Pogoplug Cloud and Disk Backup

Introduction

This article is about disk backup as much as it is about Pogoplug and Pogoplug Cloud. Disk backup is the computing system operations practices that protect a computer system’s file system from hardware, software, and user failures like dos> format c:. So disk backup is a combination of things

  • A saved image of the file system state
  • The media that stores that image
  • The device and programs that read and write that media
  • The user practices needed to create the backup save sets

Backups come in two varieties, local backups and off-site backups. Local backups are complete copies of the file system that permit complete restoration of the file system to the last saved state. These protect primarily against disk failures or other hardware failures that cause the disk to become corrupt. This can include a dropped, lost, or stolen laptop computer. Off-site backups permit recovery of essential records when one’s home is damaged by fire, flooding, windstorms, or theft of a machine or the local backups were destroyed, stolen, or unusable.

In days of yore, off-site backups were local backups that were carried to a safe off-site storage location such as your safety deposit box. Today, they are transmitted over the Internet to a cold storage provider such as Google Drive or Amazon Glacier. Some people use Google Drive or Amazon Glacier directly while most mere mortals use a service such as Carbonite, Pogoplug Cloud, etc to create and restore off-site backups. This article describes Pogoplug Cloud and the things used with it.

Some Definitions

I’ll try to use the terms defined below in this article. These may not exactly match Pogoplug’s usage of them but I can match them up to things on my Mac.

Cloud Engines: Makers of Pogoplug and providers of Pogoplug Cloud services

Local backup: A locally kept copy of a group of files made for the purpose of restoring lost or damaged files.

Off-site backup: A remotely kept copy of a group of files made for the purpose of restoring important files when recovering from loss or damage to the local site.

Pogoplug: A local server running the pogoplug service. This can be a PC running pogoplug pc or a purpose built Pogoplug device.

Pogoplug Cloud: A remote server running the pogoplug service.

Pogoplug Backup: The local pogoplug service client that conducts backups and restores backups.

Pogoplug Companion: The Android/IOS application that allows a phone or tablet to use files served by the user’s pogoplug service.

PogoplugPC: A Windows/Mac OS X application providing the pogoplug service from user space.

Time Machine: The Mac OS X system backup and system recovery application.

Web interface: http://my.pogoplug.com

Introducing Pogo plug

Pogoplug is the trademark of Cloud Engines, an international software company headquartered in Israel with offices in Silicon Valley. Cloud Engines got its start making a gadget called Pogoplug, a computer built into a wall wart (hence plug) that provided a small amount of Internet accessible shared storage using a user provided USB disk drive. Over the years, the product has changed form and new services have evolved around the original USB media server. This page tries to coherently describe the benefits of the Cloud Engines product and the associated services, something Cloud Engines has trouble doing, probably for want of a good technical writer.

Pogoplug branded products and services support a number of use cases so I’ll try to present the products in terms of these uses cases.

  • Local backup of one or more computers
  • Off-site backup of one or more computers
  • Local and Internet file sharing (a personal cloud service).
  • Remote file access

A bit about me

I’m a scientific software professional who has worked for 40 years on nuclear power plant application software, nuclear power plant simulator software, and wargaming software. My career spans the period from the introduction of disk drives to embedded systems to pocket sized “super computers”. Back in my simulator days, I’d stayed ’til one AM doing an integration build. I was tired and cranky so I blew off the backup. The head crash occurred as I was driving to work the next morning. This was back in the days of CDC storage module drives and dinner plated sized multi-platter removable media disk packs. A head crash was a big deal. The repairs were $10,000, a new pack was $1000 or so not to mention the lost data and the day that it would take to do the repair and a second day putting humpty dumpty back together.

My professional background is in several extinct minicomputer operating systems, SunOS 4, and Linux. My hobby background is a mix of early Windows ’95, OS-2, and Mac OS X, mostly the latter. I’m an amateur system administrator these days looking after RedHat workstation and plain old Mac OS X.

I’m not at all familiar with Windows backup and recovery procedures and my recollections of them are over a decade old. I’ve done one OS X system recovery using Time Machine and it is a joy. I’ve done several SunOS 4 system recoveries that were a pain courtesy of all of the media handling of 8 mm video tapes.

Windows Local Backup

To this day, Microsoft continues to leave disk backup to third parties. Microsoft does include a backup product but nobody uses it. Most 3rd party backup products are designed for use by corporate high priests in corporate settings where tape drives or tape library robots are available. Tape drives, tape handling, and automated tape libraries are too complex for most home users so something different is needed at home. Pogoplug attempts to fill the Windows user data backup gap. Pogoplug Windows local user data backup requires the following kit.

  • A USB disk large enough to hold the files to be protected
  • A Pogoplug server, either a Pogoplug kit machine or a local host running PogoplugPC software.
  • Pogoplug Backup installed on each machine to be protected

Pogoplug Backup is a free companion program available at http://my.pogoplug.com/downloads. This link provides both Mac OS X and MS Windows versions.

A Pogoplug server turns a USB disk drive into a local backup server. A companion software product, Pogoplug Backup backs up selected parts of its host file system to the Pogoplug connected disk. Typically, each user’s home directory is backed up plus any public directories such as those used by photo libraries, music libraries, and video libraries. Pogoplug Backup allows selection of the directories to be backed up. The directories and files to be backed up must be readable by the logged in user running Pogoplug Backup. Once the user has nominated files and directories for backup, Pogoplug Backup transfers the files to Pogoplug which maintains an image of the most recent version of the file. The machine must remain running and logged in until the transfer completes.

This process is sufficiently fast that it should be possible to save the entire file system. In my initial exploration of Pogoplug Backup, I did not attempt to set up a full disk save because I’m using Pogoplug Backup with Pogoplug Cloud for off-site backup.

Pogoplug Backup runs as a user program rather than as a service. This means that the user account must be logged in and active while the program is running. I’m not familiar with Windows but I suspect some care is needed to tell the machine to skip hibernation while the backup completes.

I’ve skipped over little issues like restoring applications and the Windows registry. These make Windows recovery a royal pain, about as bad as buying a new machine. Everything has to be reinstalled from media to recreate the registry which is difficult to back up while the machine is running. I’m not a Windows guy so I don’t know the details or of any tools that would make this easier.

Pogoplug Backup Limitations

Pogoplug backup runs as a logged in user process so it has the following limitations.

  • Files must be readable by the user
  • Pogoplug cannot back up complex data structures like a MySql database or an Aperture photo library. The UI will not let you choose things that Pogoplug backup does not recognize.
  • Pogoplug backup will not let you select directory Applications or Program Files content for backup.

Pogoplug’s limitations make it suitable for backup of user data. It is not designed to support system recovery. In this way, Pogoplug and Carbonite are similar. They will save user directories that reside on the system disk. Pogoplug appears to give more user control of what is to be saved.

Mac OS X Local Backup

Pogo Backup and Pogoplug can support Mac OS X backup and the procedures and prerequisites are the same as for the Windows use case. But, most OS X users continue to use OS X Time Machine for disk backup. Time Machine maintains the current state of the file system on an external drive, either directly connected or network storage provided by an Airport Time Capsule, Airport Extreme, or a network storage array such as a Droboshare. Time Machine differs from Pogoplug Backup by maintaining back versions of a file in the archive and permitting recovery of any back version that remains available.

Time Machine also differs in that it was designed to save the entire file system including directly connected external disks. This is easily configured and you can tell Time Machine to skip directories whose contents are transient.

I use a USB Drobostore with Time Machine that currently has 4TB of raw disk storage configured as a 2 TB virtual disk. I have a second 1 TB Drobostore that holds music and photos and the system’s internal 320 mB disk. Time Machine maintains the current state of the complete file system except the part dedicated to Time Machine itself. Time Machine allows user configuration to specify the storage device to be used and those parts of the file system to be included or excluded from protection. The 2 TB storage array is adequate to backup both if I have Time Machine skip the EyeTV spool directory and the iTunes spool directory. There’s no need to back up transient TV shows and movies. Eventually, I’ll have to put a 4th disk in the Time Machine Drobostore.

Time Machine uses hard links to maintain a current virtual image of the protected file system tree while retaining back versions of files. The hard links point to the current versions with the back versions on disk. The Time Machine user interface allows you to retrieve the current version of a file or any earlier version still in the archive. When Time Machine needs space, it starts shedding oldest versions of files.

I’ve needed Time Machine once when a system disk failed. The recovery procedure was dead simple, install OS X from external media, open Time Machine, and restore the volume. The next morning, Oswald was ready for use. I’ve used Time Machine a second time when my Aperture photo library fell victim to a disk malfunction. A Drobostore, then connected by FireWire became befuddled and my Aperture Library went missing. Time Machine came to the rescue. I had to rummage back a week or two but I found one that was usable.

Pogoplug Off Site Backup

The offsite backup process is identical for Windows and OS X. The material tha follows applies to both.

I’ve tried two solutions for offsite backup, Carbonite and now Pogoplug Cloud. Pogoplug Cloud is a $60/year service that uses Amazon Glacier to store the portion of the file system that you wish to protect. To use Pogoplug Cloud, you need the following

  • A robust Internet connection such as Cox Preferred
  • A Pogoplug Cloud subscription
  • Pogoplug Backup installed on the machine to be protected

Once these conditions are satisfied, you use Pogoplug Backup to nominate directories and files for backup. Pogoplug Backup transfers these to Pogoplug Cloud in much the same way that it transfers files to a local Pogoplug server but the process is limited by Internet speed rather than local Ethernet speed and disk drive write performance. My initial Carbonite backup took a good week and I had to pause it while watching Netflix or iTunes content. I expect that Pogoplug Cloud will be the same.

Pogoplug Local and Off-site Backup

If you have both a Pogoplug Server and a Pogoplug Cloud service subscription, your Pogoplug server will transfer backed up files to both its local disk and the Pogoplug Cloud subscription. Once properly setup, the off-site backup process is an extension of the local process and no additional user actions are needed.

Local and Off Site File Access

This is how Carbonite and Pogoplug differ. Carbonite permits backup and recovery only. Pogoplug permits on the go file access by web service at http://my.pogoplug.com. From here, you can retrieve any media saved in a home Pogoplug server or in the Pogoplug Cloud.

The Recovery Process

The recovery process is similar using OS X Time Machine or Pogoplug. For this purpose, we’ll assume a failed disk drive replacement. The work flow is

  • Repair the hardware by replacing the bad system disk
  • Reinstall the operating system and applications
  • Install Pogoplug Backup
  • Restore the user data system

With OS X Time Machine, recovery is relatively easy. Newer Macs include an Internet boot loader that will start OS X from the Internet for the purpose of recovering the system If you have an old machine like mine, initial startup requires an OS X installation disk for older versions of OS X or an installation thumb drive for Lion, Mountain Lion, and Mavericks.

  • Start the machine from a recovery disk or thumb drive image
  • Format the new disk using Disk Utility
  • Install OS X from the boot media
  • Connect the external Time Machine volume and allow it to mount
  • Restore the complete file system from Time Machine

With Pogoplug Backup and Pogoplug, the work flow is

  • Start the machine from a recovery disk or thumb drive
  • Format the new disk using Disk Utility
  • Install OS X from the boot media
  • Reinstall applications
  • Install Pogoplug Backup from the Pogoplug.com website.
  • Sign in using to your Pogoplug your Pogoplug credentials, usually your primary E-mail address and password
  • Restore the user directories and files saved

I can’t really comment on Windows recovery because I’ve not needed to do it. In OS X land, things are not so bad. There is no registry. Applications are saved as application packages (basically a directory) in /Applications which may be backed up. A Time Machine restoration brings everything back. I’ve been there, done that, and have a working system to prove it. Time Machine rocks.

I’ve not needed to do a network recovery and hopefully I never will. But I live in hurricane country and a Cat 2 will damage my home and a Cat 3 will blow it down and probably wash it away. So I’m careful. I rely on my Mac for all of my tax and financial record keeping. And my photos and home movies reside there. So I back up off site and it is money well spent because little of this can be replaced even if I knew what it all was. The choice of a Mac Mini was deliberate. I can throw the mini and Drobostores in a bugout bag should we need to evacuate.