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Is Cloud Backup Enough?

It’s all the rage, but you may want to do more.

The Cloud (concept)
Cloud backup vs. backing up to an external drive isn't really a debate. Why not both?
Question: Rather than using an external hard drive, what’s your opinion and/or advice about backing up to the cloud such as with Carbonite? Wouldn’t that be the simplest way? Also since I have backup discs of my operating system and factory settings, is it necessary to also backup my OS? I’d really rather not trust an external unit, which could be damaged just like my laptop.

Cloud storage is awesome, and I use it heavily.

However, to mangle an old advertising slogan: “It’s part of a healthy breakfast.”

Let me emphasize: it’s only a part of the solution you want.

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Cloud backup - enough?

Cloud or online backup can be useful, but has limitations that prevent it from being a pragmatic, complete solution. Instead, use it in conjunction with traditional external hard drive backup to ensure that everything is backed up and available when you need it.

Cloud backup

Honestly, what’s right for you depends on what you’re attempting to accomplish with your backup.

Cloud-based backup — meaning backing up to some kind of online storage or backup service — is fine, as long as you keep three things in mind.

1. Pay attention to what is and is not backed up

Most online backup services back up only some of the information on your computer.

This usually means your data files. Most commonly, it means the service will back up only the files it finds in or under “Documents”, or perhaps also folders like “Pictures”, “Video”, and others.

That’s enough for many people. For others, it’s a surprise, because it’s not backing up your entire computer; it’s only backing up your data.

2. Understand the limits

By its very nature, an online backup uses your internet connection — perhaps excessively.

Exactly how heavily, whether or not it will impact your use of the computer,  and how long it all takes depends on two things:

  • How much data there is upload and back up.
  • How fast your internet connection’s upload speed is.

The first backup, in particular, can take a long time, since it has to upload everything for the first time.

Even incremental or backups can still take a long time if your internet connection is slow and the amount of data to be backed up is large.

Sometimes the backups can be so slow as to be pragmatically useless. And there’s one particularly important case.

3. Online isn’t for image backups

Full image backups are backups of absolutely everything on your computer.

I absolutely love and rely on image backups because no matter what happens, everything is backed up. If my hard disk dies completely, I use an image backup to restore to a replacement hard drive, allowing me to carry on from that point.

Here’s the problem: “everything” means everything, and as a result, image backups are huge.

Image backups are typically too large to be uploaded in any useful timeframe. For example, if it takes a day and a half to upload a daily backup, there’s no way you’d ever be able to keep up. Your online backups would always be severely out of date and your internet connection would always be slower than it needs to be, because your backup software would constantly be uploading as fast as it could.

Why not both?

After you factor in its limitations, online cloud backup can be useful, but it’s not enough.

My recommendation is simple: use both online and local (external drive) backups, and use them for what they’re best at.

For example, perform an image backup to an external drive once a month and an online backup of your data files daily.

My approach: a monthly full image backup, a daily incremental image backup — both to an external drive — and then use online services such as OneDrive and Dropbox to back up my work in progress as it changes throughout the day.

Do this

The most important thing you can do, of course, is back up regularly.

It’s important to realize that external drives and online backups are different kinds of backup, each with its own pros and cons. You need to make sure that you choose a solution — possibly using both — to achieve a backup strategy you can rely on to be there when (not if) you need it.

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13 comments on “Is Cloud Backup Enough?”

  1. Hi Leo,

    Could you explain why you do a full backup monthly if you do incremental daily? It would seem that the incremental would cover it after the initial full backup.

    Incremental backups only build on the most recent full backup plus the intervening incrementals. So, if I did incremental backups only for, say, a year I’d have to keep 1 full backup (the starting backup) and 364 incremental backups in order to be able to restore files from the most recent. Lose any incremental backup in the middle, and you lose the entire rest of the chain. By doing a full backup once a month, I “reset the clock” and thus need to keep at most only a month’s worth of incremental backups.

  2. Leo, my vote goes to the cloud.

    I faithfully followed your advice on nightly backups to an external hard drive through Macrium Reflect, but when I finally crashed I couldn’t boot from the Rescue CD, and finally had a technician reinstall Windows 7.

    Microsoft Office was easily recovered by use of the original product key. My main account in Outlook was set up as IMAP, so I got back both my Received and Sent mail. The POP3 account of course I lost the Sent mail but got back the Received mail (since contrary to recommended practice, I never delete from the server unless I’m forced to).

    My files were all backed up in the clouds on MyPC Backup so there was no loss there either. I also have a new computer which came with SugarSync installed and I’m impressed with it because it backs up continuously rather than at a scheduled time per day. Carbonite at my workplace is also a continuous backup.

    Still feeling a little despondent and haven’t found the courage to restart the Macrium Reflect routine yet.

  3. @Tom
    I don’t think it’s a matter of the incremental backup not covering it. An incremental backup will go on doing its thing very well until the disk fills up. So, it’s necessary to start the process over again periodically to keep from filling up the backup disk

  4. I had my ass saved once again by Macrium Reflect. Before reading Leo’s articles, I was a fanatic for backing up data, but I didn’t realize the benefit of nightly incremental backups. Yesterday I got hit with Malware which came disguised as a Flash Update. I tried to clean it up and could have done it in anything from 20 minutes to several hours. But after 5 or 10 minutes, I decided that it’s much easier to just restore from backup. It took about 5 hours (unattended), which was a good opportunity to get away from the computer and attend to real life issues (except I still have my netbook, Kindle Fire and Droid to keep going if necessary.) Also using Dropbox as my working directory assures that whatever work I did since the backup is also backed up.
    So, bottom line: if you want a stress free path to recovery, use an incremental backup. I also use a cloud backup service. The best solution for me isn’t either or, it’s use both.

  5. At work, I’m a coach for a piece of software we use. I get to see what others do on their computer when I come to assist them. It’s amazing how many people don’t use My Documents to save stuff, but rather save stuff in directories they create on their C: drive (like the old days before Windows 95).

    So Leo’s first point is valid. Make sure you know what is being backed up, especially if you don’t use My Documents.

  6. I’m using OneDrive and Macrium Reflect to protect my data. My Documents and Pictures folders reside in my OneDrive folder. Sensitive files are in a Cryptomator vault in OneDrive for extra security. OneDrive is setup to keep my files on the computer so that they are still available when I’m not connected to the internet.
    As mentioned in the article, I do a full backup monthly and daily incremental backups using Macrium. The files I have in the Cryptomator vault get copied to an external hard drive unencrypted. Besides the hard drive I use for backups, I use another drive to periodically backup and keep it in a separate location.
    Finally, because I use a laptop as my primary machine, I have a second one I use for those occasions when I need to send one to the shop for repairs. Both get backed up and I can switch between them as needed without losing anything or not being able to access it.
    Periodically, I also run through an exercise where I use a recovery flash drive to boot my computer and and run through the procedure to restore an image backup to ensure that everything works and I remember how to do it.
    I can recover my system in about an hour using this method and know that I will still have everything.

  7. My backup routine is pretty identical to Mark. I’m doing Full, Diff and Incr based on the Grandfather, Father, Son schedule in Macrium (paid version). A monthly system image backup and also a separate backup of sensitive files kept in two Cryptomator vaults. Both the image backup and vaults backup go to an external drive, but the Cryptomator vaults are simultaneously stored in the cloud ( in encrypted form. This serves as my cloud backup of stuff I’d really need later if my laptop crashed and my external drives were destroyed (fire). Ideally would want to do my image backup to the cloud as well but time and costs limits prevent that.

  8. Leo:
    Your references to back ups, system image backups, etc. are always worth re-re-reading, to keep it front of mind in terms of importance. But having read this column today, it raised a question in my mind that suggests “false confidence” in having an external hard drive.
    I use a WD SSD external drive, but if I read this correctly, it’s not really a “complete system image backup” if any files are exempt. Here’s what the manual claims are files “NOT” backed up:

    Excluded files

    The WD Backup software will not back up files that have the following specific:

    Names that include:
    [CommonApplicationData]\Western Digital\
    System Volume Information
    WD Backup.swstore
    .WD Hidden Items
    WD SmartWare.swstor
    Start value:
    End values:

    So, simple question: even though the WD drive is doing incrementals, etc. does this mean that in fact, there isn’t a full/imaged backup going on, should the system crash?
    Happy New Year, my friend, and loved the corgi photos!


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