I’ve written some about free online backup services before, but I want to take this opportunity to look at the entire concept of online backups, whether they’re free or paid.
Online backup services can be a useful component of a broader backup strategy, but there are a number of factors to consider before deciding if online backup is the right thing to do, including security, completeness, speed, and cost.
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“Moving to the cloud” is a popular buzz phrase these days, and online backup is one of the poster children for the concept. In a nutshell, the idea is that with ubiquitous connectivity, why not store important data on servers on the internet, in “the cloud”? (We used to simply call it the internet.)
By using third-party internet services and servers, you can keep all your email online (nothing new here; Hotmail and others have been around for years), your documents online (Google Docs and Microsoft OneDrive are just two examples), and more. The advantage is that all you usually need is a computer and a browser, and not only can you access your documents from just about anywhere, but you can be less concerned about system and software crashes on your machine.
So if “the cloud” is such a good place for your data (a debatable subject for another day), is it also a good place for the backups of your data?
Why not online backups?
It’s definitely an option, if used properly, but there are definitely concerns to consider.
An online backup isn’t practical for everything
It’s just not practical to back up everything online.
For most people, it would take days, if not weeks, to upload a complete copy of everything on their machine, simply because of the limited upload speed of their internet connection. This means that you likely won’t be backing up your operating system, your settings, or anything but your data.
In fact, that’s what most online backup services do by default: back up your data, not your system. And even then, you need to be careful to ensure that they’re backing up everything you think they are. For example, if you keep data outside of My Documents, you may have to take extra steps to tell the service to back that up as well.
The implication is simple: if you have a major system failure and lose everything, your online backup won’t help restore your machine. It’ll only restore your data after you’ve rebuilt your machine and reinstalled the operating system and applications.
That might be a valid choice, but it’s a choice you need to be aware of.
An online backup requires being online
This might sound obvious, but in many cases, it’s not: you must be online for online backup to happen at all.
Here’s a troubling scenario: you’ve taken a number of pictures with your camera, and loaded them onto your computer, into some folder that your online backup service backs up. Say you’ve taken 100 megabytes of photos (not difficult with today’s high resolution cameras). At a 256kb upload speed (yours may be slower or faster), it will take a minimum of an hour to upload and backup those photos, and that’s if you’re doing nothing else with your internet connection.
If you turn your computer off at the end of the day, and those photos have not yet completed uploading, they aren’t backed up. They may automatically resume uploading when the machine it next turned on, but until then, if anything happens to that machine or hard disk, you risk losing them.
This is a particularly common scenario when traveling, where connectivity is limited and slow. It’s easy, particularly with photos, to accumulate data faster than you can back it up.
An online backup is … online
Your backup is in the cloud. I know, that’s kinda the point, right? Accessible from anywhere? From any computer?
The risk is the same risk you run when using any online service: if someone steals your account information, they have access to whatever you’ve stored in the cloud. If you’ve been backing things up online, and somehow your backup account is compromised, the attacker could have access to everything.
The good news here is that this is something within your control, and goes back to the basics of online account management and safety: use good, strong passwords, don’t write them down, don’t use the same password for multiple purposes, don’t share with people you don’t absolutely trust, stay safe in open WiFi hotspots, avoid malware, and so on.
The steps to keeping your online information safe are relatively easy, but the cost of failure can be fairly high.
An online backup is on someone else’s computer
Many people express concern about the security of their data apart from the security of their account. Those concerns typically fall into two categories:
- Your data being exposed should the online backup service be hacked.
- Your data being exposed should the online backup service receive a warrant or other demand from a law enforcement agency or other government entity.
Depending on where you live, where the online backup service is located, and the sensitivity of your data, those can both be very valid concerns.
As long as you stick with reputable online backup services, the technology typically encrypts your backups in such a way that no one but you can actually see it. In fact, one measure of security is that the best services are not able to recover your data if you forget your password. So don’t do that, OK?
Is an online backup a good idea?
In my opinion, yes, but only as part of a larger back-up strategy.
Start with a periodic full image backup of your computer. This way, you know everything is backed up. Should your hard drive ever die completely, you won’t be faced with reinstalling the operating system and all your applications from scratch; just restore the backup.
Then, consider adding an online backup of your data. Depending on your approach, this could result in nearly real-time continuous backup of your data, or it could be an alternative to running your local back-up program every day. When something goes wrong, from an accidentally deleted file to a completely destroyed computer (or even home), you know that your data, at least, is safe.
I would be extremely hesitant to use only an online backup service, but as a component of a larger picture, it can definitely make sense.
And, to quote one of my earlier articles, “the best backup strategy is whatever you’ll actually use” – so if online is the one that you’ll actually use – use it.
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