Hey! You! Get off of My Cloud!

Review of the 3X Remote Backup Appliance

3x_systems_private_cloud_backup_appliance The headline of the pitch I received back in November read “3X Systems Launches Private Backup Cloud Appliance for SMBs”. The notion of a “private cloud” intrigued me, so I decided to follow up. (Besides, no one quoted in the press release used the word “excited,” so they get extra points.)

We all talk about “the cloud” as if it’s some amorphous collective up in the sky somewhere, but none of these “cloud computing” services actually operates among the cumulus and cumulonimbus. Your data is not floating around among the raindrops or waiting to crystallize as snowflakes. All it means to use cloud services is that instead of installing the software on servers in your office building, it’s on servers in someone else’s data center, and you access it through the Internet. Cloud storage puts your data onto disks in a similar data center (or more than one, for redundancy), instead of on a backup drive in your office.

With most cloud services, you rent rather than owning—though with companies like Google making so much available for free, consumers may forget that there are costs involved, the same way they seem to forget that there’s actual hardware involved.

With the 3X Remote Backup Appliance, you become your own online backup service.

Now, if you were geeky enough, you could find a way to do this without a special device. Personally, I’m not geeky enough. And I’m pretty geeky, relative to most people I know. So I think the 3X RBA is a great idea for three reasons.

  1. The biggest disadvantage of online backup is the slow speed of data transfer over the Internet. Because the 3X makes its initial full (or “seed”) backup over the local network, it’s much faster than typical online backup services. (How long did it take me to upload my 2 GB backup to MozyHome Free the first time? 12 hours? And that over a cable connection.)
  2. Many businesses—and even individuals—want to be sure of just who has access to their proprietary or confidential data. Running your own online backup service, with only your own company’s data on it, gives you complete control.
  3. If you have half a dozen or more computers to back up, the monthly or yearly cost of most online backup services is going to start to add up pretty quickly. Many of them charge per computer rather than by the amount of data backed up.

So I arranged to get a product demo and an interview with 3X CEO Alan Arman and some of the team, and also to get an evaluation unit to check out. The demo was very straightforward: it certainly looked easy enough to use. But things are often a bit different in real-life situations. I wanted to see whether the 3X would really be as easy to set up and operate as it seemed to be. (After all, the CloudPlug was harder than it appeared.)

rackmount 3X 500 series The evaluation unit arrived on January 20th—the same day as my mother’s SaveMe drive. I was surprised at the size of the box. Based on the photos I’d seen, I was expecting something more the size of my Buffalo Quattro. This box was square and flat.

When I got home, I found out why. The 3X comes in two form factors: the cube, for desktop use, and the 1U rackmount model. Guess which was in that box.

“They sent you a what?” the Ur-Guru said. “Didn’t you go batty from the 40x40mm fans in a rack model!?”

To be fair, Richard Keggans at 3X offered to ship me a cube version instead when I told him about the mistake, but once he assured me that I could still use the rackmount model without a rack, it didn’t seem worth replacing it when I was only going to be using it for a few hours anyway. (The PR spokesperson, who has perhaps never been in a server room, said “We didn’t think it would make a difference to you.” Ha. I think he just wanted to be sure they’d get their $2500 device back.)

Anyway, for anyone else who’s never been in a server room—it’s not so much that the fan noise is loud. It’s not actually louder than, say, my space heater, which is also an electric fan. I did not really need to warn the neighbors to run for their earplugs before powering the thing up.

It’s just that there’s something about the quality of the noise that causes instant brain death. You can tell immediately why people lock these things in cages behind heavy doors inside secure buildings miles away from where they do their actual work. Even the Ur-Guru doesn’t work with rack-mounted systems, because the noise would be too much even for him if he had them in his home office.

So if I were a real customer, I would have bought the cube model, which Richard says is “almost silent.” And it probably is, too, because it isn’t being stored less than an inch from some equally hot device above and below it. The Buffalo Quattro, which has more hardware (though less software) in it, makes very little noise. (Interestingly, the two draw the same amount of power.)

Installation

Even given the awkwardness of having the wrong version of the device, it was easy to set up the 3X. (The printout of the Quick Start Guide was helpful, too.) Plug in the power cable, connect the Ethernet cable to your router, and turn the monster on. Then insert the memory stick with the 3X admin software into your computer and let it run. Then reboot your computer, and start up the 3X Systems Admin tool again. Your device should automatically appear; just select it and choose “Launch Manager.”

That takes you to the web interface, where you do all the sophisticated stuff, including downloading the client software so you can back up individual computers to the device.

3X Backup Manager

The critical thing at this juncture is to set up port forwarding—something I don’t think I’ve talked about since I reviewed ION Backup. I obviously hadn’t done anything with it since then, because I still had that port set up to forward. (Oops.) It took me a while to find the right screen in my router admin, but eventually I found what I needed, and it only took a minute to set it up after that.

Single Port Forwarding

There’s a connectivity check feature in the web manager tool for the 3X, so you can check to make sure that it’s possible to reach your device from outside your local network. This is important if you’re going to actually use it for its intended purpose as an online backup device. (And if you aren’t, why are you paying so much money?)

I then downloaded the client and set it up on my netbook. This worked pretty much the same as installing any other backup software. Once it’s installed, however, you have to get a key from the administrator (provided in the backup manager, above) and then the administrator has to approve you. The administrator can also create backup sets and set quotas for client computers.

3x-backup-registration

I’d read some of the instructions for creating backup sets while waiting for Enna to reboot after the initial 3X admin tools install, so I figured I was all set to define my backup set and go. I did run into one small issue, however: when I clicked “Edit” under the “Backup Sets” tab, the top of the window ran off my 1024 x 600 netbook screen.

3x-backup-client-interface

I was still able to create a backup set that would copy everything on the C:\ drive except for the Recycler, System Volume Information, Windows folder, and Program Files. When I eliminated those, I was left with 9 GB of data, and the 3X copied them quickly (if loudly) while I had lunch.

I’m not really in a position to test the deduplication and some of the other features of the 3X, but deduplication is the reason you can back up several computers to a 100 GB drive. All enterprise systems rely on it these days, but almost no SOHO systems offer this level of dedupe. (And if you have people sending e-mail attachments to others in your company, you’re racking up duplicate files fast, never mind duplicate software installations.)

So I’ll leave those to another reviewer and just say that my “seed” backup went smoothly. It was time to test the remote backup.

Remote Backup and Restore

The normal way to use a 3X is to disconnect it from the local network when the seed backups are complete and move it to another location—the business owner’s home, a different office, or even a cage rented in a data center. Then you plug it in and hook it up to the Internet, and the client computers will back up incrementally according to their schedules. Because only the changes are backed up, this doesn’t take much bandwidth or time.

I don’t have an alternate office location, much less a pocket data center, so I took my computer elsewhere instead. I headed over to the local public library to see whether I could back up and restore data using their free wi-fi connection.

I didn’t have so much luck backing up. I’m not sure why, but the program just seemed to sit around endlessly calculating the size of the backup. (Not very large: I had downloaded a whole two image files so there would actually be some changes to back up.) This might have had something to do with the very slow wi-fi connection, or it might just be that the backup client has to scan the entire machine before running. My battery and patience were running low, so I aborted the backup and tried a restore, instead. The main thing, in my mind, was to confirm that I could connect to the 3X from outside my network.

Clicking the “Restore” button gave me the option to restore one file or several. I then had the chance to browse to my chosen file and to select which backup I wanted to restore from. (I’d only made one, but had earlier opted to save 10 backups.) In order to be sure the restoration had worked, I restored it to a different directory.

And work it did. It took a little longer than I might have expected for a file of modest size, but I don’t think that was the fault of the 3X. That wi-fi connection was really slow. Not quite shades-of-dial-up slow, but I am reminded of the early days of the Web and the expression “Graybar land.”

So the verdict is: it works. You really can become your own online backup service provider. To make it work, of course, you need a place to set the 3X up. If you’re like me and work out of your home, you might need to make an arrangement with a colleague to each keep the other’s remote backup appliance. But the ideal customer is not the home office user, but the person who runs a small office with multiple computers—enough of them that paying for Mozy Pro for a year would more than cover the cost of buying one of these.

And now that that’s done, I can shut it off and hear myself think again.

PS In the week between the time I wrote this and the time I published it, 3X was named one of the 20 Coolest Cloud Storage Vendors by Computer Reseller News.

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