Ever since the first days of the PC two decades ago, storage systems have crashed, resulting in the potential for lost data or, if you're lucky, a large bill for the recovery of your data. Major companies, of course, have turned to a variety of backup mechanisms, including tape-based systems, to ensure their data is backed up reliably, but, apart from backing up to CD-ROM, small to medium-sized businesses have been limited in terms of cost-effective backup.

The arrival of broadband internet connections these last few years, however, has allowed single or small cluster PC users to back up their data over the internet on a regular basis. One of the first companies to market in the U.K. with an online backup service was Netstore, which launched in the late 1990s. After dabbling with selling its services direct to end users, as well as via the IT reseller channel, the company now sells its small business services through partners such as BT Openworld and Clearly Business.

It is against this backdrop that Datafort has launched version 3.0 of its online backup service on a direct sales basis. Unlike Netstore, which sells 2Gb of compressed data storage through its partner, Clearly Business, at £14.95 a month on a one-size-fits-all basis, Datafort's service ranges from £9.95 for up to 100Mb of compressed data storage, through £19.95 for up to 500Mb and right on up to £337.50 for up to 30Gb of storage. For the larger company, the developer even offers a dedicated server facility for up to 80Gb, in return for £500 a month. And for the really small user, there's also a free service that allows compressed data storage of up to 5Mb.

Datafort rather optimistically states that its compressed data storage facility equates to raw data of around 10 times the stored size, i.e. 100Mb storage can actually store a gigabyte. Rival Netstore is more conservative, saying a 2:1 compression is typically achieved on its service. My experience with online backup services suggests that, on average, users can expect a compression ration of 4 or 5:1 on most services, depending on the compression system used and content of the files being stored. One good point in favor of Datafort 3 is that the service supports a full backup for every session, as well as the more traditional incremental backup facility. The former, in effect, mimics a tape drive, while the latter is the norm for online backup services - it's good to see a service offering both methods of backup.

Installing the Windows software for Datafort is relatively easy, although the setup procedure can take a while, since the package prompts the user about his or her requirements on an interactive basis. This approach, however, fosters a set-it-and-forget approach to the online backup service, which is not good - we would have liked to have seen notes in the setup pointing out that all the relevant settings could be altered on demand, at a later stage. That having been said, once the software has been installed, the user interface is one of the best we've seen on online backup services - the programmers appear to have thought of everything. This 'everything' approach event extends to the optional auto-email generation when a successful backup has taken place - this is good for basic audit purposes and is reassuring for the user that the service is doing its job.

The data transmission between the user's PC and the firm's data center is encrypted using a 256-bit algorithm and the software, as is normal with the competition, allows the user to change their encryption key. Unlike Netstore, which twins sites, Datafort has opted for a single server farm to store its client's backed up data, and taken a 'Fort Knox' approach to the center's facilities, with multiple power sources and secure storage facilities. The single site approach of Datafort means that, at peak times, the data flowing from a user's PC or network server does not necessarily take full advantage of a user's broadband connection. We've noticed this trend with Netstore in our usage of its service in the past, but not to the same extent as seen on Datafort 3.

Overall, we were very impressed with Datafort's service, especially its offer of a free 5Mb service, albeit with email support only, for users with very light data storage needs. We were, however, surprised to learn that a 2Gb storage option on the Datafort service costs users £45 a month - three times the cost of the one-size-fits-all cost of the Netstore/Clear Business service. To be fair to Datafort, its service charges are based on the actual amount of data that a user stores on company servers each month and this means the charge will vary for some users on a month-by-month basis. Therefore, the apparent price difference between the two rival services is not as great as may seem. Indeed, for many single PC users, their charges are likely to be less than the Netstore/Clearly Business pricing.

Our conclusion is that heavy users could end up paying more than on rival services. For small users, the free-to-use service, even if they stray into a chargeable month or two, is still an excellent option. But, the client interface to Datafort is one of the best we've seen on an online backup service. It offers users access to a wealth of facilities without cluttering up their screen. The service is also billed as supporting single files of up to a terabyte in size.

Product title
Product info
Name: Datafort Description: Price:
Well-designed client software interface; support for full or incremental backups; variable monthly charges. A highly secure data center with full backup and mirroring of servers and excellent user support. Support for up to one terabyte file sizes.
Monthly charges may work out more expensive than competing services.
A viable backup solution with flexible pricing. For users with limited off-site data backup/storage needs, this service is worth more than a second look and, for very light data backup users, the free service looks to be unbeatable.

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