(Cheap) home backups

by Daniel Patterson on January 1, 2018

Backing things up is important. Some stuff, like code that lives in repositories, may naturally end up in many places, so it perhaps is less important to explicitly back up. Other files, like photos, or personal documents, generally don’t have a natural redundant home, so they need some backup story, and relying on various online services is risky (what if they go out of business, “pivot”, etc), potentially time-consuming to keep track of (services for photos may not allow videos, or at least not full resolution ones, etc), limited in various ways (max file sizes, storage allotments, etc), not to mention bringing up serious privacy concerns. Different people need different things, but what I need, and have built (hence this post describing the system), fulfills the following requirements:

  1. (Home) scalable – i.e., any reasonable amount of data that I could generate personally I should be able to dump in one place, and be confident that it won’t go away. What makes up the bulk is photos, some music, and some audio and video files. For me, this is currently about 1TB (+-0.5TB).
  2. Cheap. I’m willing to pay about $100-200/year total (including hardware).
  3. Simple. There has to be one place where I can dump files, it has to be simple enough to recover from complete failure of any given piece of hardware even if I haven’t touched it in a long time (because if it is working, I won’t have had to tweak it in months / years). Adding & organizing files should be doable without commandline familiarity, so it can serve my whole home.
  4. Safe. Anything that’s not in my physical control should be encrypted.
  5. Reasonably reliable. Redundancy across hardware, geographic locations, etc. This is obviously balanced with other concerns (in particular, 2 and 3)!

I’ve tried various solutions, but what I’ve ended up with seems to be working pretty well (most of it has been running for about a year; some parts are more recent, and a few have been running for much longer). It’s a combination of some cheap hardware, inexpensive cloud storage, and decent backup software.

Why not an off-the-shelf NAS?

In the past, I tried one (it was a Buffalo model). I wasn’t impressed by the software (which was hard to upgrade, install other stuff on it, maintain, etc), the power consumption (this was several years ago, but idle the two-drive system used over 30watts, which is the same power that my similarly aged quad core workstation uses when idle!). Also, a critical element of this system for me is that there is an off-site component, so getting that software on it is extremely important, and I’d rather have a well-supported linux computer to deal with rather than something esoteric. Obviously this depends in the particular NAS you get, but the system below is perfect for me. In particular, setting up and experimenting with the below was much cheaper than dropping hundreds more dollars on a new NAS that may not have worked any better than the old one, and once I had it working, there was certainly no point in going back!

Hardware

Cloud

Software

Summary

The system described above runs 24/7 in my home. It cost $325 in hardware (which, if you want to skip the extra USB enclosure to start and use WD Blue drives rather than Red ones you can cut $65 – i.e., $260 total), $1/month in electricity (I haven’t measured this carefully, but that’s what 10W costs where I live) and currently costs about $3/month in cloud storage, though that will go up over time, so to be more fair let’s say $5/month. Assuming no hardware replacements for three years (which is the warrantee on the hard drives I have, so a decent estimate), the total cost over that time is $325 + $54 + $170 = $549, or around $180 per year, which is squarely in the range that I wanted.