LogMeIn was one of the first remote control services, and continues to be one of the best. Like GoToMyPC and others, it relies on a small program running on a desktop computer, maintaining a connection with an online server. From any other computer, you can go to the service’s website, log in with a name and password, and launch a session controlling the desktop computer, seeing its screen as if you were sitting in front of it. No special software is required at the remote end – the sessions begin in Internet Explorer and a small viewer program is automatically installed on demand. The architecture allows the service to bypass any problems with firewalls, the bane of programs like PCAnywhere and Windows XP’s built-in Remote Desktop. Most of the services charge a monthly subscription fee, but LogMeIn continues to offer a free service with slightly limited features.

LogMeIn has developed some other fascinating products, and LogMeIn Backup is a new service with an interesting twist. Online backup services are developing fast, where software on your computer backs up your files to servers run by some online service. My reaction so far is a low level of fear about privacy, a higher level of fear about whether the company will stay in business, and a bit of frustration that the last time I tried one of those services the software just didn’t work. (Symantec just announced that it will be entering the online backup business soon.)

LogMeIn Backup avoids privacy issues by backing up your files to another computer under your control at a different location. A small program is run on your office computer, say, for backing up client files. The same LogMeIn Backup program is then run on your home computer, directing the backed up files to be stored on an external hard drive at home. The software puts the two computers in touch with each other and a copy of the office files flows onto the home computer. The backed up files are not directly readable, but they can be restored to the original computer or to another computer.

There’s a modest monthly charge per computer, and the software is as easy to configure as possible. Theoretically it can even back up open files, using Windows Volume Shadow Copy service – Outlook .PST files while Outlook is running, Quickbooks data files while the program is open, or databases, for example – but that hasn’t worked for me during my tests.

Nonetheless, I like the idea; it’s cheap additional insurance against catastrophe. This is not a complete disaster plan and it’s not designed to back up everything on a computer; I’d only use it to back up important files, in addition to other backup protection. But it can get important data offsite (in case, say, the lightning strike fries both the computer AND the external hard drive that does your primary backup chores), and at the least it gives you peace of mind knowing that the world holds a redundant copy of your documents/spreadsheets/photos. Redundancy is your friend!

In my testing, it’s been beautifully functional, but slow. Backups from two different offices have proceeded at about 2Gb/day. After the files are backed up once, subsequent backups only transfer changed files, so it’s only the first one where the speed matters. It means that if I ever had to restore a big chunk of the backed up files, I’d have to carry the external hard drive onsite so it could be directly connected to the network, where files could be restored at a reasonable speed. In a crisis, you wouldn’t want to wait four days to restore your 8Gb of files. Maybe I’ll find some workaround but at this speed the software wouldn’t work on big collections of files – music or video libraries, for example. (If a computer restarts during a backup, the backup job is aborted and no data is saved – it has to be started from scratch. Twice now I’ve had a backup fail in the middle of Day 5. Aargh!)

As you consider your options, don’t forget FolderShare, which covers some of the same ground as LogMeIn Backup. That’s the Microsoft technology to create folders on two computers that are kept in sync automatically over the Internet. It’s a bit hard to get started with until the underlying concept snaps into focus and it all makes sense. Here’s my best attempt to explain FolderShare.