Was Acronis True Image 2020 a mistake?

You may remember that a few months ago I complained about Acronis True Image 2020. I have since been mostly happy with the software, despite it being still fairly slow when uploading a sizable amount of changed files, such as after shooting a bunch of pictures at home. This would have been significantly more noticeable if we had actually left the country since I started using it, as I usually shoot at least 32GB of new pictures on a trip (and sometimes twice as much), but with lockdown and all, it didn’t really happen.

But, beside for that, the software worked well enough. Backup happened regularly, both on the external drive and the Cloud options, and I felt generally safe with using it. Until a couple of weeks ago, when suddenly it stopped working, and failed with Connection Timeout errors. They didn’t correlate with anything: I did upgrade to Windows 10 20H1, but that was a couple of weeks before, and backups went through fine until then. There was no change in network, there was no change from my ISP, and so on.

So what gives? None of the tools available from Acronis reported errors, ports were not marked as blocked, and I was running the last version of everything. I filed a ticket, was called on the phone by one of their support people who actually seemed to know what he was doing — TeamViewer at hand, he checked once again for connectivity, and once again found that everything is alright, the only thing he found to change was disabling the True Image Mounter service, which is used to get quick access to the image files, and thus is not involved in the backup process. I had to disable tha tone because, years after Microsoft introducing WSL, enabling it breaks WSL filesystem access altogether, so you can’t actually install any Linux distro, change passwords in the ones you already installed, or run apt update on Debian.

This was a week ago. In the meantime support asked me to scan the disks for errors because their system report reported one of the partitions as having issues (if I read their log correctly, that’s one of the recovery images so it’s not at all related to the backup), and the more recent one to give them a Process Monitor log while running the backup. Since they don’t actually give you a list of process to limit to, I ended up having to kill most of the other running application to take the log, as I didn’t want to leak more information that I was required to. It still provided a lot of information I’m not totally comfortable with having provided. And I still have no answer, at the time of writing.

It’s not all here — the way you provide all these details to them is a fairly clunky: you can’t just mail them, or attach them through their web support interface, as even their (compressed) system report is more than 25MB for my system. Instead what they instruct you to do is to take the compressed files and uploaded them through FTP with the username/password pair they provide to you.

Let me repeat that. You upload compressed files, that include at the very least most of the filenames you’re backing up, and possibly even more details of your computer, with FTP. Unencrypted. Not SFTP, not FTPS, not HTTPS. FTP. In 2020.

This is probably the part that makes my blood boil. Acronis has clearly figured out that the easiest way for people to get support is to use something that they can use very quickly. Indeed you can still put an FTP URL In the location bar of your Windows 10 File Explorer, and it will allow you to upload and download files over it. But it does that in a totally unencrypted, plain-text manner. I wonder how much more complicated it would be to use at least FTPS, or to have an inbound-only password-protected file upload system, like Google Drive or Dropbox, after all they are a cloud storage solution provider!

As for myself, I found a temporary workaround waiting for the support folks to figure out what they likely have screwed up on their London datacenter: I’m backing up my Lightroom pictures to the datacenter they provide in Germany. It took three days to complete, but it at least gives me peace of mind that, if something goes horribly wrong, at least the most dear part of my backup is saved somewhere else.

And honestly, using a different backup policy than the rest of the system just for the photos is probably a good idea: I set it to “continuous backup”, because generally speaking it usually stays the same all the time, until I go and prepare another set to publish, then a lot of things change quickly and then nothing until the next time I can do it.

Also, I do have the local backup — that part is still working perfectly fine. I might actually want to use it soon, as I’m of two minds between trying to copy over my main OS drive from a 1TB SSD to a 2TB SSD, and just getting a 2TB SSD, and installing everything anew onto it. If I do go that route, I also will reuse the 1TB SSD onto my NUC instead, which right now is running with half SATA and half NVMe storage.

Conclusions? Well, compared to the Amazon Glacier + FastGlacier (that has not been updated in just over two years now, and still sports a Google+ logo and +1 button!), it’s still good value for money. I’m spending a fraction of what I used to spend with Amazon, and even in the half-broken state it’s backing up more data and has significantly faster access. The fact that you can set different policies for different parts of the backup is also a significant plus. I just wish there was a way to go from a “From Folders to Cloud” backup to a tiered “From Folders to External, plus Cloud” — or maybe I’ll bite the bullet and, if it’s really this broken, just go and re-configure also the Lightroom backup to use the tiered option.

But Acronis, consider cleaning up your support act. It’s 2020, you can’t expect your customers to throw you all their information via unencrypted protocols, for safety’s sake!

Update 2020-06-30: the case is now being escalated to the “development and cloud department” — and if this is at all in the same ballpark as the companies I worked for it means that something is totally messed up in their datacenter connectivity and I’m the first one to notice enough to report to them. We’ll see.

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.