Data Backup Via the Internet

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2337, 2005-09-16, as a feature article, in both their print edition (on pages 22 and 24) and their website. It was reprinted as course materials for a computer maintenance class at Foothills Adult Education Center, El Cajon, CA.

Long-term storage of data is an essential part of computing, and the methods for doing so have certainly improved during the past 25 years. Back in 1980, prior to the introduction of the first Intel PCs, school computing labs were often outfitted with TRS-80s made by RadioShack. Frustrated students often referred to the former as "Trash 80s"; I won't mention our names for the latter. But the cursing really intensified when we tried to save our precious computer programs on… cassette tapes.

That's right! Audio cassette tapes, often with music on one side and BASIC programs on the other. Even today, somewhere in America, a computer aficionado could be sifting through boxes of old computer components, and stumble upon a dusty cassette labeled "Led Zeppelin IV / Pong". Centuries from now, archaeologists will be baffled. At that time, they will likely be able to store terabytes of data on nano-based flash drives the size of a pinhead.

Until then, we do have a healthy number of data storage options, with reliability much greater than that of a shoebox full of battered cassette tapes. We have hard drives that can hold 400 GB, DVDs that can hold 4.7 GB, and CDs that can handle 400 MB, or, in different terms, more than 50 copies of "Stairway to Heaven.mp3". Yet the disappearance of cassettes from computer labs does not mean that tapes have disappeared entirely. Data storage centers all over the globe still rely upon tapes holding 300 GB, among other sizes.

But all of the data storage media options in the world won't do you any good for safeguarding your data, if you don't actually backup that data. If and when your hard drive dies, or your laptop gets stolen, it will be too late at that point to save the years of documents, digital photos, important e-mail messages, and other valuable information. If you need any motivation to starting those backups you've been meaning to get around to, just imagine turning on your computer and realizing that all of your data is gone.

The Online Option

Oftentimes people assume that, in order to perform full backups of their system, they must have a second hard drive, a stack of CD-RWs or DVDs, or a tape backup device. But a great many computer users are now connected to the Internet via broadband, which allows the uploading of large amounts of data from their computer. In response to this new capability, and to make it easier for people to do backups automatically, an increasing number of Internet-based backup services are open for business.

Most of these services follow a common model: A new client of theirs downloads and installs a custom application that allows the client to specify what data should be backed up, and how frequently. Most of these services offer automatic encryption, so the data being sent over the Internet cannot be read by anyone intercepting the data packets. Additional features vary from one service to another. But the central idea is the same: Make backing up as easy and secure as possible for the customer.

Finding a list of online backup companies is as simple as using your favorite search engine. But determining which ones offer the features, reliability, and ease of use that you're looking for, is not quite as simple. You have to be careful of the integrity of the company, because, after all, you are entrusting them with your personal data, much of which may be financial or otherwise suitable for identity theft. Some of the more heavily advertised companies appear to be far too interested in recommending anti-spyware applications, many of which are deceptive, in that they remove some forms of spyware, but then install their own.

Experience Counts

While no article like this could possibly survey all of the online data backup services, we can take a peek at a couple of the more well-known and well-regarded options. IBackup has been providing data storage solutions for many years, being a service of Pro Softnet, which got started in 1995. They offer a variety of plans, ranging from 4 GB with no FTP or sharing (costing about $150 per year), up to 100 GB with full sharing (costing $4000 per year). Clearly the higher-end plans would only be of interest to businesses sizable enough to justify those fees. Remarkably enough, their clients include IBM, Sony, Toshiba, and Oracle — all creators of data storage media or databases!

IBackup offers both browser- and local-based solutions, which increases the options for computer users who perhaps don't like the stability and security issues with browser applications, versus those happy to forego installing another application on their overloaded hard drives. Most of IBackup's applications utilize SSL encryption for security, and also allow the user's computer to access the online data storage as if it were a local drive, i.e., a "virtual drive". This could be especially handy for situations where you don't want to store sensitive data on a particular machine, such as a borrowed laptop.

Xdrive got its start by offering free online data storage during the dot-com heyday, when e-commerce firms were willing to offer anything to get the most eyeballs looking at their ads. Now, like the other surviving online data companies, Xdrive charges monthly usage fees ($9.95 for 5 GB, and 10 times that for 25 GB). Like similar services, they use 128-bit encryption when transferring your data between your computer and their servers, which are located in locked-down data centers with full-time security staff.

Dollars or Discipline?

Any experienced computer user will immediately notice that these fees could quickly exceed the cost of a new hard drive — a drive that could be filled up with one's critical data, encrypted, and stored at a friend's home. This, by the way, is the approach I use.

Yet there are advantages to backing up one's data over the Internet, including avoiding the hassles of swapping hard drives and optical drives in and out, and finding safe storage for them. A lower-cost solution that still uses remote hosting, would be to pay for a Web hosting account, but not necessarily upload Web pages into that account. Just encrypt your files locally, and then use FTP (File Transfer Protocol) to upload those encrypted files. This approach assumes that you feel comfortable FTP-ing files.

As always, it boils down to what you need and how much you are willing to pay. If you have the discipline and technical knowledge to perform regular backups onto removable media (preferably keeping one copy off-site), then you probably do not need an Internet-based solution. But if you have gone for months or years without backing up, and you honestly don't think that you will begin, then the peace of mind gained from paying extra for an online backup service, could be well worth the price.

If and when you lose irreplaceable data, you will likely be willing to pay just about any price to somehow go back in time, and perform those neglected backups — even onto cassette tapes.

Copyright © 2005 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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