THE WORD ON THE .NET

Writer T. James' Exploration of Words, on the Internet.

Watch Your Back (Up): It’s Dangerous To Just Float In the Cloud


Everyone says, “Make a backup. Always make a backup,” of everything—photos, files, music. Why? Unless you have been living under a rock for the last thirty years everyone knows that computers fail, hard-drives fail. Breath on them funny, look at them funny, switch them on when the wind is in the wrong direction, and they’ll break, crash, and take all your valuable information with them. They are the weak link in the chain, right? Wrong.

Who says, “Beware of the Cloud?” In the mindset of most people, myself included, cloud storage has been touted as the panacea for all our storage woes. It seems everyone, Apple, Google, Microsoft and hundreds of smaller companies, are heralding cloud storage as the great Fluffy Knight in the Sky, our protector and saviour, guardian of our virtual world. Computer fails, it doesn’t matter, just download your stuff from the cloud. All is well.

Then you have your completely online solutions, e.g. Google Docs and Microsoft Office 365, Blogger, WordPress and others: Don’t just backup to the cloud, but do all your work there, reports, emails, everything—your information is safe with us. Is it?

Everyone who uses a blog is using a specialised form of cloud storage. You compose your posts online, edit them online, and then store them online in the cloud for everyone else to see. When I first switched my blog from Google Blogger to a self-hosted WordPress solution, I did so, in part, because Blogger (back then) was unreliable. It would sometimes fail to upload changes, or photographs, or would become unresponsive and you would have to refresh the browser page to get it working again. You had to remember to copy everything you’d typed so you could paste it in again after the refresh. Is WordPress any better? It doesn’t freeze, and uploads have been reliable, but actually it is much, much worse. Using the online editing screen you make changes, hit ‘Save Draft’ and then ‘View preview’ to see what you’ve achieved. Everything seems fine. Working on a long/complex post? You could do this many times, and every single time it updates and everything seems fine. Except when it isn’t. Two hours later, I did a final check and everything looked great. Not even a hint of a problem. Later still, I log on again and see that those two hours’ worth of changes are gone. Two hours of work lost. How many times has this happened in the last ten months? About four.

Many online services keep automatic backups, a little like MS Word saves a backup copy of a document when you are part-way through working on it. Does WordPress? No. Does Blogger? Yes, but it can kick you out before it has saved. Lose what you are working on and it’s gone, forever. Things had been fine for six months. Everything appeared normal, but appearances can be deceptive. So I fell for it, I trusted my lovely fluffy cloud, and it rained on me.

What about other online content creation? Google email, stable as you like? Not if it decides to time-out your login session in the middle of a long email. (My wife reports this affects Blogger too). Gmail does at least make some backups, but not often—you’d better use the ‘Save Draft’ button regularly if the email is important. MS Office 365? No idea, I’ve never used it. Other online backup services? Mixed. Files haven’t always uploaded correctly, and they need to be checked by re-downloading if they’re valuable. To make life online even more interesting, accounts can also be hacked. If all your data is only online, then you’ve lost it, gone.

So what are we to do? Work local, save multiple copies everywhere. MS Word doesn’t lose my data, it backs up automatically to my hard-drive, and all my files are still accessible if I have no internet connection. Winner. Computers these days are reliable, mostly, but they can be broken, burnt or stolen. Having cloud backup is still invaluable. But I would no longer work online, or save my work online alone. Instead, I am experimenting this week with MS Word’s blog post feature (info. here). I write the blog, edit it and save it locally using all the power of a full word processor. My backup solution is Dropbox. It keeps a local copy of your file, and automatically backs up to the cloud in the background. No internet? I can still access my local files. My computer breaks, burns, or is stolen? I can access my files from another computer from the web. Best of all? If the changes to my WordPress or Blogger post goes pear shaped, I don’t lose two hours of work, I just re-upload my locally written and stored copy. WordPress, Blogger, you will never be able to stuff me again. BOO-YAH!

If you want a nice, easy to use cloud backup solution that keeps your files locally as well, after twelve months of daily usage, I’d recommend Dropbox. (I know there are others; I tried a few over a year ago, so I can’t comment on their performance now, but make sure you choose one that uses local storage as well). If Dropbox looks like your thing, (it’ll sync files to all your computers, and your smartphone too) just click on the piccie below if you want that nice, smug, safe feeling:

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22 Comments

  1. Ya… Data disaster can happen anytime without warning.

    • Ya, if we could know da Date-a-Disaster then we would have no problems. Unfortunately I can’t seem to find “Omnipotence Potion” anywhere on Amazon. ;)

  2. I’ll also say my thoughts which go along with everything TJ says:

    * USB flash drives and CD/DVD media should NEVER be your only form of backup. CD/DVD media especially has all kinds of quality variations and longevity can be as little as a year before data degradation can begin. USB flash drives can fail or especially corrupt without warning.

    * I recommend backups across at least a couple types – one of which should be an external hard drive. I wouldn’t trust any backups solely to USB flash drives and CD/DVD for the reasons I mentioned above.

    * A cloud-based backup gives some additional assurance that another source of recovery is available. Besides Google Drive or DropBox and others, there are also services like Carbonite (I haven’t used these so can’t comment on how good any are).

    The main challenges to backing up and maintaining are:

    1) Time commitment – if you have hundreds of gigs of media you want to backup, it will take an hour and longer – even if you’re using external USB 3.0 hard drives.

    2) Knowing what to backup. On a PC running recent versions of Windows, you have to locate where you’re actually saving documents (which may or may not be in the default locations and may be scattered across many areas), bookmarks for the three browsers (IE, Firefox, Chrome) are all handled differently and have to be backed up accordingly, email and address books from Thunderbird or Outlook have to be located and correctly backed up, custom content like new fonts, Photoshop brushes, etc. all have to be located and correctly backed up.

    On a web hosted site using WordPress.org, you have to back things up usually through Backup Wizards that are commonly in cPanel for many web hosts, exporting through your WordPress dashboard (Tools >> Export), and backing up MySQL databases through cPanel.

    It’s always worthwhile having backups, since hard drives or other parts of a computer can fail. Hard drives in laptops tend to have a higher failure rate than desktop versions.

    • What he said. :) Plus, make sure you can remember your password, or remember where you put it so that no one else can find it. If you can’t login to these cloud services they aren’t going to do you a lot of good. Also, please pick a secure password. If someone else can login into these cloud services, that isn’t going to do you a lot of good either…

  3. To be honest I have four backups. One is my email, one is a USB Drive, one is the hard drive and the final one is a CD just in case.

    Its paranoid I suppose but at least I can always get a copy from one if the other three fail (entirely unlikely though.)

    • The belt-and-braces approach is always the best. If your lucky number is higher than two, I think it helps to have that many backup solutions, ‘cos, well, dat’s cosmic man, and you don’t get any better than cosmic.

  4. I just downloaded Dropbox as recommended by another friend! so far I really like it but also have my stuff backed up on USB…think I need another just in case hehe

  5. Certainly gave me something to think about :)

  6. I use dropbox all the time. It’s fantastic and so easy to back things up on it. Everyone has lost a file at some point, it does suck though.

  7. Backups are always good. I’m compulsive about it, and I usually work in word before I copy things over to my blog. I use a USB drive as a backup then gmail or gdocs.

    Julie

  8. Oh, TJ…now you’ve got me all freaked out again! I’ve been meaning to buy an external hard drive to back my stuff up on…I’ve got everything on multiple USBs but that’s probably not good enough. Sigh. Guess I better get on that….although I do email most of my stuff to myself. That’s something at least.

    • My week would not be complete unless I freaked you out at least once. ;) Emailing stuff to yourself is fine, just not the most convenient way of obtaining a transcendal peace of mind. Say it with me: OOOOOMMMMMMMM…

  9. I back up every night and luckily have never had a problem (knock on wood – I really just did knock on wood). Always good to have a healthy amount of paranoia about these things though. Thanks, for the reminder, TJ.

    • Unfortunately hitting perfectly innocent pieces of timber, as hard and as often as you like, actually has no effect on the quality of the backups we make. Now, if you were to take one large oak tree, a chainsaw, and a hammer and chisel, you would eventually be able to carve yourself a pretty resilient backup copy. Storage, portability, and ease of use may be a problem however. ;)

  10. I’ve heard a lot about Dropbox and may have to give it a try. I religiously email myself (Yahoo) everything I write on a daily basis in case my computer crashes. I’ve never had a problem with WordPress losing content or changes, though, and I posted my first flash with them two years ago, but it never hurts, because the one time it does happen…you’re screwed.

    • I have never tried worshipping Yahoo, belonging myself to the Cult of Google. With Google, when I place the entrails of a salted fish on the altar at each new moon and cremate and each the offering, I get extra storage space that miraculously filters through to my inbox everyday. This small miracle renews my faith. You are, of course, entirely free to worship Yahoo, but when I prayed for the removal of SPAM (pink and bouncy meat that it is) Google answered and Yahoo did not. Your zeal and passion for backup do you credit however, and shall keep your flashes, glimmerings, and other shiny bits safe.

  11. I use paper and pen, Word, disc, and off-site storage in case of fire or theft. I am old, and I don’t trust technology. The first computer I ever used was bigger than a microwave oven.

    • Hi Dianne, thanks for dropping by. I think your options sound fine – the logic is the same – multiple backups at different locations.

      The only problem is how easy it is to keep your backups up to date, but if you have a routine that works then you’ll be fine.

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