If you have a reliable, high-speed Internet connection, you can back up your system and data online. While this isn’t a solution for many, if you live or work in an urban area your cable or telephone provider may be able to supply enough bandwidth for the task. Taking a quick visit to http://www.Broadbandmap.gov and clicking the onscreen button labeled “Explore the Maps” will show what kind of services you’ll have available. As with any technology decision, there are trade-offs. The advantage of this begins with the ability to access your backed-up data anywhere you can get a connection to retrieve key files should you need them. Many online backup vendors even provide smartphone apps.
Five problems with online backups:
- You’re trusting your data to a third-party company and you have to trust their security.
- If you stop paying the backup service, you may not be able to get your data back.
- If the backup service goes out of business, it is your loss as well.
- If you choose to change backup services, moving your saved data between them can be a problem.
- While the backup process can be rather efficient, restoring a complete system can be dreadfully slow.
Benefits to Online Backups
I suspect that we’ve all heard the radio and TV ads for online backup services. These products offer a high level of convenience and often run in the background on your computer, providing a nearly real-time backup. To give you an example, I have an acquaintance whose husband is (sadly) starting to show the signs of dementia. While he loves working on his computer, the gentleman will sometimes accidentally delete files or change them and needs to undo the damage. This is an ideal use of the service to retrieve a file at a time.
- Unlimited Disk Storage
Many of these services offer unlimited disk storage. If you have your own backup disks at home, they will eventually fill up and you’ll have to remove older sets of saved data. With online backup services, however, you can keep a virtually unlimited number of prior copies of your data, should you need to retrieve an older version.
To take advantage of this, you will need a high-speed connection to your Internet Service Provider because the basic service probably won’t be sufficient. You also have to trust the privacy of your data to the backup service. If you delete your data from your backups, you have to hope that it is really erased on the backup company’s servers. And, you’re tied to them because there aren’t any clean-and-easy ways to transition between vendors.
Apple, Microsoft, Google and other companies offer cloud storage to their customers. Many offer a free allocation of disk space provided across the Internet. Microsoft and Google, for example, provide this as a service to their online email and productivity-application customers. Above the free amount, customers can purchase additional storage on a monthly or annual basis.
These cloud storage providers even offer applications to help automate the online storage and backup. Both Microsoft’s OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive) and Apple’s iCloud services create a special folder on the computer hard drive. Any files that are placed in these folders are automatically saved and any changes are preserved. Further, you can specify other folders to backup as well.
Just like the online backup services, you are constrained by your Internet connection speeds. Beyond that, you are able to preserve the latest copy of your files and older versions become discarded. Often, that’s just “good enough.” The distinction here is whether you need to just get a file or folder back to its current state or whether you’ll need to retrieve older versions that may have different data. Consider a spreadsheet that you update regularly. You need to determine whether the most up-to-date version is the only one you “care” about or whether you would ever need the data from an instance of the document sometime in the past.
You are subject to privacy rules of the service providers and you also place your trust in the cloud storage provider’s security from hackers.
There is a file protection mechanism built into Windows 7 and 8. These are named, “Prior Versions” and “File History,” respectively. Personally, I think that the Windows 7 process is easier to implement. For example, if you change a file and you want to revert to an older copy, you can simply right-click the object and select “Prior Versions.” In Windows 8, you need a separate disk and you also have to enable file history. On my Surface Pro 2, I use a 64GB Micro-SD card, but I find that it is always full. To retrieve a file on Windows 8, you type “restore your files with file history” after you’ve configured the function. Microsoft goes to great pains to point out that this is really not a backup mechanism as much as for occasional repair of a file. And, as you run out of space for File History or Prior Versions, the oldest copies are discarded.
What happens when you need to get your data back? That depends on the mechanism you’ve chosen. With the local-copy mechanism, you simply open the storage location for your duplicate files and copy them back. With backup software, you probably have to run the program and select the files you need from a prior invocation of the software. Online services vary in their process, but it is often web-based and semi-automatic. And, for cloud storage, often all you’ll need to do is copy the backup files to their required destination on your hard drive.
So far, I’ve concentrated on saving and restoring critical files. But suppose that your hard drive fails or you suffer a malware infection? Typically, you only have two options. If you have a full-system backup, you can perform a “bare-metal” restore, as it’s known in the trade. Otherwise, you will need to reinstall the operating system, reapply all your applications and then restore your data. Likely the fastest mechanism is to use the saved data created by your backup software on a local disk. The slowest is using an online service’s full-restore capability. For the latter, I’ve heard it called “trickling” the data back. Not a pretty metaphor, is it?
Microsoft Windows 8 has two additional mechanisms to rebuild the system. These are most useful when one needs to recover from a system’s infection with malware. They are called Refresh and Revert. Refresh brings the computer’s operating system back to its initial state, but leaves the data alone. It will still be up to you to reinstall all your programs. The latter completely wipes out your hard drive and restores the computer to its initial installation and wipes out your data. Yes, it wipes out your data, which means that you must have good backups to restore your computer’s information. But that’s what we’re talking about, isn’t it?
With the exception of online backup services that offer unlimited space, managing your storage for backups requires some thought and attention. If the backup device fills up, you’ll possibly (silently) stop having backups or your oldest copies of files will be discarded. Neither of these options is good. If you get notification messages from Windows that your storage devices are full, that will require investigation.
Very briefly, what about mobile devices? Google, Apple and Microsoft offer automated phone and tablet “sync” services to protect the information on those devices. While these are good, and offer benefits such as automatically loading your files and apps on a new phone, they consume your valuable monthly internet connection. On top of that, there are privacy concerns again. Recently hackers broke into Apple’s online services and retrieved “selfie” photos of celebrities that were then posted to the Internet.