Ask Leo: Is an online backup service a good idea?

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By Leo Notenboom

I routinely back up everything to an external hard drive but instead of using DVD’s as a secondary backup, I use a program called Dropbox. It allows 2Gb of storage for free and for a fee, you can get more storage. Since the storage is in cyberspace, I sometimes wonder if someone could access the files I have stored there. Do you have an opinion on it? I don’t store anything there with private personal data just in case.

I’ve written some about free online backup services before, but I want to take this question and look at the entire concept of online backups.

Online backup services can be a useful component of a broader backup strategy. But from security to completeness to speed and cost, there are a number of factors to consider before deciding if online backup is the right thing to do.

So if “the cloud” is such a good place for your data (a debatable subject for another day), why not for the backups of your data that you do keep on your machine?

Why not online backups?

It’s definitely an option, if used properly, so here are some things to consider:

It’s not practical to backup everything online. If you do the math, 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: backup your data, not your system. And even then you may have 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.

You must be online. This might sound obvious, but in many cases it’s not.

Here’s a troubling scenario: you’ve taken a number of pictures with your camera, and loaded them onto your computer, in some folder that your online backup service will backup. Say you’ve taken 100 megabytes of photos (not difficult with today’s high resolution cameras), at a 256kb upload speed (yours may vary and 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 on your connection.

If you turn your computer off – perhaps at the end of the day – and those photos have not yet completed uploading, those that haven’t yet made it 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 it limited and slow. It’s easy, particularly with photos, to accumulate data faster than it can be backed up.

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One thought on “Ask Leo: Is an online backup service a good idea?

  1. Those who believe that a separate drive is good enough for backup may reconsider after a fire, tornado,flood, hurricane, or theft. Just a thought.

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