Data Backup on the Web

By

This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2846, 2010-11-12, as the cover article, in both their PDF edition (on pages 6-8) and their website.

According to Norton Online Backup, a hard drive crashes every 15 seconds; only a third of PC users backup regularly; and 44 percent of PC owners have lost files to hard drive failure. Has large-scale data loss claimed you as a victim? If so, then in that moment when your hard drive failed to spin up after you activated the computer's power switch, and your operating system informed you that no bootable disk could be found, then you were probably engulfed in a wave of panic, as well as regret for not doing full backups more frequently, or at all.

The severity of your grief naturally depended upon how much data was lost, and the strength of your emotional attachment to it. If, like a growing segment of the computer world, you keep most of your important data in Web-based applications (such as Gmail and Google Docs), then the event was probably more of an annoyance, rather than a catastrophe — solvable by purchasing a new hard drive, loading it with your operating system and Web browser of choice, and then logging back into your online services. But if that hard drive contained critical data that existed nowhere else, then you may have been in a terrible panic. That's the reason why some data recovery companies recruit phone reps who have experience handling incoming calls on suicide hotlines.

If all of the data that you lost is personal, then the emotional and monetary damage may be confined to just you and possibly your family. But if that data — and also any custom applications — were essential to the functioning of a commercial enterprise, then the damage could affect a large number of employees and clients. According to a report by DeepSpar Data Recovery Systems, the average cost of technical support in the recovery effort (in-house and outsourced) is $1150 per incident, while the productivity loss will cost $1750 (from user downtime) — totaling $2900 per incident. This amount does not appear to include the loss of business or potential legal penalties if that data cannot be recovered — which arguably could be the largest cost of all. Various sources have estimated that the total cost to businesses in the United States is in the tens of billions of dollars.

One should not assume that the odds of one's company being hit by a major data loss are low enough to be ignored, nor that the cost of such a loss can be simply paid, and business continues as usual. According to data compiled years ago by the national CPA firm McGladrey and Pullen, an estimated one out of 500 data centers will experience a severe disaster each year. More shockingly, 43 percent of the companies that encounter disasters never reopen, and 29 percent close within two years of the event.

Services with Servers

The next time that you experience a hard drive failure — and here's hoping that it never happens to you — you can be engulfed in a wave of relief instead of panic, but only if you learn the backup habit, before that hard drive goes kaput. Too many computer users assume that, to make full backups of their systems, they must have a second hard drive, a stack of CD-RWs or rewritable DVDs, or (far less commonly) a tape backup device. Yet the majority of computer users are now connected to the Internet via broadband, which allows the uploading of large amounts of data from their computers in a reasonable amount of time — using Internet-based backup services, which can reliably and automatically backup all of the files on a computer.

In response to the needs of computer users and businesses, numerous Web-based data backup services have emerged, which typically charge fees to allow you to store large quantities of your data on their servers. Most of the newer services will let you backup smaller quantities of data at no cost. Naturally they are hoping that you will be pleased with their service, and eventually reach the point where you or your company decide to store even more data, and be willing to pay to do so.

What sort of characteristics should you look for in such a firm? Firstly, it would be best to choose a service that maintains its facilities outside your city or, even better, your state — to mitigate the risks of widespread natural disasters affecting a major region of America. Secondly, the company should be able to point to their best practices in backing up their own servers. Thirdly, the service plan that best meets your needs should be affordable; be sure to shop around before making a decision. Fourthly, ask if the service is set up so that your data is protected from prying eyes, and even their staff cannot read your confidential information. Lastly, do they offer some sort of system whereby your backups are made automatically? This would be especially valuable to anyone who is too busy or usually distracted to remember to perform regular backups manually.

Some of the companies — such as Data Vault and VaultLogix — have been around for many years, while others are relatively new to the field. If you want to maximize your chances that your chosen backup company will still be around five or ten years from now, you may want to go with one of the veterans that has demonstrated longevity and, presumably, profitability. But that's not to say that all of the veterans are completely open about their policies and pricing. For instance, Data Vault provides that information openly on their website, while VaultLogix forces the prospective customer to provide contact information, which probably means that the prospect will get added to the company's marketing database. In many cases, the secretive companies tend to be far more expensive than their competitors. So when you are shopping around, bear in mind that some services could be much more expensive than others. By the same token, heavy Internet advertising does not imply that the firm is reliable, nor open to the customer about quality of service.

There are too many online backup services to explore in any detail in this article, but here is a list of additional ones that can serve as a starting point in any research: ADrive, Amazon S3, Badongo, Box.net, DivShare, Dropbox, Drop.io, DropSend, ElephantDrive, Fast Free Upload, FileDen, FileDropper, FileFactory, File Qube, FileSavr, 4Shared, Humyo, IBackup, IDrive, MediaFire, MEGAUPLOAD, Mozy, Nakido, Neebit, RapidShare, ShareSend, Syncplicity, Upload-Drive.com, Windows Live Mesh, Windows Live SkyDrive, and YouConvertIt. By the time you read this, some of these services may have disappeared or merged with another company, which is just one more reason to seek out a service that has demonstrated staying power.

Remote or Local?

Compared to the cost of doing your own offsite backup onto a drive, Web-based solutions are far more expensive. For example, an online service might charge $300 per year to store 10 gigabytes of data. But you could get a hard drive that stores 100 times that amount of data (one terabyte), at a third of the cost. In other words, the online service costs 300 times as much. Furthermore, the hard drive option becomes even more economical past the first year, whereas the service fees for the online service never end, and quite possibly could be increased. Hence, from a monetary perspective only, storing your data "in the cloud" may seem like a baseless decision by someone infatuated with the Internet and with his head in the clouds.

But there are additional advantages to online backups. Some people lack the technical acumen or interest to install a second hard drive in their PC, or even attach a second drive in a USB enclosure. Other people are constantly on the go, carrying their laptop from one location to the next, and yet with the need to backup far more data than would fit on a USB thumb drive; for such people, Web-based backups make a lot of sense. Also, there are countless instances in which backup technology and practices have failed to adequately protect data. Many users backup their data, only to later discover that their backups are useless, in that crucial moment when they need to restore from them. These backup plans can fail because they rely on a combination of proper technology and human diligence for success. Stored hard drives, optical discs, tapes, and tape drives do not always work properly, due to their dependence on mechanical perfection. Less commonly, backup software can become corrupted or unavailable. Users accidentally backup corrupted or incorrect information, or inadvertently overwrite a needed backup.

Although the best backup option depends upon the individual and his needs, and each option involves trade-offs of time and expense, it is absolutely clear that backups are essential. This is because our data has become mission-critical not only to our organizations, but our personal lives. Even if you are never hit by hard drive failure or other technical problems that threaten your data, backups are worth it if only for the peace of mind.

Copyright © 2010 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

Content topics: