Research tools carefully before adoption (or why "SBackup" must mean "sucky backup")

Several years ago, my email program (Thunderbird) destroyed my > 1GB Inbox. Something went wrong, and Thunderbird overwrote my > 1GB file with an empty file.

Horrified by my lack of a recent backup, I investigated easier-to-use backup software for my Linux (Ubuntu) machines. I did a few quick Google searches and (too hastily) settled on “SBackup,” which Ubuntu’s website seemed to recommend. “SBackup” supposedly stood for “Simple Backup,” and I generally like simple things because they tend to work more reliably than more complex things. I’ve since slowly realized that not researching SBackup users' complaints before adopting it was a huge mistake.

A year later, Thunderbird killed my > 1GB Inbox again! But this time, I was prepared, I thought, because I had recently backed up my computer using SBackup. Except… when I went to retrieve the Inbox file, I learned that the most recent backup was corrupt and unreadable, even though SBackup had earlier told me the backup had completed. Had SBackup told me the backup had failed or was corrupted, I would have re-run it. Instead, I was never able to retrieve a recent copy of my Inbox and lost several months of email.

I gave up on Thunderbird and its insane storage method of stuffing every damn email into a single file. I switched to Claws Mail and have since had no problems. If I ever again suffer email corruption, I should lose a single email, not everything.

But I foolishly failed to reconsider SBackup. I figured it had been working, except for this one failure, so I kept using it out of laziness.

Well, yesterday I got bit again by SBackup. Before heading to bed, I began backing up to my new, shiny external hard drive. In the morning, I checked to see whether it had finished… and to my horror discovered that my computer was acting screwy and telling me I had run out of disk space! That was crazy because at least 10% of my 500GB hard drive was unused the previous night. Had SBackup been saving to my hard drive instead of my external drive, as I had told it to?

That seemed impossible, but I quickly discovered many other SBackup users raging against SBackup’s habit of backing up — without warning — to their internal hard drives when their external hard drives were inaccessible.

I struggled to free up 1% of my hard drive… which Ubuntu seems to require before it will let you save even a simple text file to the drive. And then I found where SBackup had made TWO backups to my internal hard drive. After deleting those backups, I went from 1% of my hard drive being unused to 34%! SBackup had — without notifying me — been backing up my hard drive to my hard drive! What use would that be if my drive died?

I’ve now made the switch I should long ago have made… to RSync (and a graphical UI for it called GRSync). RSync is a command line program trusted and beloved by Linux admins. It’s the obvious choice. But I failed to research my initial decision carefully, and I’ve suffered several years of consequences.

I already see several advantages from GRSync. With SBackup, backups were all-or-nothing. I needed to leave my laptop running ~ 13 hours to backup my hard drive. GRSync has a “Stop” button that lets me stop part-way through. Whenever I later start it up again, it will figure out what files it has not yet copied over and start copying them over. GRSync also has a “simulate” button that lets me see what I’ve asked it to do before confirming that’s what I want. It’s clearly better designed and more reliable. And when it fails to find an external drive, it tells me it failed… rather than just assume I want it to backup to my internal hard drive instead.

Posted by James on Monday, August 02, 2010