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Cloud backup vs. backing up to an external drive isn't really a debate. You may want to do both!

Rather than using an external hard drive, what's your opinion and/or advice about backing up to the Cloud such as with Carbonite? Wouldn't that be the simplest way? Also since I have backup discs of my operating system and factory settings, is it necessary to also backup my OS? I'd really rather not trust an external unit, which could be damaged just like my laptop. I'm running Windows 7 Home, IE9 on a Dell laptop.

In this excerpt from Answercast #101, I look at the differences between cloud backup and backing up to a local external disk.

Cloud backup vs. external drive

Well, it really depends on what it is you're attempting to accomplish. Cloud-based backup is fine with two caveats.

Know what is backed up

One is you need to make absolutely sure you understand what it is and is not backing up.

Generally, the cloud-based backup will backup your data files. In fact it will backup only the data files that it finds in or under "My Documents." For many people, that's plenty. For many, it's a surprise because it's not backing up your entire computer; it's backing up your data.

Upload limits

The other thing you need to realize is that it's going to use your internet connection. It will depend on how much data it has to upload (and it will be the upload speed that matters here, not the download speed).

Depending on how much data it needs to upload to perform a backup, that first backup can take a really long time. Even incremental backups (or subsequent backups that happen after that) can still take a long time if your internet connection is slow and the amount of data that needs to be backed up is large.

So be very aware of that. Like I said, many people end up being surprised by the upload requirements of cloud-based backup - and this is true of things like Carbonite, Jungle Disc, Mozy, and a bunch of others. They're focused on backing up your data and only your data because backing up your entire computer would simply take too long.

Image backup of entire computer

Now, should you backup your entire computer? I believe you should. But it's a decision that you need to make.

I absolutely love and rely on image backups, followed by incremental image backups happening nightly, to backup my computer if anything goes wrong for any reason.

Yes, you could absolutely go back to factory settings. But then you're also faced with reinstalling all of your applications, reconfiguring all of your applications, all of the customizations and settings that you've made over time, recovering your data from your backup and then hoping... hoping that everything you needed backed up actually was.

By doing an incremental image backup of your machine nightly (I happen to do a full backup once a month and incremental nightly), you're guaranteed that what is backed up on whatever media you choose (external hard disk, or another machine on your network, or a network attached storage), everything is there.

Every file on you computer is there. There is no need to worry; there's no need to guess.

Both are valuable

So, my recommendation - be aware of what it is that happens and that is different between Cloud backup and traditional computer-based backup.

They absolutely each have their role; they can be used in conjunction.

For example, it might be a nice compromise to instead do an image backup to an external drive once a month and do your Carbonite daily. But realize that they are two very different kinds of backup and that living without a backup of your computer can actually have some surprising costs should something actually go wrong.

(Transcript lightly edited for readability.)

Article C6386 - April 7, 2013 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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5 Comments
Tom
April 9, 2013 11:13 AM

Hi Leo,

Could you explain why you do a full backup monthly if you do incremental daily? It would seem that the incremental would cover it after the initial full backup.

Incremental backups only build on the most recent full backup plus the intervening incrementals. So, if I did incremental backups only for, say, a year I'd have to keep 1 full backup (the starting backup) and 364 incremental backups in order to be able to restore files from the most recent. Lose any incremental backup in the middle, and you lose the entire rest of the chain. By doing a full backup once a month, I "reset the clock" and thus need to keep at most only a month's worth of incremental backups.
Leo
10-Apr-2013

Tony
April 9, 2013 11:43 AM

Leo, my vote goes to the cloud.

I faithfully followed your advice on nightly backups to an external hard drive through Macrium Reflect, but when I finally crashed I couldn't boot from the Rescue CD, and finally had a technician reinstall Windows 7.

Microsoft Office was easily recovered by use of the original product key. My main account in Outlook was set up as IMAP, so I got back both my Received and Sent mail. The POP3 account of course I lost the Sent mail but got back the Received mail (since contrary to recommended practice, I never delete from the server unless I'm forced to).

My files were all backed up in the clouds on MyPC Backup so there was no loss there either. I also have a new computer which came with SugarSync installed and I'm impressed with it because it backs up continuously rather than at a scheduled time per day. Carbonite at my workplace is also a continuous backup.

Still feeling a little despondent and haven't found the courage to restart the Macrium Reflect routine yet.

Mark J
April 9, 2013 12:59 PM

@Tom
I don't think it's a matter of the incremental backup not covering it. An incremental backup will go on doing its thing very well until the disk fills up. So, it's necessary to start the process over again periodically to keep from filling up the backup disk

Mark J
April 9, 2013 1:07 PM

I had my ass saved once again by Macrium Reflect. Before reading Leo's articles, I was a fanatic for backing up data, but I didn't realize the benefit of nightly incremental backups. Yesterday I got hit with Malware which came disguised as a Flash Update. I tried to clean it up and could have done it in anything from 20 minutes to several hours. But after 5 or 10 minutes, I decided that it's much easier to just restore from backup. It took about 5 hours (unattended), which was a good opportunity to get away from the computer and attend to real life issues (except I still have my netbook, Kindle Fire and Droid to keep going if necessary.) Also using Dropbox as my working directory assures that whatever work I did since the backup is also backed up.
So, bottom line: if you want a stress free path to recovery, use an incremental backup. I also use a cloud backup service. The best solution for me isn't either or, it's use both.

James
April 9, 2013 5:30 PM

At work, I'm a coach for a piece of software we use. I get to see what others do on their computer when I come to assist them. It's amazing how many people don't use My Documents to save stuff, but rather save stuff in directories they create on their C: drive (like the old days before Windows 95).

So Leo's first point is valid. Make sure you know what is being backed up, especially if you don't use My Documents.

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