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You Need Backups: The Benefits of Off-Site Storage

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
November 5, 2012 Deadline
December 2012 Issue

You Need Backups: The Benefits of Off-Site Storage

Hurricane Sandy reminds us that in a matter of minutes everything in a building can be destroyed. Though we can predict some disasters, others come quickly and without warning. My wife and I have lived in places with earthquakes, tornadoes, floods and blizzards. Those are only some of the natural disasters that can upend lives. And then, there are the unfortunate events beyond nature.

When things do go so horribly wrong, they take possessions and memories. Sometimes, the losses include computer hardware and storage media.

In a serious disaster, the best place for personal and business data is somewhere far, far away from the event. Yet, most of us don’t have off-site backups of important data. It is time to adopt an off-site backup strategy.

Because all storage media fail, my wife and I do all we can to maintain backups of important data. I have three external hard drives on my desk. Two of these are Time Machine drives that store copies of data and applications from my desktop computer and my MacBook Pro. The third drive is an archive of data from teaching and my years as a graduate student. My wife has a similar stack of external drives, especially since she is the official family photographer and historian.

While we tell ourselves that we would grab these drives in case of emergency, the reality is that our safety and our pets would come before any computer hardware. Our backups might help us if a hard drive or memory stick failed, but they would be left behind in a natural disaster.

Sandy proved data need to be far away to be safe. An automated off-site backup service, what is called “cloud” storage, is something you should consider if you want to protect important and valuable data.

Cloud storage copies data from your computer via the Internet to a remote server. Which data and how the data are copied varies by the cloud service. For example, basic remote storage depends on you selecting which files to copy to a server. More complex “trickle” systems copy everything on a hard drive to a secure cloud server. When you aren’t accessing the hard drive or surfing the Web, the backup software copies data to the cloud. By copying files when the drive and network connection aren’t being used, the trickle system avoids interfering with your work.

For secure cloud backups, I suggest a dedicated commercial service. The leading commercial cloud storage providers are Carbonite and Mozy. There are other reputable cloud services with similar products. These services offer trickle-style backups that are protected by advanced security features. Also, these services make backups of the backups, using data centers in multiple geographical locations. When a disaster strikes, the cloud services automatically switch user access to an unaffected data center.

For data that doesn’t need to be stored with the security of Fort Knox, I suggest trying Google Drive. Also known as “Gdrive” to some users, the Google Drive service offers 5 gigabytes of free storage to anyone with a Google account. If you Gmail, Google Docs or Google+, then you have a Google account with cloud storage.

When you download the Google Drive software, it creates a special folder on your computer that is automatically synchronized to the cloud. When you don’t have Internet access, you can still access the Google Drive folder and work on files. The next time you do have access, the Google software will update the data in the cloud. If you discover you need more than the free 5 gigabyte space, Google charges only $2.49 per month for 25 gigabytes of cloud storage.

Documents stored on a Google Drive can be edited with Google Docs from any computer with Web access. While I wouldn’t use Google Docs to replace other productivity applications, the suite is good enough for many tasks. This allows me to edit homework assignments and presentations on any computer at the university where I work. The convenience is wonderful. You can easily share a Google Drive with other Google users, but remember that’s also a security concern.

Remember that if you access data from a public computer, you need to log-out of any remote services, including any cloud services. You should avoid accessing confidential data from a public computer, too.

One final note about cloud storage: the commercial services charge monthly fees. If you stop a subscription, you lose access to your data. For this reason, you never want the only copy of your data to be in the cloud.

Basic Backup Options

Google Drive (http://drive.google.com/): A good, basic cloud service. While not recommended for data requiring extra security, Google Drive is ideal for many uses.

Apple iCloud (http://www.apple.com/icloud/): If you use Apple computers and devices, you are likely already using some cloud storage. Apple’s iCloud stores your contacts, calendars, notes, reminders and selected photos. With OS X Mountain Lion (10.8), the basic iCloud service is free. In some applications, you can store files directly to iCloud. To access the data from any computer with an Internet connection, visit iCloud.com and use your Apple ID. The iCloud service replaced Apple’s previous cloud service, MobileMe.

Microsoft SkyDrive (https://skydrive.live.com/): Microsoft Windows 8 includes a free cloud storage service, known as SkyDrive. Microsoft includes SkyDrive with its other Live.com services: Hotmail, Messenger and Office360. If you use any Microsoft online service, you already have a SkyDrive account. If you copy data to a SkyDrive, you can access the data from any computer.

Popular Cloud Backup Services

Carbonite (http://www.carbonite.com): $8 per month. Carbonite offers secure, unlimited cloud backup storage. Carbonite isn’t designed for file sharing or storing “snapshots” of your hard drives. Carbonite keeps a copy and does it well.

Dropbox (https://www.dropbox.com): $20 per month. Few services offer the features and flexibility of Dropbox. But, there are also serious limitations. The service offers only 200 gigabytes of storage per user, though you can pay for additional space.

Mozy (http://www.mozy.com): $10 per month. Mozy offers service between Carbonite and Dropbox. While not as full-featured as Dropbox, the price is better. But, there is also a limit of 100 gigabytes per user. If you need to share files and access data via the Web, Mozy might be a good compromise.

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