Now this is still not particularly impressive, but it would have cut down the six days to three, and the five hours to around two. And clearly it sounds like their EU3 datacenter is… not good.

Anyway, let’s move on and look at local backups, which Acronis is supposed to take care of by itself. For this one at first I wanted to use the full image backup, rather than selecting folders like I did for the cloud copy, since it would be much cheaper, and I have a 9T external harddrive anyway… and when you do that, Acronis also suggests you to create what they call the “Acronis Survival Kit” — which basically means turning the external hard drive bootable, so that you can start up and restore the image straight from it.

The first time I tried setting it up that way, it formatted the drive, but it didn’t even manage to get Windows to connect the new filesystem. I got an error message linking me to a knowledgebase article that… did not exist. This is more than a bit annoying, but I decided to run a full SMART check on the drive to be safe (no error to be found), and then try again after a reboot. Then it finally seemed to work, but here’s where things got even more hairy.

You see, I’ve been wanting to use my 9TB external drive for the backup. A full image of my system was estimated at 2.6TB. But after the Acronis Survival Kit got created, the amount of space available for the backup on that disk was… 2TB. Why? It turned out that the Kit creation caused the disk to be repartitioned as MBR, rather than the more modern GPT. And in MBR you can’t have a (boot) partition bigger than 2TB. Which means that the creation of the Survival Kit silently decreased my available space to nearly 1/5th!

The reply from Acronis on Twitter? According to them my Windows 10 was started in “BIOS mode”. Except it didn’t. It’s set up with UEFI and Secure Boot. And unfortunately it doesn’t seem like there’s an easy way to figure out why the Acronis software thinks it’s that way. But worse than that, the knowledgebase article says that I should have gotten a warning, which I never did.

So what is it going to be at the end of the day? I tested the restore from Acronis Cloud, and it works fine. Acronis has been in business for many years, so I don’t expect them to disappear next year. So the likeliness of me losing access to these backups is fairly low. I think I may just stick to them for the time being, and hope that someone in the Acronis engineering or product management teams can read this feedback and think about that speed issue, and maybe start considering the idea of asking support people to refrain from engaging with other engineers on Twitter with fairly ridiculous scripts.

But to paraphrase a recent video by Techmoan, these are the type of imperfections (particularly the mis-detected “BIOS booting” and the phantom warning), that I could excuse to a £50 software package, but that are much harder to excuse in a £150/yr subscription!

Any suggestions for good alternatives to this would be welcome, particularly before next year, when I might reconsider if this was good enough for me, or a new service is needed. Suggestions that involve scripts, NAS, rclone, task scheduling, self-hosted software will be marked as spam.

2 thoughts on “Windows Backup Solutions: trying out Acronis True Image Backup 2020

  1. I am using EMC Retrospect Backup Professional for years. The software looks old and if you don’t want to backup complete disks you have to understand their ‘selectors’ (it’s not that you just click checkboxes to select folders you want to backup) but it’s doing its main job (reliable backups) without any problems.

    Screenshot: https://i.imgur.com/14f1nlZ.jpg

    They are currently working on a new, modern UI (the first change after 10+ years!). Is it a software I would recommend my parents? Yes, because it works flawlessly and reliable once you created your backup script. However, I would do the setup because it’s not that intuitive (at the moment).

    Hopefully I have not to mention that features I expect from modern backup software are present:
    – It will support de-duplication
    – Big files can be backed up at block level (even incremental) which helps me to backup VM disk images for example

    Yes, it’s not cheap. A current license which will include 5 client licenses (so you could add your Mac and even Linux boxes to your backup and make use of same de-duplication) costs about ~169€ (renewal is just 69€ depending on taxes). Looks like they introduced a subscription based model recently but I am not using it.

    Also: You don’t get cloud storage from them. But for me this is actually a good thing: You can use whatever cloud services you want to use. They have built-in support for Amazon S3, Backblaze B2, Dropbox and Google Cloud Storage. But if you can make your backup storage available as disk or mountpoint on your Windows system, you can use it (so for example, using your own NextCloud instance as backup target would work, too).

    Why I believe it’s a good thing that you have to order a cloud service on your own? Because like you said, you had a bad experience. You probably know that services using cloud services would have to pay for premium bandwitdh. 50Mbps is pretty good for normal services. They will never tell you what they booked, You just assume ‘Hey, I am paying you a lot of money each year so I expect you booked premium bandwidth’ and in reality they will be like “C’mon! Most users don’t even have 50Mbps upload. You are a power user. Sorry, we don’t care.”

    Of course, you now have to pay twice. For the software and cloud storage. But on the other hand you are free and can pick whatever you like. You can pick rsync.net, Google, wasabi, jottacloud … Because it doesn’t store data in a special format, you can always just download, move to a local folder or just switch to another cloud service (see https://www.retrospect.com/products/cloud for details).

    Truth has to be told: On Windows 10 in past 3 years, backing up the Windows system (it’s a special mode) was broken one time when Microsoft released a new feature update. It wasn’t a silent failure so you noticed the problem. It was fixed in time with next update (they also have a changelog, https://www.retrospect.com/en/documentation/user_guide/win/release_notes)

    Last thing I want to mention because I followed your experience with Acronis on Twitter: My support requests were always addressed. They have quiet a good 2nd level support. Also, people you talked to in support tickets like 5 years ago are still around. So it looks like their employees are somehow happy which is always a good thing.

    If you like to know anything else, feel free to contact me by mail.

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  2. For local Windows backups I rely on robocopy. I’ve got a Windows Task Scheduler entry that wakes up my computer during the night and incrementally robocopy-s everything from my SSD to a regular HDD. It’s fast, incremental and gives me direct access to the backup in case I need it. If you do it on an external encrypted drive it also has the advantage that you can carry it around and use it on other computers.

    I also do full-disk backups using ntfsclone from time to time, essentially before major Windows updates in case something goes horribly wrong.

    For online backups you could have a look at Duplicati (https://www.duplicati.com/). It’s free software, incremental and you can use the back-end of your choosing so you can pick a datacenter you know has a fast pipe to your home line.

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