Preventing data-loss disaster

Date:24 November 2012 Tags:, , , ,

By Seth Porges

Protect your digital life from failure-prone hard drives by storing data on the cloud.

When it works correctly, data backup is a triumph of redundancy over unpredictability. All electronic and mechanical devices eventually fail, and computer hard drives (even solid-state drives) are no exception.

If you knew exactly when or how this was going to happen, you could plan a precise solution. But because you don’t, redundancy is key. So if the one hard drive in your computer is prone to mechanical failure, it makes sense to have another drive on your desktop with duplicate data. That drive is just as likely to fail, though. What if you lost your family photos, tax records, documents, home videos, music and saved games not because of a misaligned read/write head, but because of a flood, a robbery or a house fire that wiped out both drives at the same time? Preparing for such a disaster calls for a different level of redundancy and a solution that includes backup in the cloud. Cloud-based backup services fall into two camps:

  • You can store select files in the cloud for remote access,
  • or you can use a service that automatically backs up all your data.


The former (Dropbox, Google Drive and Microsoft SkyDrive boast the best features) lets you park your files in “smart” folders that show up locally on your computer’s hard drive but are also mirrored in the cloud. Once there, these files can be easily shared with friends – a great way to pass around large files without overwhelming anybody’s e-mail inbox.

These services all use the same basic business model. Each offers a limited amount of free storage (ranging from 2 GB for Dropbox to 7 GB for SkyDrive), then charges for a premium plan if you need more capacity. If you’re going to upgrade, SkyDrive is the most affordable ($50, or about R400 a year for 100 GB), while Dropbox ($200 a year for 100 GB) is the most expensive. But Dropbox is also the best for sharing your stuff; its Public Folder feature gives you shareable URLs, so even non-Dropbox users can access select files.

Google Drive ($60 a year for 100 GB) is the relative newcomer. The Web interface, which looks like Google Documents, lets you open 30 different file types directly in your browser. Both Google and Dropbox are friendly to developers, allowing them to integrate the companies’ services into third-party apps such as Pixlr, which lets users edit photos stored on Google Drive and Simplenote, an app that syncs notes to Dropbox.

Apple takes a less expansive approach to cloud storage with iCloud, which is free for up to 5 GB of data. iCloud backs up some of your files – iWork documents created in iOS, for example, as well as photos – while syncing them across your Mac and iOS devices. The service is great at moving your iPhone photos to your home computer or iPad (and for syncing downloaded apps to multiple iOS devices), but it isn’t really designed to rescue you in a worst-case scenario.

Full-system backup

Storing a few files in the cloud is simple and fast, but none of the Dropbox-like services comes even close to giving you full automated backups. For a task that titanic, the biggest names are Carbonite ($59 a year gets you unlimited storage) and Mozy ($72 for a year of 50 GB of storage). But the best pick for most users is Code 42’s CrashPlan+. Techies in the know favour CrashPlan+ for its price (you get unlimited storage for $50 a year), ease of use and wide range of features. But what really gives CrashPlan+ the edge is that, unlike its competitors, it holds on to your deleted files forever; most other services permanently delete files from the cloud after they’ve been off the computer for 30 days. (For permanent deletions, manually turn off syncing for the specific files you want to get rid of and CrashPlan+ will remove them from the backup.)

One downside to these services: you risk losing files in your backup if you keep them only on external drives. Since these files don’t live on your computer, as soon as you unplug your external hard drive, the files are considered deleted and are removed from the cloud for good 30 days later. Automatic erasing can also be a snag if you accidentally delete a file from your computer and don’t notice until a month later.

Despite some differences in interface, storage and features, Mozy, Carbonite and CrashPlan+ work in essentially the same way. On both Macs and PCs, you download a program that either runs on its own or as a part of the system software. You then choose which files and folders you want to back up. The program automatically uploads the latest versions of your files so your backup mirrors the data on your computer.

There are, however, two serious weaknesses to these services:

  • None lets you back up system files, so you can’t create complete full-system backups.
  • More explicitly annoying: how long the initial uploads take.


Shipping hundreds of gigabytes to remote servers over a home Internet connection is an exercise in extreme patience. Depending on your connection speed and how much data you have, this digital drip can take weeks. Fortunately, after the first upload subsequent backups are quick and go by virtually unnoticed in the background. And with all three, except Carbonite on Macs, you can set backups to occur on a schedule. The cloud isn’t just the safe way to back up your data, it’s also the lazy way.

Pulling your data from Mozy, Carbonite, and CrashPlan+ is simple. You access your data through intuitive desktop applications (though Mozy’s is by far the best-looking), where you can browse through backed-up folders and files. And if your computer does end up going kaput, you can easily resurrect your data by loading the software on another computer.

Does that mean your data, stored on a server in who-knows-where, is just as easy for others to resurrect too? So far, no. Though there are no guarantees against a snoop getting your password and looking at your photos, all the major backup services employ advanced encryption, and there have been no publicised cases of personal data compromised by prying eyes. Still, before you choose a backup service, make sure it does indeed use data encryption. Then you can jump into cloud backup relatively worry-free.