One of the biggest challenges for many computer users is data protection.  With the explosion of low cost and high-density disk drives, it has become easy to store massive volumes of data in a very small footprint.  However, many people forget that disk drives fail and the data loss is usually catastrophic.  I always recommend friends and family plan for the worst and develop a backup strategy.  It is like insurance, hopefully you will never need it, but if you do, you will be thankful that you have it.

There are many approaches to backup and recovery, and my favorite is online backup.  There are a variety of services that do this including Mozy, Carbonite and, my favorite, Crashplan.  All of these services work pretty much the same.  You install an agent on your computer and it transmits your data over the Internet to the service provider’s datacenter.  The services will typically require you to initially send all of your data which can take weeks and after the initial transmission only changed or new files are sent which reduces the transmission time.

The biggest initial challenge with these services is getting your data transmitted.  If you have large amounts of content then it can take weeks of constant upload.  The length of time will vary by the amount of data and the speed of your Internet connection.  However, some ISPs (like Comcast) specifically limit your data usage in their Terms of Service (ToS) and you could violate this during the initial transfer.  The penalty varies from a simple threatening letter to a complete service cancellation.  Obviously, this is frustrating and can be avoided with careful management.

The big challenge with these backup providers is recovery.  Recovering a single file is easy, but what if you lose your hard drive?  You will need to get all your data back and this is where problems begin.  Some of the key challenges include:

  1. Time – If you lose all of your data, you probably want it back as soon as possible.  Well, unfortunately, just like the first transfer took weeks, the recovery will likely take the same length or longer.
  2. Data growth – If your first sync took two weeks and your data grows 50%, your full recovery will take three weeks or even longer (depending on the bandwidth available).  This problem gets worse the longer you use the backup provider because you are probably generating more new data which results in more information to protect and recover.
  3. ToS Violations – As previously mentioned, many ISPs limit bandwidth in their ToS and may not take kindly to you downloading 100’s of GBs or even TBs of data within a month.  This may force you to spread your recovery process out over multiple months which brings you back to the first point.
  4. Data expiration – Most backup services delete your data if you have not backed it up in a fixed period of time.  In the case of Mozy, they will remove deleted (does this equate to inaccessible?) files after 30 days.  I have no idea what happens if you are trying to recover files over 30+ days, but it is important to consider.

Most backup provider provide a great service, but you need to think through the implications of both backup and recovery.  It may be okay to wait weeks for a first backup, but are you willing to do the same for the recovery?  There are some things that you can do address these issues and here are three points to consider.

  1. Store your data on a protected platform – The best option is to avoid the disaster in the first place and use a RAID-based storage platform for your data.  RAID technology will write your data across multiple hard disks thus insulating you from data loss if a single drive fails.
  2. Choose a platform that allows for disk-based recovery – One of the reasons I chose Crashplan is that they offer a disk-based recovery option.  In the case of a complete disaster, you can order an external USB hard drive with your data.  This is an added cost option, but the piece of mind is extremely valuable.
  3. Choose an ISP with a generous ToS –  Unfortunately, many people, like me, may not have a choice, but if you do, then you should review the ToS of the competing providers and choose the one that is the most backup/recovery friendly.

The goal of this post is not to scare the reader, but to remind him/her that online backup is no panacea.  However, I believe that online backup is still the best solution for consumer data protection and I strongly recommend it to friends and family.  The three considerations mentioned above can further reduce the potential recovery burden and users are encouraged to consider them carefully.

Disclosure update: I use Crashplan and paid full price for the service. It was worth every penny! 🙂

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