Arq: Amazon S3 Backups Made Easy for Mac

I have tried a number of online backup solutions – among them Mozy, Carbonite, JungleDisk, MobileMe’s iDisk, and CrashPlan. This article is not about those products, but I can tell you that all of them let me down in one way or another.

I hit problems with one of them when disaster struck and I found that I couldn’t actually use my backup files; another was terribly, unusably slow and gave little control over when backups were run; another kept my MacBook’s fan’s running all the time, because the backup app was leaking memory all over the place.

Despite all these disappointments, I do feel that I need an off-site backup (along with my Time Machine and SuperDuper! backups) – it’s an extra line of protection that helps me feel more secure – so I’ve kept looking for a solution that’ll do the best possible job.

For the last few months, I’ve been using Dropbox and, although it’s not expressly designed for the purpose of backup, it just works, and I’ve been very happy with the service. My only complaint is that Dropbox is a little expensive for my needs – after all, I’m only currently using 12% of the 50GB my $10/month buys.

I recently came across Haystack Software’s Arq, and I’m thinking this may be a very good option for keeping online backups running smoothly and seamlessly. Join me after the break for a walkthrough of its features.

Getting Going

Once you’ve downloaded Arq and moved it into your Applications folder, double-click to run the app, and you’ll see this window:

Setting Up

Setting Up

Because Arq uses Amazon’s S3 data storage (as does Dropbox), you’ll need to enter your account details if you already have one, or go through the process of creating one. Clicking on the ‘Sign Up for Amazon S3’ button will open your browser and you’ll need to log into or create an Amazon account to proceed. If you already have an S3 account, then you can enter your details, or click on ‘Retrieve Amazon S3 Keys’ if you don’t have a handy note of them.

Once you have your keys, enter these in the boxes and select your Bucket Region – this is quite important, because costs differ in different places in the world. It also controls where your backups are stored, which might impact backup times – as well as perhaps stirring some xenophobic fears or nationalistic pride.

Click ‘Continue’, and Arq will quickly verify your account details, and then moves you on to a particularly welcome stage in the setup process: setting your budget.

Set Your Budget & Backup Type

Your Budget

Your Budget

That’s a really nice feature: you get to specify what you spend on storing your backup each month, rather than being constrained by a service’s limitations, or surprised by a huge bill at the end of the month. Bear in mind, though, that Amazon charges transfer costs separately, so your bills are likely to be higher than the figure you set here – especially in the first month, when you’re running the initial upload of all your files.

Set your own budget and click through, and you now get to set your encryption password. Your password is stored in your Mac’s Keychain and isn’t transmitted to anyone else, so your data’s good and secure in transit and on Amazon’s servers. But do heed the warning screen that shows next:

Lose at Your Own Risk

Lose at Your Own Risk

And, finally, you can select either to back up your entire Home folder, or to manually select which folders and files are backed up. If you choose to select folders, you’re then presented with this window:

Add a Folder

Add a Folder

Click on the + at bottom-left (or click the ‘Add a Folder for Backup’ button on the right) to select folders or files from a familiar Finder window.

Arq in Use

Once you’ve added things, they’ll show in a list in the left panel, and as you select each one, you’ll see its current backup status:

Backup Progress

Backup Progress

You can use a filter system to exclude any items within folders – another nice feature that gives you greater control over your backup.

Arq Agent

Arq Agent

Once you’ve set things up, you can close Arq, and the Arq Agent will continue to run in the background and look after your backup with no user intervention needed. You can opt to have it display an icon in the menubar:

The light in the tiny Ark’s windows flashes from left to right to let you know when data is being transferred. If you prefer to save on menubar space, though, you can choose to hide the icon (in the Preferences menu, under the ‘Advanced’ tab), though I find it useful to be able to see when there’s something happening, as well as being able to open the app from the icon.

How Arq Works

Arq uses the same backup schedule as Time Machine: it saves hourly backups for the past 24 hours, daily backups for the past month, and weekly backups until the amount of data stored in S3 reaches the budget you’ve set in the Preferences. Backups run automatically a few times in an hour – whenever a file is changed, Arq receives a notification from OS X, but it won’t actually upload the changed file until 20 minutes after the last backup. Because this is incremental backup, after your initial upload, which can take some time, subsequent updates are quick. I have found Arq’s uploads to be significantly faster than my experience of other online backups.

If you ever want to restore a file from your backup, you need simply click on the disclosure icon to the left of the folder name, and you’ll see a list of all the versions of the folder held in your backup. Then select the file you want restored from the right-hand panel’s list, and click ‘Restore’:

Backed Up Files

Backed Up Files

The file will be downloaded and filed in a folder titled ‘Restored by Arq’ in the original location – usefully, once that process is done, you’re presented with a dialogue that lets you click to go to the restored file:

Your Restored File

Your Restored File

(Some implementation of Quick Look within the app window itself might have been nice here, though it’s really not necessary – and perhaps it’s not even technically possible.)

Conclusion

That’s all you need to know: once Arq is up and running, you really can forget about it. It’s been stable in my experience, and is lightweight and unobtrusive.

Arq doesn’t have the instant synchronisation/backup of any changed files that DropBox or Mozy offers, but things are updated a few times in each hour, which might in general be enough for most users. It would be easy to come up with a workflow that combined a free Dropbox account for sharing files between machines and taking advantage of that instant backup magic (say a ‘Current’ folder for whatever documents you’re working on at the moment), while using Arq for your main backup.

I love Dropbox for its elegance and simplicity, but actually those are exactly the qualities I like in Arq too. Having paid out for the last couple of months for a Dropbox Pro account, I think I’m going to downgrade at the end of the month and give Arq a real test as my main online backup option. It’s looking good enough to become the app I rely on to be the final, crucial part of my backup strategy.


Summary

Arq is the only online Amazon S3 backup product built for the Mac and only the Mac. So it has the look and feel you expect from a Mac application.

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