How Good is OnLine BackUp?

About three years ago, PC Pitstop hired a new developer that was about 25 years old. I met him in Myrtle Beach shortly after we hired him and we were at the bar chewing the fat. Some how the conversation turned to backing up your system. At PC Pitstop, this is important, since everyone works out of their homes, and there is no IT department that is performing nightly backups. His response really shocked me.

“I don’t do backups and I don’t plan to. I have never had a hard drive crash, and so it is really a waste of time.”

There were a couple of others with us and collectively our jaws dropped. I along with others tried to no avail to change his mind.

Less than a week later, his hard drive crashed and he lost all of his work. All of it. Some people have to learn the hard way, but I know for a fact that he now backs up regularly.

Before, we go any further, there is one important point. ALL HARD DRIVES CRASH. Many components in your computer can run without breaking for decades such as your processor, memory and graphics chip. Sometimes you might think your computer is invincible, but it isn’t. The hard drive is different than any other component because it has moving parts. The hard drive despite its little size, has one or more platters spinning at a minumum of 4500 revolutions per minute. That is 75 times every second. Then there are little heads that look like miniature break pads that barely touch the surface of these fast spinning platters to read and write information.

At some point, this technological marvel will break. It is not if, it’s when. Either the motor that makes the platters whirr will break, or ultimately the arm for the little heads will wear down and stop working. The hard drive industry actually tracks their crash rate and it has improved over the last 10 years, but the point is still the same. All hard drives will crash.

Because of the mechanical nature of the hard drive, it is also the most delicate system in your computer. If your computer is dropped or suffers a shock, the most likely device to fail is your hard drive.

About 15 years ago, I once dropped my laptop because I was in a hurry. I was really worried because I had a lot of important data on it. I nervously picked up the laptop, and it fired back up. A let out a sigh of relief. Since I was in a hurry, I just went back to what I was doing. Within about two to three days, the hard drive was totally dead. Geez! I had two to three days to backup all the important data but I didn’t do it!

I thought it was all lost. I frantically looked for a data recovery service. I finally found one but they made no guarantees and they wanted $1000. What could I do? I whipped out my credit card and paid it. A data recovery service opens up the hard drive in a sterile environment. Then they carefully try to read each platter and recover the data. It is a delicate process wrought with problems. In my case, they sent me a DVD with what they recover. They were successful in getting a few files, but most of the important data, spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations were all lost. It still makes me sad today.

Suffice it to say, I became a regular backupper. I wouldn’t say religious, but if I waited too long, my stomach would begin churning with impending doom. Back then, backup was no easy task. I used an obsolete format called a ZIP drive. They were made by a company called Iomega that I think is almost defunct.

The reason is that the writeable CD quickly replaced the ZIP drive as a larger capacity and less expensive backup media format.

But hallelujah, finally the external hard drive came to popularity in 2003-4 time frame. This made it a snap to back up, and with the introduction of USB2, my personal back up time was reduced to less than an hour. Still to this day, I am using external hard drives for backup.

All that said, external hard drives are not infallible. I remember at one point, my portable hard drive failed. I had done a backup recently, but guess what, the back up hard drive failed also. What were the odds? Two hard drives failing at the same time with the same data. Fortunately, I had another back up, but I lost about two months of data.

My hard drive is my life. I store all my email, photos, presentations, ideas, analysis, ramblings, videos all on my hard drive.

Just today, my cousin called me because he was having trouble getting his new LCD monitor working on his old Dell desktop. We got it working and then he asked, “I just got an email from PC Pitstop about your online backup. What do you think?”.

First I told him that I still am using external backup. The main reason is that it doesn’t take much time and storage is so cheap. As of this writing, you can buy 1TB of storage for less than $100. But there are limitations to external hard drives too. First, as I described before, ultimately your external drive will fail. In my case, it happened at the same time as my hard drive crash. Next, it does not protect you against fire and theft. If my apartment burned down, I would lose both my computer and also the external hard drive. Some one could also steal my laptop and my drive too.

These are the advantages of on line back up. On line backup allows all of your data to be stored on secure servers distant from your computer. There are numerous advantages to this. Servers are backed up automatically every night so you will never lose the data once it is on the server. More importantly, the data is separate from your computer so it is also safe no matter what turmoil happens to you or your computer. In my view, the only minus is cost. Online back costs about $5.00 a month for 10GB of data. In my case, I have about 40GB of truly special data. That is basically my email, photos, videos, presentations, and analysis. I don’t include MP3’s since I can always download again from somewhere. So my backup fee would be $20/month or $240/year. When I take into account all of the money that I have spent on external hard drives, zip drives, external CD writers PLUS the data recovery service, I have averaged far more than $240/year on backup. So in my case, it makes sense.

I am not saying that online backup is the panacea for everyone. I create a lot of stuff and I want to archive it all and it makes sense to me. BTW, my cousin also purchased online backup this week. What do you think? Is online backup a wave of the future?

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23 thoughts on “How Good is OnLine BackUp?

  1. here’s the question – how to move the data when the time comes… i am backed up with mozy, and am ready to migrate data from an older xp machine to a new windows 7. i was all ready to use mozy to migrate until i read about lots of not-so-great experiences on line wih the process. i’m also using allway sync on an external drive to do the same thing. i’m not very technically saavy – is there a better option than mozy for “one button” migration out there?

  2. I am one to say that even if you have online back up, or an external hard drive, you should still keep backup on DVD. I know it was mentioned that online servers back up their data every night, but even online servers are not safe. There is no 100 percent way to guarantee that you will never lose your data. Even with a back up DVD, unless you stick them in a fireproof safe and make sure to never scratch the surface, there is no guaranteed backup. Just try to be as safe as possible. If the data is that important to you, then for sure have more then one way to back it up.

  3. Hi Everyone,

    Thanks for the comments. Sorry for the delay in answering. On line backup services such as DAT1, Mozy, Carbonite, etc all use sophisticated server farms. Yes, all of these server farms and yes these hard drives fail just like your computer’s hard drive. The server farm however has RAID technology which provides a mirror image of all data. That means that if one hard drive in an array is lost, no data is lost. Even if it was, server farms are religiously backed up so no data is ever lost.

    As far as the second question. I have been a semi religious external hard drive back up person but I am moving to online backup.

    I only am saving my most important files like email and photos. I am not doing a mirror of my drive. I am going to be blogging soon about migrating from one computer to another and the various issues.

  4. What is the best system if you want a mirror image of what is on your hard drive? If something goes wrong, I want to be able to pick up and go, not have to reinstall my software and then get updates.

  5. It seems to me that this is not a legitimate article but merely a commercial: spam as it were. It does nothing to address the deficiencies of on-line backup, that it does nothing to back up your settings, passwords, bookmarks, favorites, program settings, Windows configuration, need I go on? So you saved all your data files! Your particular computer architecture, which is personalized and tweaked over years is completely at risk because of a wholly inadequate on-line backup strategy. I consider all that just as precious as a bunch of files, and just as difficult to regain. On-line backup does nothing to help there. Therefore it is fatally defective.

  6. I was sceptical at first to using online backup, however, it has made my life less worrisome.

    I use Carbonite. It’s $51/year for unlimited backup for personal use. I don’t have to think about it, it does it automatically, and I can select which folders to use. Also, though not for backup purposes, but to transfer files back and forth, I use dropbox, so I don’t have to carry a flash drive as much anymore, unless I’m somewhere where internet is not available.

  7. I use IdrivE for online backup. I got a free 5g account from PC world. That’s a enough for the average user. I also use an external drive using the freefilesync program.

  8. I have been a software developer for over 20 years. My clients have used every type of media for backup. The easiest has been Zip (Iomega is still alive and well) and flash drive. Flash drives are so inexpensive now that I recommend them to clients purchasing new hardware.

    The key to true security is multiple backup copies (as Eric Norbeg described) and off-site storage. I work from a home office so I keep my daily backups in a fire-proof safe. But I also make periodic backups that I store at another location. I follow a very simple rule. Never risk what you are unable, or unwilling, to do over again. Back it up!

    I don’t care much for external hard drives for the same reasons as mentioned by others. I like having my backup on something that won’t be destroyed just by dropping it. Accidents happen. Plus, a flash drive is so much easier to carry.

    Some of you obviously feel that your data is secure doing an on-line backup. I’m not yet comfortable with handing my business and personal data over to a complete stranger. Also, I know what I have for a firewall, anti-spyware, etc. I don’t know what security the on-line sites have in place.

    I was amazed to read that you (chengrob) don’t include MP3 files in your backups. My collection of MP3 files represents a tremendous investment of time and energy. Downloading all of them again would be a nightmare. I have separate backups just for those files.

  9. Backup is great, but I can write a ton of stuff in one day – I am a training developer – and would hate to lose a day’s work. I save my work frequently, of course, to my hard drive. However, is there a way, besides saving twice, to save work to both my hard drive AND simultaneously to a USB or secondary drive?

  10. My always-on concern about cloud backups, PCPitstop, Mozy, Carbonite, is just how safe are their servers, backup drives, employees and so on. I take an external to work for safe keeping as a backup, just for the Fire/Theft concern. As for backup HDD’s I always disconnect the usb and shut that external down. I only power it up when backing up.

  11. We all know that heat kills hard drives. Hard disk Manufacturers publish operational temperature spec for their drives.
    And hard drive data will fade over time if not rewritten periodically.
    What are the operational temps off our hard drives?
    How often do we run chkdsk and a full scan disk?

    Take too much trouble or time?
    Then we should also have a schedule for replacing all our hard drives. Backing up does not rewrite index tables.

    A little less time with our heads in the clouds and a little more time on our hard drives web site may be helpful.

    At least until the internet transfer speeds significantly improve.

  12. Every day, all my files are automatically backed up to a network drive in my loft.

    Every day, up all my files (except for pictures) are backed up to Mozy and to a second hard disk on my PC.

    Every night, the contents of one network drive is automatically backed up to a second one (also in my loft).

    About one a month, I take one of the network drives into work, and keep it in my desk. I then bring the one that was in my desk home.

    It would probably take simultaneous nuclear strikes on England and the US to destroy all of my data. I don’t think I’ll be worried about data if this happens.

  13. I am a newspaper editor, still use ZIP drives for constantly backing up new versions of my spreadsheet and story files — would have a stack of 50 CDs at the end of the month if I did not — and just bought another couple dozen ZIP-250’s for the purpose. At the end of the month I archive final versions on CDs. I also use online backup with Carbonite. Unlimited backup size, and a hundred bucks for two years. Works fine.

    Too many times backup hard drives crash at the same time as the in-computer one — happens all the time, so is not a coincidence. I suspect something about the failing hard drive takes down the backup drive with it. Therefore will not use backup hard drives — the online backups, plus my monthly archiving, meets my needs and has seen me safely through two hard drive failures already.

  14. It’s unfortunate PC Pitstop didn’t address the questions posted here by me and others. That doesn’t speak well to their customer service.

    As for online backups, it’s only part of the process. I use Mozy (no, I don’t work for them… I’m just a user), and it also automatically backs up to an external hard drive. No brainer backup is the best. And it’s a good idea to have DVD backups, too. No method is fool proof, so multiple methods helps ensure at least one will be okay if something goes wrong. Online = off site, which is why I use it. If my house burns down, at least I know the data is somewhere. I have a 50Mb down / 5Mb up connection, so I could download my data again much faster than it was uploaded (depending on Mozy’s max transfer speed, of course).

  15. I wish I’d known about this before I tried to do a migration from XP to Win 7. With great patience and the assistance of a reputable migration kit, I had backed up on an external drive intended solely for the purpose. When the install process froze, by some freak of “digital” mis-manipulation I over-wrote the back-up before it had been back-loaded. Too late now, a ghost of what was a delightfully functional OS now sits tauntingly on the drive.

  16. – if you never check the files backed up are OK, i.e. test a restore, there’s a good chance you only discover something has gone wrong once you really need to restore something. I particularly don’t like the many backup systems that use opaque compressed formats to store their data for this reason, as the only way to examine them effectively is to actually do a restore.

    – when new computers are coming with Terabyte disks, Gigabyte size backup is just not enough. For casual users maybe, but your article is about work – mission critical stuff. This has always been a problem with backups – the backup media always seem to be much smaller than the source – floppies were, zip disks were, cloud backups are if you have to pay by the GB. Cloud backup is far too expensive compared to asking your neighbour to look after a hard disk if you’re worried about damage or theft – 50cents a GB is $500 a month or $6,000 a year to backup the whole disk – 60 x the cost of a disk!. (It’s also 3x more expensive than Amazon S3 storage).

    – domestic upload speeds are so slow that cloud backups are still impractical for serious use. It might be feasible to keep up in day-to-day use but getting started is unfeasible impossible with any reasonable amount of existing data.

    – I’ve no idea as to their financial state, but Iomega is still going, selling external storage: hard disks now rather than ZIP drives. But ZIP was the first really big floppy disk, so was really useful in its day. The cheap CR-R really killed it.

    – if you have to “do” backups, they won’t get done. That’s a key advantage of cloud backup – it can be scheduled automatically. (Yes, of course local backups can be too, but if you have to plug the hard drive in and unplug it again to keep it safe…)

  17. Your piece on backing up was spot on. Some of us learn from other people’s mistakes, but, unfortunately, most of us need it to happen to us. I’m a university professor (in Jamaica), and keep my exam papers and a few other important things in online back-up. I lost some of them several years ago, and am determined that it won’t happen again. Peace of mind….

  18. If you don’t do BOTH on site and online backup then you are not sufficiently superstitious. Having both your primary and your first backup fail should have been a warning. Tertiary backup is comforting. It may not always be necessary, but it’s good to know that it’s there if you need it.

  19. …and there are other online backup services, some of which also offer unlimited backup for a reasonable yearly fee. If your service is more limited, it is not for people with large amounts of data to store. How about giving us some information about your knowledge or opinions about the other services?

  20. I use both on-line backup and several external hard drives and NAS for my backups. I copy files across hardware, but also use Acronis for disk images and data backups

    Mozy is by far the most economical online backup service at about $55 per year for unlimited GB’s. It took me several months to get 230GB+ up to the clouds, but I have some peace of mind. ‘Some’ because I had a problem recently with a corrupt manifest file in the Mozy software that took a while to diagnose and fix with a level 2 technician. Then the program had to reconcile the computer data with the Mozy servers which took 8 days to complete. I was scared there was a need to upload it all again. Fortunately not.

  21. What can PC Pitstop’s online backup offer over Mozy, where the space is unlimited for a flat rate? I am an amateur photographer who has a a heck of a lot of photos shot in RAW format (which are much larger than JPG photos), and to back them all up would take hundreds of gb. Paying per 10gb would be cost prohibitive.

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