Their backup may not be your backup.
Almost certainly not.
If your data is kept only with that one online provider — be it email, online photo albums, online music collections, generic “cloud” storage, or more — there’s a good chance you really have no backup at all.
The key is this: the backups online services make aren’t for your protection; they’re for the provider’s.
Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!
Cloud service backups
Cloud service providers such as email, cloud storage, and web hosts keep backups, but those backups are generally not for their customers’ use. The only real backup you have access to are the backups you create yourself.
All cloud services have backups
It’s a very poor service provider that takes no backups at all. While it happens, it’s usually discovered immediately prior to that service going out of business. It’s probably a common cause of that service going out of business.
It’s safe to assume major cloud service providers all have backups. They have hundreds, if not thousands, of servers, and store terabytes of data that are almost certainly backed up on a regular schedule. Their equipment breaks down just like ours, and it’s extremely important they not suffer data loss when it does.
For an online provider to lose data because of a problem under their control is inexcusable. Hence, they back up, likely in many ways.
Those backups are for their needs
Here’s the catch, though: those backups are for their purposes, not yours.
Their backups are to protect them.
If their servers die, they can use their backups. If their software fails, they can use their backups. If their employees make a mistake, they can use their backups.
If you make a mistake and delete a file, get malware, or suffer hardware failure, the service provider’s backups will not help.
They didn’t make those backups for you.
There are two cases where your service provider’s backups might serve more than the service provider itself.
First, they could choose to use their backups as part of a customer-facing restore option.
I’m not aware of any that do. 1
Second, if law enforcement comes along with a warrant or court order, it may compel the service provider to hand over their backups. This varies tremendously based on the provider, their location, and the jurisdiction of the requesting court or agency.
I suspect this happens with some regularity.
How to tell if their backups are useful to you
I mean that literally: “permanently” delete a file, an email message, a photo, or a song, and see if you can use only the cloud service’s resources to recover it.
Unless there’s an online recycle bin or history feature, I’ll bet you can’t. Even though you know it’s backed up somewhere, somehow, by the service provider.
“If it’s in only one place, it’s not backed up.”
Your online service counts as one and only one place.
Never, ever, assume anything else.
Even if they did provide some kind of backup-and-restore feature, what happens if the provider suddenly shuts down? It’s happened, and if it does, both your online data and any online recovery service they offer would both be gone in an instant.
The only safe approach is to take control of your own backups.
- If your email is all online at one provider, use a desktop email program to back it up.
- If your photos are all online at a photo storage service, save copies before you upload.
- If your music is all stored online, download copies.
- If your data is only stored in any kind of cloud service, make certain that it is also downloaded to computers you control, and back up those computers regularly yourself.
- If you maintain a website or other online presence, back it up yourself besides whatever your web host may or may not provide.
The only backups you truly have are those you control yourself.
Subscribe to Confident Computing! Less frustration and more confidence, solutions, answers, and tips in your inbox every week.
I'll see you there!
Footnotes & References
1: Web-hosting companies often offer some form of customer-facing backups. Those are often limited and quite separate from the hosting companies’ own backup strategies. Regardless, if the host goes away suddenly, any backups stored there go away as well.