Why the Cloud Should Have Your Back-Up

Hard drives die, computers get stolen, and storage media becomes obsolete. Here's why and how you should back up your personal data in the cloud.

I realize I'm dating myself, but the first computer I ever owned didn't have a hard drive. It had two drive bays that held 5.25 inch floppies. Later, I bought a then revolutionary machine, an 8086 I think, with a 40 MB hard drive, and I wondered how anyone could ever fill it up. And the last time I moved, I discovered a box filled with floppies and 250 MB Zip drives.

It's obvious that none of those devices are nearly large enough to satisfy our appetite for digital music, photos, videos, presentations and the like. But there's a less obvious issue that bothers me a lot. If that old box contained a floppy or a Zip with something I needed, I'd be altogether old of luck. Where would I find a drive that would accommodate the media, particularly the cardboard-packaged 5.25 disks -- even if they hadn't deteriorated too much to be read?

You get the idea. No matter how disciplined we are about backing up our digital stuff, our efforts will be useless when the media becomes obsolete.

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There is a way around this problem, fortunately, and it's storage in the cloud. Unless the data is stored in some strange proprietary format, there's no reason why it wouldn't be readable 10 or 20 years hence.

And yes, I'm going to give you the obligatory tech columnist lecture about how hard drive fail, computers get stolen or drenched with coffee and so on and so on. If you don't want out to find out one bleak day that you can no longer access the novel you've been working on for four years or pictures of that once-in-a-lifetime visit to Beijing, you'd better back up. End of lecture.

Despite my worries about the impermanence of storage modes, I'm not saying you should avoid external drives. They've gotten incredibly big and cheap, and the ones from major manufactures like Seagate and Western Digital are reliable and usually include easy-to-use backup software.

However, if you have a really major disaster such as a fire or a flood, or your surge protector (you have one, don't you?) fails during a thunderstorm, say bye-bye the next Great American Novel. Your external drive is likely used much less than the internal drive on your computer, so it will probably last a lot longer. But, it's still a hard drive, and eventually they all fail.

Less terrifying, and probably more likely, is this scenario: You're traveling and realize you absolutely, positively need a file on your backup drive, or maybe you left your notebook at home. Sure, there are ways to access a home network remotely, but most of us don't use them.

So when it comes to surviving a disaster, or just getting at something you need remotely, the cloud comes in to its own. Before I tell you about two of the most interesting cloud storage options, I'm going to give you another little lecture: Like all technologies, the cloud (and by that I mean remote, online storage on someone else's server) is fallible. Vendors go out of business, outages happen, and people simply mess up, as Sidekick users found out in October when service went down, and data disappeared for a time.

Having said that, I think the chances of a reputable cloud storage provider losing your data are a lot smaller than a failure of your hard drive or the loss of your laptop.

Two Cloud Backup Options: Mozy and LiveDrive

Mozy, which has been owned by storage giant EMC for a couple of years, offers a lot of what I want in online storage. It's cheap, automated, secure on a couple of levels, and offers remote access when you don't have your regular machine in hand. The downside? It can be slow.

Like customers of most online storage services, Mozy users download an application (it supports both Windows and Macs) that automates backup chores once configured. You'll probably start by backing up all of your data and digital media files, and that will take a while. It will, for example, take as long as a week to upload 20GB of data, the company told me. Most of that lag probably has more to do with your ISP than with Mozy. Upload speeds are generally much slower than download speeds and there's not much you can do about that.

If you like, you can set the software to perform that monster backup during hours the computer is normally idle, which will lessen the inconvenience of working on a burdened system, but add some days to the process.

Once you're past that stage, subsequent backups are much quicker. That's because most users will only backup files that have been changed or added since the initial upload, or you can opt for continuous backup.

Security: Mozy encrypts files on your computer as it uploads them, a good strategy, though it probably slows your system a bit. If you like, you can use an encryption key that Mozy employees can not access. Your data is stored in a Mozy datacenter, and spread out over a number of drives and servers to keep it safe.

Cost: Up to 2GBs free; unlimited storage for $4.95 a month or $54.95 a year; $103 for three years.

Disaster recovery: If you lose a directory or two, or just some files, simply download the ones you need. But if your entire hard drive is toast, Mozy offers a very good option. The company will transfer all of your stored material to a new hard drive or DVDs and mail them to you.

Remote Access: You can log in to the Mozy Web site from a public computer and get what you need. However, you've got to know the actual names of the files or directories you need. There's no provision for browsing.

LiveDrive is a new entry to the online storage market and it's a good one. It's more expensive than Mozy, but has some features the older product lacks. One downside: It's a startup without much of a track record, but it boasts more than 500,000 users already and has gotten very good reviews around the Web.

The basics: Store as much as you want. $6.95 per month or $69.50 per year for the basic, service. Backup is automated and continuous. You can see (but not edit) your files on a secure page via a browser, and view as many as 30 older versions of the same file, a nice feature when working or collaborating on a complex project.

The extras: $16.95 per month or $169.50 per year adds Livedrive Briefcase, which appears as a new drive on your PC. The Briefcase allows you to edit files that are online. You can also drag and drop pictures from a social networking site to files in the cloud, share files with others, and upload and download using FTP.

Security: Data is encrypted and stored in what the company calls carrier-grade data centers.

San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net.

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