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Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky
Volume 12 Issue 3
March 2018
The Problem with Carbonite, a Popular Online Backup Service


Carbonite is a very popular service that provides online ("cloud") computer backup with unlimited storage for an annual subscription fee. It is very good at backing up common file types (documents, pictures, spreadsheets, etc.) stored in regular user folders (Desktop, Documents, Pictures, etc.). However, if you're currently using it (or if you are considering it for your backup needs), then you should know that it has the following potentially major problem:

By default, Carbonite does not back up a number of less-common file types, nor many files stored in secondary folders, nor files larger than 4GB. This might exclude a number of very important files on your computer from your backup, including Microsoft Outlook email database files, as well as data stored by less-common programs, which could render those programs useless if you ever restore your data from Carbonite. So, unless you (or someone you trust) spends the time to carefully review every data file and folder on your computer to see whether Carbonite is actually backing it up, you cannot be sure that it is doing your backup correctly.

  • Most of my experience with Carbonite has been with the least-expensive, consumer-level service on single computers running Microsoft Windows. I have not yet explored these issues in depth on Macintosh, nor with multiple computers, nor their business version, but I imagine that they are similar.
  • I have not investigated Carbonite's online backup competitors (Mozy, IDrive, Backblaze, Acronis Cloud Backup, etc.) to see how they compare regarding these issues. Note: As of this writing, CrashPlan has decided to focus on the small business, education, and enterprise markets, so all existing "CrashPlan for Home" subscriptions for consumer-level backup will end on October 23, 2018, with discounted conversion options to Carbonite or CrashPlan for Small Business. See http://www.crashplan.com for details.
The claim: Carbonite is easy, automatic backup for "everything" on your computer

At first glance, Carbonite sounds very easy to use to back up your computer to their online server, especially when you read statements like the following on their web site:

  • "Automatic cloud backup for your files, photos and more"
  • "From family photos to customer data, automatically protect everything in the cloud"
  • "Automatic, unlimited cloud backup for computers"
  • "Carbonite Safe provides automatic and continuous cloud backup for computer files"
  • "Carbonite cloud backup protects your computer--automatically"
  • "Back up every photo, document, video and song without worry"
The language in Carbonite's marketing and the experience of using it can give you the impression that all you have to do is:
  • Pick the type of backup service you will need: One user computer vs. multiple user computers vs. multiple servers,
  • Register on their web site,
  • Start a free trial or pay for the subscription up front, and
  • Download and install their software.
That's it! Carbonite claims to do all the rest, backing up your computer over your internet connection, so you don't have to do anything else. It does a big initial backup, and then incrementally backs up changes you make as you work, as long as your internet connection is working.

Unfortunately, the real story is more complicated.

The reality: What I have observed

I have helped many clients both set up new Carbonite accounts and review existing Carbonite installations, and every single time I have observed the following:
  • By default, Carbonite does a good job backing up regular files (documents, spreadsheets, pictures, and a few others) that are located in regular user folders and subfolders (Desktop, Documents, Pictures, Videos, and a few others).
  • And, since it's a waste of time for any online backup service to back up your operating system or programs (because such software cannot easily be restored), Carbonite reasonably excludes those files and folders from your backup.
  • Thus, any online backup service should focus on backing up all of your data.
  • However, by default and without ever actually telling you, Carbonite might choose not to back up files and folders that might be critically important to you. While in most cases you can correct this, the process is laborious and time-consuming.
What are the consequences of this?

If important files are not backed up, and you then have a disaster and restore from an incomplete Carbonite backup, you can end with a number of unpredictable problems, including:
  • You might open your email program and find that months or years of messages are missing, along with all of your contacts.
  • You might open the special software that you use for your calendar or bookkeeping or patient records or client management or inventory control, only to find that it's completely empty, or your data is corrupted, or that the program just crashes.
Here's an analogy that might make this clearer:

Imagine that you've hired a moving company to pack up your house and move you to a new one. Since there are hundreds of items to move, it's just not practical for you to supervise everything. Days later, as you settle into your new house you realize that you can't find a number of things, but there's no pattern to what's missing. You eventually learn that, without ever telling you, by default the moving company doesn't pack or move anything colored green. This is documented in the support database on the moving company's web site, along with how to override this behavior, but you never knew to look for that. Unfortunately, it's too late to fix this, since your old house (and whatever was left behind) is gone.

How does Carbonite choose what to include in your backup vs. what to exclude?

On Windows, the name of almost every file on your computer has three parts:
  • The base name,
  • A period (.) which acts as a separator, and
  • The extension (suffix), which is determined by the type of data stored inside the file.
For example, with a file named "abc.doc" the ".doc" extension implies that the file is a Microsoft Word document. Common file types include:
  • .doc and .docx: Microsoft Word document
  • .xls and .xlsx: Microsoft Excel document
  • .ppt and .pptx: Microsoft PowerPoint document
  • .jpg, .png, .tif: Photos and images
  • .pdf: Adobe's Portable Document Format
  • .mp3, .wav, .wma: Common audio file formats
  • .avi, .flv, .wmv, .mp4: Common video file formats
By default, Carbonite decides whether to back up each file based on its type, i.e., its extension. Until you tell it otherwise, it will include many popular file types in your backup and exclude all others.

In other words, even if you tell Carbonite to back up a particular folder, if there are files with excluded types inside that folder, it will skip them, only partially backing up that folder.

Carbonite puts a colored "dot" on each file and folder that's included in your backup. If an icon has no dot, then that file or folder is not part of your backup. For a folder icon, some dots indicate that all of the folder's contents are backed up, while others indicate that only a portion is included.

How to correct what Carbonite has chosen to back up

As of this writing, here is the only way that I have found to correct the scope of a Carbonite backup on a Microsoft Windows computer:
  • If necessary, start by adjusting 3 options in the Folder Options in Window Explorer (File Explorer on Windows 10): change "Hidden files" to "Show," turn "Hide extensions for known file types" off, and turn "Hide protected files" off.
  • Open each and every folder on your internal drive, looking for data folders that you want to include in (or exclude from) your Carbonite backup.
  • For each folder that you want to include, look for the Carbonite "dot" on its icon. A solid dot (green or yellow) indicates that the folder's contents are fully included, so move on to the next folder. A partial dot (a half circle or "donut") means that its contents are only partially included, so open the folder (and its subfolders) and find the first file that's not included.
  • For each file that Carbonite has excluded but you want to include, see the steps below.
  • For each file or folder that Carbonite has included but you want to exclude, you would perform the same initial steps, but then uncheck the "Back up" checkbox instead. In general, I recommend this for folders containing cache and temporary files.
  • When you're done, if appropriate, put these options in Window Explorer (File Explorer) back: change "Hidden files" back to "Don't show" and turn "Hide protected files" back on. I recommend leaving the "Hide extensions for known file types" option off so you can see the extensions (types) of all of your files.
If you have a lot of data files and folders, this process can take a few hours.

To include a file in your Carbonite backup, and also include all other files of that same type:
  • Right-click on the excluded file.
  • In the menu that appears, click "Properties."
  • In the "Properties" window that appears, click the "Carbonite" tab.
  • Click to turn on the "Back up" checkbox to back up this file.
  • Click to turn on the "Back up files of this type (within folders selected for backup)" checkbox if you also want to back up all other files of this same type in other folders.
If there is no "Carbonite" tab in the Properties window, then that file is in an excluded folder.

Notice that in order to tell Carbonite to include all files of a given normally-excluded file type, you have to first find (or create) a file of that type.

If you use a program that stores its data in an unusual folder, i.e., one that is not inside one of the regular user folders (Desktop, Documents, Pictures, etc.), be sure to include that folder in your review process.

For example, versions of Microsoft Outlook 2007 and older stored their files in the "C:\Users\(username)\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Outlook" hidden folder, which, in my experience, Carbonite does not include by default. However, even if you're using the 2010 version or newer (which store your .pst files in the "Outlook Files" subfolder of your regular Documents folder), some of your Outlook files may still be in that subfolder of AppData if they were carried forward from an older version or restored from a backup.

Which excluded file types might cause problems if they were omitted from your backup?

Here are examples of a few normally-excluded file types that you might choose to include in a Carbonite backup in order to make it more complete:
  • .com, .dll, .exe, .hlp, .ico, .msi, .reg: You may be keeping the installation programs for important software, especially ones that you've paid for, like Quicken, QuickBooks, Microsoft Office, etc.
  • .bak: You (or a program you're using) might create "backup" files using this extension.
  • .idx: A database might rely on its "index" files to work properly.
  • .img: Depending on which program created them, these files might contain pictures or disk images.
  • .iso: These files contain disk images, which might be important copies of software or disks.
  • .lnk: These are Windows "shortcut" files. You probably have a number of them on your Desktop.
  • .log: Some programs (including backup, antivirus, and databases) create "log" files, which may be important to their operation or contain valuable information about past activities.
  • .plist: These are (usually hidden) Apple "Property List" files, which iTunes (for example) stores in its "Media" folder.
Many of these file types are technical or esoteric, so that's probably why Carbonite excludes them from backups by default, but that can still create problems and confusion for many users when they don't come back after a restore.

My suggestions to Carbonite to address this issue

Having spent many hours manually correcting what was included and excluded from many users' backups, I wish that Carbonite would add any of the following features to its software:
  • Add an "interview" (similar to TurboTax) that would ask you which file types and email program you use, and then use your responses to include the appropriate folders and files in your backup, thus giving you chance to correct the default behavior up front.
  • Add an easy-to-find central settings screen listing every file type that they exclude by default, explaining what each one is, and giving you the ability to include any or all of them with a few clicks.
  • Add a clear, easy-to-find list of everything that it will not back up, no matter what you may want.
Other Carbonite issues

There are a few other issues and limitations that you should be aware of:
  • By default, there are other reasons why Carbonite does not back up certain files, including ones that are 4GB or larger in size, or that are located outside of the C:\Users folder on your hard drive. Carbonite also needlessly backs up many temporary and cache files. You can correct both of these issues using the techniques explained above.
  • Colleagues of mine report that after restoring large files (including multi-gigabyte Outlook files), they sometimes discover that those files are corrupted.
  • If you find that the restore (download) process is slower than you would like, you should know that no matter how many separate restore requests you submit to try to get different files to download in parallel, that won't get those files onto your computer any faster. The Carbonite server uses a queue to organize the process, so your files will still download one by one. If you have an urgent need for faster restore and you're in the US, for a fee their Courier Recovery service will ship you a disk drive containing your backup.

Carbonite's use of terms like "automatic" and "everything" is misleading, and depending on your needs, in the worst case its default approach might leave your backup dangerously incomplete. So, if you're already using Carbonite, you (or someone you know and trust) should review every data file and folder on your computer as soon as possible regarding whether it is included or excluded from your backup.

Where to go from here
How to contact me:
email: martin@kadansky.com
phone: (617) 484-6657
web: http://www.kadansky.com

On a regular basis I write about real issues faced by typical computer users. To subscribe to this newsletter, please send an email to martin@kadansky.com and I'll add you to the list, or visit http://www.kadansky.com/newsletter

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Copyright (C) 2018 Kadansky Consulting, Inc. All rights reserved.

I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.

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