Cucku didn’t invent “social backup,” but they are, to the best of my knowledge, the only backup provider that uses Skype’s peer-to-peer network to transfer your files to your chosen partner’s computer. This is both original and clever. Partnering with Skype not only saves them building their own network, it brings them to the attention of Skype’s millions of users (more than 10 million of them online as I type this.) If you open Skype and click Tools | Extras, you’ll see Cucku Backup in the drop-down menu. That Skype certification definitely gives Cucku an edge that neither Zoogmo nor CrashPlan has. (I covered CrashPlan in February 2007 and Zoogmo in August 2007.)
I first heard about Cucku, a relative latecomer to this space, in November 2008. Though the Skype angle intrigued me, I was too distracted by the appalling choice of name to explore the product any further at the time. When offered a chance to interview Cucku CEO Rob Ellison about the impending launch of Cucku 2.0 and Cucku Pro, however, I not only downloaded and installed Cucku, but enlisted the Ur-Guru as a backup partner.
I still couldn’t resist asking Ellison what on earth had possessed him to give his product such an ill-omened name. He explained that it was because cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, and Cucku’s users store their data in “nests” on the computers of their friends. Which would all be very fine and cute, like the logo, except for one little problem.
The cuckoo never asks permission before laying its egg in the nest of some other unsuspecting, hardworking avian couple. Worse, the pair’s natural children don’t fare at all well: “The cuckoo egg hatches earlier than the host’s, and the cuckoo chick grows faster; in most cases the chick evicts the eggs or young of the host species.” (Wikipedia) By analogy, that would suggest that if you use this project, you can invade an unsuspecting computer and take over the hard drive, evicting all the user’s own data. Now there’s a winning idea.
Naturally the Cucku software doesn’t let you do any such antisocial thing. (If it did, no doubt Ellison could charge a good deal more for it, but he’d have to sell it on the black market.) You can’t back up files to anyone else’s computer until you get permission, and you can only use as much disk space as the person allots you. Furthermore, the arrangement is assumed to be reciprocal: when you set up the software for the first time, Cucku asks you how much space you want to make available to your backup partners.
Before sending your files to your backup partner, Cucku backs them up locally. In fact, Cucku is designed to be fully-functional offline backup software; you’re not required to engage in peer-to-peer backup if you don’t want to. (Nevertheless, getting your files offsite is a very good idea.) It’s dead easy to use, using the kind of “smart backup” technology many programs now apply, and automatically backing up common types of files as well as commonly-used folders. The common types of files it offers to back up will depend on what you have installed on your machine. I tested Cucku on my netbook (not wanting to risk any arguments with Mozy), which only has a basic Office install and a few other programs on it, so I got a fairly short list of backup options. If by any chance they miss something, you can add it manually.
The backup is encrypted, in a baffling proprietary format involving many folders. Your backup partners will never know what’s in the backup you store on their computers, and vice versa. Of course, this means that you can’t restore the data without Cucku, but that’s true with many backup programs.
If you decide later that you want to remove a file from your backup (because you deleted it from your drive on purpose rather than accidentally, for instance), you can use the Remove Files Wizard to do so. I find adding this extra step on top of editing the backup definition a trifle annoying, but at least it beats deleting the entire backup and starting at the beginning.
Backup by Sneakernet
The PowerPoint that Cucku’s PR agent sent me before the interview alluded to getting around the speed problem (always an issue with online backups) via “sneakernet.” I had to ask what that meant. It’s the geek version of “shanks’ mare.” Ellison himself had been no more clueful about the term than I; as a Brit, he’d’ve said “trainers” rather than “sneakers.” Either way, the point is that you can now (as of version 2.0) export your backup onto the media of your choosing and either physically carry it or mail it to your backup partner. If your backup is very large, even the good old US Postal Service is going to be faster than trying to upload it, particularly given broadband speeds in America. And even then, Cucku’s (or Skype’s) transfer speeds aren’t that impressive: my statistics tell me that my average transfer speeds have been 132 kbps upstream and 291 kbps downstream. Given that I can get 400 kbps upstream with my FTP client, not what you’d call breathtaking.
You can also export your partner’s backup, in case something happens to his local backup and he needs to restore his files in a hurry. (Well, given that Stefan is in Holland, it would not be that easy for me to get him his files in a hurry. He would be better advised to choose a backup partner closer to home.) Due to the geographical distance, and the fact that we only had a week before I was going to post the review, I opted not to try importing a backup to restore.
Backup and Restore Basics
Cucku’s main window offers you four options and three status windows. Down the left, under the cheerful logo, you’ll see “Backup Now,” “Restore Files,” “settings,” and “Online Help.” The status windows tell you about your local backup, your partner status (that is, whether you are backing up to your partner’s computer, or your partner is backing up to your computer), and whether you have messages. Messages generally say things like “Remote Backup Completed” and “Restore Completed,” but if something goes wrong, they’ll tell you that, too.” At the bottom you have “Pause,” “Cancel,” and “Close” buttons.
Cucku is designed to run in the background, all the time, as long as your computer is operating. You can set it so that it won’t make backups while you’re using your computer, but that might mean backups never get made, unless you leave your machine on all night. The Ur-Guru noticed that the program uses a comparatively large amount of RAM: 62-73 MB for the .exe file and 15 MB for the service. (I’m seeing 79 MB for Cucku.exe and 18 MB for CuckuSrv.exe on Mena right now.) Not knowing whether that was high or not, I took a look at the assorted backup services running on Enna, for comparison. Titan Backup: 37 MB. Memeo: 13 MB, with another 11 MB for its background service. Mozy: 10 MB for the backup, 11 MB for the status icon. (Huh?) Rebit: 9 MB each for the tray service and the autoplay. SyncBack SE: 8 MB. So, yes, I have to agree that Cucku is a bit of a memory hog. Still, we’re not talking very big numbers, given the average RAM of new computers today. (Even my netbook has 1 GB RAM.)
I’d advise turning it off (you do this by right-clicking the icon in the notification tray and selecting “Exit”) if you’re planning to make any Skype calls, though, just as I’d advise closing down Outlook and shutting down any other file transfers.
But back to the backups. Once your backup partner has accepted you (you need to know the person’s Skype ID), your partner backup will start automatically as soon as your local backup has finished, as long as your partner is connected and signed in to Skype. (Skype status is irrelevant; it was possible for Stefan to make backups to my computer when I had Skype set to “Do Not Disturb.”)
Restoring data works essentially the same way for both local and remote files. Once you click the “Restore Files” icon, you’re presented with another wizard that leads you through the steps of choosing your backup source and the files you want to restore. Follow the easy guidelines and presto! your files are returned to you. (You get a choice of versions, too, if Cucku has backed up more than one.)
Social Backup vs. Online Backup
So why would you want to back up your data with a friend rather than one of the many online service providers out there? After all, even the Ur-Guru doesn’t keep his computers in a Tier 1 data center with security alarms, door guards, emergency generators, and computer-safe fire-prevention systems. If there’s a natural disaster, the friends and neighbors close enough to reach by “sneakernet” are likely to be affected, too. And certainly their hard drives are as vulnerable to crashes and their offices to break-ins as yours are.
But the actual track records of these supposedly secure institutions are not always so impressive. Even if we leave aside the number of backup tapes that have gone missing from financial institutions and/or Iron Mountain, there’s the recent Carbonite fiasco. Plus, with everyone and his brother trying to break into the online backup space, there are a lot of venture-funded startup companies that aren’t going to make it. (And not just the startups. How long did HP Upline last?)
Then there’s the pricing model of online backup services, which tend to charge per gigabyte per month. That can start to add up after a while (though my client Spare Backup argues that their service comes out to 11¢/day and costs less than maintaining your own hardware and IT staff).
Rob Ellison didn’t want to follow that pricing model when he created Cucku Pro. The software, which allows you to install the program on 3 computers and to have as many backup partners as you want (thus acting as your family’s backup hub), costs $49.95 on a one-time basis. You can go on using Cucku 2.0 forever, though presumably there will be enough improvements in some future version to entice you to upgrade. And speaking of upgrades, if you’re an existing customer and upgrade from Cucku 1.0 before June 12, you can get Cucku Pro for $29.95; sign in to your account for details.
One final advantage of social backup is its viral nature. Because you need a backup partner, you have to tell someone else about the product. In doing so, you not only gain a new customer (paid or otherwise) for Cucku: you help spread the word about the importance of backups. In order to help you back up your files, your backup partner needs to set up the software, and it’s then easier for him or her to back up than not to.
Cucku definitely gets points for both ingenuity and ease of use. As file backup software goes, it’s decent of its kind—not outstanding, but certainly perfectly serviceable. Piggybacking on Skype for peer-to-peer is pure genius when it comes to dealing with technophobes who don’t want to have to argue with their routers or firewalls. (Not to mention the marketing benefits for them.)
But oh, the name…