Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.
Backing up data using an online backup service is lucrative, and can be an important part of an overall strategy - within limits.
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.
"Moving to the cloud" is a popular buzz phrase these days, and online backup is one of the poster children for the concept. In a nutshell, the idea is that with ubiquitous connectivity why not store important data out on the internet, in "the cloud" as some people call it?
By using services and servers provided by third parties on the internet, you can keep all your email online (nothing new here, Hotmail and others have been around for years), your documents online (Google docs, for example), and more. The advantage is that all you usually need is a computer and a browser and not only can you access your documents from just about anywhere, but you're also less concerned about your own system crashes and the software installed on your machine.
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.
It's in the cloud. I know, that too is kinda the point, right? Accessible from anywhere? By any computer?
The risk is the same risk you run when using any online service: if someone steals your account information, they have access to your information. If you've been backing things up online and somehow your account is compromised, the attacker could have access to everything.
The good news here is that this is something that's in your control, and goes back to the basics of online account management and safety: use good, strong passwords, don't write them down, don't share with people you don't absolutely trust, stay safe in open WiFi hotspots, avoid malware and so on. The steps are relatively easy, but the cost of failure is fairly high.
The other concern many people express is the security of their data even after maintaining the security of their account. There's good news here as well. As long as you stick with reputable online services (DropBox, Mozy, JungleDisk, Carbonite to name just a few) the technology used typically encrypts your backups in such a way that no one but you can actually see it. (Often not even in an emergency, I might add, so don't lose that password! )
So, is it a good idea?
All I can say is "maybe". Certainly it's very lucrative to know that if your computer, or even your home, were to go up in flames that your important data would be safe and secure out there somewhere. In fact, that's exactly why a type of remote online backup is a part of my own backup strategy.
But it's only a part. I use it as a safety net in part of a larger strategy that includes nightly backups at home, and some carefully thought out backup strategies when I travel like carrying a USB thumb drive or disk.
I'd be very hesitant to use only an online backup service, but as a component of a larger picture, it can easily make sense.
And, to quote one of my earlier articles, "the best backup strategy is whatever you'll actually use" - so if online is the one that you'll actually use - use it.