Online Backup Comes of Age

A quick show of hands: How many of you have a current (that is, within the last few days), complete backup of your laptop or PC at hand in case something goes terribly wrong? I thought so. Like to live on the edge, eh? Of those of you that are backed up and ready for an emergency, how many store a backup offsite? Really? If your office burns down tomorrow, that set of tapes or external hard drive isn’t going to do you much good, is it?

Don’t worry – you’re not alone. Last year, a survey conducted by backup/anti-virus software maker Symantec found that only 57% of users had any kind of backup of their valuable data. That means almost half of you are out of luck when a crash or disaster occurs. Hopefully, your company’s important financial and customer data is stored on a server or backed up offsite, so that may not be much of a worry. But how many of you have vital customer information – like quotes, contact info and so on – stored on your laptop? What would you do if it suddenly disappeared?

Stop sweating and fire up your web browser. You’re in luck, because backing up your valuable data is now cheaper and easier than it’s ever been. And the holy grail of backup – the offsite backup – has become an inexpensive, practical reality for even the smallest business user. So, if you’re one of the 43% that has no backup at all, follow me down the path to data nirvana. And, even if you’ve got a local backup sitting on your desk in the form of an external hard disk or tape drive, read on – I’ll show you how to get your vital data off-site with just a few clicks of your mouse.

Basic Training

For those of you who have no backup whatsoever, head down to Office Depot or Best Buy (or, go online to Amazon.com or Buy.com) and pick up a Maxtor OneTouch or Western Digital My Book external hard drive. The first step in keeping your data safe is having a copy of it, even if it’s on the same desk as your laptop or PC. Buy a drive with enough capacity to hold your entire hard disk; if your laptop came with a 100 GB hard drive, buy an external drive at least that large.

External hard drives are cheap, so you can find a 120 GB hard drive for under $100 these days, and the prices go lower and lower every month. Buy more than what you need right now; you’ll appreciate that extra capacity down the road. Many of these hard drives have a “one-touch” backup feature – plug them in, push a button, and they back up your computer automatically. It’s really that simple – so simple, in fact, that even the busiest and least tech-savvy really have no excuse not to do it. If your data isn’t worth $100 and a push of a button every few days, well, you might want to consider why exactly you have a computer in the first place.

Of course, you can always go the route of using traditional backup software to store your data on CDs or DVDs, provided you have a CD/DVD burner available (most new laptops and PCs have these built-in). But CD/DVD burning is time-consuming, and keeping track of and labeling all those disks can be a real hassle. Even more tiresome is the process of restoring from a backup of CDs or DVDs – once you’ve fed 15 CDs, one at a time, back into your computer to restore your data, you’ll know what I mean. Use CDs and DVDs for archiving of data that you don’t need on your computer anymore – old client files, artwork, etc. – and use an external hard disk as your primary means of backup.

Going Offsite

Feeling better? I hope so. You’re in much better shape with an external copy of your data. But if tragedy befalls the location where both your computer and your external hard drive happen to be at the same time, you’ve still got a problem. The traditional way of handling this dilemma was to create tape or CD/DVD-based backups and cart them offsite and/or store them in a fire safe. For large companies with lots of valuable, confidential data – like banks or financial firms – this is still standard operating procedure, and huge firms like Iron Mountain specialize in this type of service.

But, for the rest of us, the internet once again bestows its glorious bounty upon our technology dilemmas. All that cheap storage that benefits your desktop computer has also made inexpensive offsite storage a reality, and the ready availability of high-speed internet connectivity to most computer users means that moving a lot of data somewhere else is no longer a days or weeks-long process. Put the two together and you have the ingredients for cheap, fast, offsite storage, available to anyone with a high-speed internet connection.

How does it work? Pretty simple, actually: these services install a small software program on your computer that connects to a backup server online. The software backs up your valuable data in the background, while you’re working (or, if you prefer, at times when you’re not). Your data is encrypted for security and transferred to servers in big data centers across the country. The software backs you up automatically and constantly so, as long as you stay connected to the internet fairly regularly, you never have to worry about having a current, offline backup of valuable data.

Best of all, these services are inexpensive for unlimited data and very often free for a small amount of critical data. Many offer at least a gigabyte or two of free storage, and upgrading to unlimited storage (for a single computer) is often less than $10 per month. There are a number of good services out there, but right now, the biggest competitors are probably Box.net, Mozy and Carbonite. All of these services have a free level, where you can store a gigabyte or two (usually enough to back up critical email, contact and client files) at no charge. Prices go up from there according to capacity, with some services topping out and others offering unlimited capacity.

Of these, Mozy is probably my favorite for ease of use and simplicity of pricing, but all of these services are reliable and straightforward to use. The only downside to internet-based, offline backup is that even fast internet connections are nowhere near as quick as a locally connected storage device, so backing up a lot of data can take quite a bit of time, as can restoring. However, as a last resort, offsite solution, these services are hard to beat.

One last thing you might want to consider is actually managing your data online instead of on your computer. Services like Google Docs and Zoho Office are a pretty compelling alternative to storing Word and Excel files locally on your computer – when you have them available through any web browser, from anywhere you choose to login, you not only have easy access to your files, you have an automatic, offsite backup of everything you do. Online CRM and accounting systems like Salesforce.com or Quickbooks Online offer the same model, keeping the data safely stashed away in redundant data centers. You may not be ready to move all your data into an online service, but it can be a great way to gain some peace of mind, not to mention convenience.

Reprinted from Identity Marketing Magazine