Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Backups Made Easy, Part 1

I'm going to be straight with you. If you don't have a backup plan for your data, you'll eventually lose your data. Your emails, your photos, your movies, your music. It will all be gone one day unless you have reliable backups.

There are lots of ways you can lose your data. Hard drive failure is at the top of that list. Every hard drive that's made will eventually fail, some sooner than others. Whether your hard drive's number is up today, tomorrow, or years from now, that's it -- everything is gone. Computer viruses are another way that your data can go poof in the blink of an eye. Theft, especially if you own a laptop, is among the most common reasons for data loss. Software run amok is yet another way data disappears: Misbehaving programs can delete data as easily as they can create it. You can lose data and not even know it, too: Sometimes everything can seem to be fine on your computer, except for that one spreadsheet or address book that somehow got zapped. By the time you notice that it's gone, there's no hope of recovery.

There are two kinds of backups you can have -- onsite backups (external drives, network backups, USB drives) and offsite backups. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. This column will focus on remote backups; next week I'll describe some onsite backup strategies. First the negatives of remote backups:

* Offsite backups are more expensive in the long run than using an external drive, because you have to pay an annual fee. * Offsite backups are a lot slower than onsite backups. If you have tens of gigabytes of data to back up, it can take weeks to copy all of your data to an offsite backup service. * A remote backup service won't be around forever. Nothing lasts for eternity, and on the Internet a decade is a lifetime.

But on the plus side, offsite backup services are catastrophe proof and that's the idea: If the worst happens --fire, theft, a virus, a small nuclear explosion-- your data is safer than Dick Cheney was in his secure location. Many offsite backup services use incremental backups, which means that if you want to recover the version of a Word document that you saved 12 days ago, you can find that exact version.

Remote backup services vary not just by price, but by feature, too. Here are some of the features you need to consider when you compare offsite backup services.

* Does the service back up external drives? If all of your data is on your computer's main drive, that's not an issue. But if you need to back up data on external drives, that is an essential feature to have.

* How easy is it to add files and folders? Many backup services provide software that automatically selects and backs up what it thinks are important files. That's both good and bad: The automated aspect makes it easy to run the backup, but you sacrifice the ability to specify anything you particularly want backed up.

* Does the service provide alerts if backups are not completed? There's nothing worse than discovering later on that your backups never happened.

* How much space does the remote backup service allow? Some remote backup services provide unlimited space for backups -- not a bad thing if you have a lot of multimedia files.

* How easy is it to retrieve your data if you need to? How easy is it to download individual files if all you want to recover is a single file? These services vary tremendously, not only when it comes to the ease or difficulty of retrieving your data, but also the speed at which files can be retrieved.

* Is the data encrypted before it leaves your computer? If all you're backing up is music or photos, you might not need to encrypt the data. But if you are backing up private or personal information, then encryption is a must.

Here are some remote backup services you might want to look into. I've opted not to review each individually, other than a few notes about the ones I've used, since the features and pricing change regularly. Over the years, I have used Elephant Drive, Mozy, Carbonite and Livedrive. I currently use both Mozy and Livedrive, while the other members of my family use Carbonite. I like Mozy because it offers unlimited backups and will back up my external drives, too. Mozy also encrypts the data. Livedrive, which is relatively new to the backup world, also has unlimited backups (I have over a terabyte of data stored there).

Even though Livedrive doesn't store data in an encrypted form, it's great for backing up multimedia files, and it stores your backups in the familiar file folder format in a way that you can access your data from any computer's web browser. The rest of my family uses Carbonite, which I think is the easiest to use. Carbonite does not back up external drives. I've tried Elephant drive, which is among the least expensive remote backup services, but I've found their software cumbersome.

Mozy, http://www.mozy.com

Carbonite, http://www.carbonite.com

LiveDrive, http://www.livedrive.com

ElephantDrive, http://www.elephantdrive.com

Crashplan, http://www.crashplan.com

Dropbox, http://www.dropbox.com

Sugarsync, http://www.sugarsync.com

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