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Hurricane drives interest in online backups

Online backup firms report a post-Katrina increase in sales--and data being moved to new servers away from the flood zone.

In Hurricane Katrina's watery aftermath, companies that provide online file-backup services are reporting a sharp increase in business.

"Because of the , we have an uptick from almost all over the nation," said Raghu Kulkarni, a spokesman for Pro-Softnet of Woodland Hills, Calif., which sells a service called iBackup.

Online backups store a copy of valuable information at another location that's geographically separate from one's home or business.

That's valuable in case a serious disaster like a flood, hurricane, or earthquake ruins a computer and any backups stored in the same place. Online backups, which have become increasingly popular as high-speed Internet connections proliferate, also guard against more commonplace problems such as theft or fire.

Online backup providers also are seeing an increase in hurricane-affected customers requesting access to their archived data as they struggle to recover. eVault, a company in Emeryville, Calif., has found a "spike in demands in terms of restores," said Tony Barbagallo, a senior vice president of marketing.

"For those businesses in the immediate strike zone and not recoverable, many have requested restores to alternative locations," said Bob Cramer, chief executive of Marlborough, Mass.-based LiveVault, which provides server-backup services. "A small business right on the water in New Orleans had another office in California, so we did a media restore and shipped it out to California and they're up now."

Nearly 100 LiveVault customers were affected by the hurricane, Cramer said. "When the storms started happening--we have a service operations center, and we did a quick analysis of which companies and servers were potentially going to be impacted by it." Many of those customers have requested that their data be restored to other locations not touched by the flood, he said.

Large-scale disasters tend to spark additional interest in planning for the worst. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were a boon to the commercial disaster-recovery industry, and online backup services aimed at consumers experienced a similar surge.

"There's always an uptick in sign-ups immediately after a disaster," said Kulkarni of iBackup, which sells 5GB of online storage space for $100 a year. "Right after the World Trade Center disaster, there was a significant uptick in the sign-ups...That is a natural reaction of customers."

Many online backup companies offer what amounts to a backup of a backup--an additional set of redundancy--by copying customers' files to multiple data centers scattered in different geographical locations. iBackup relies on servers in both Northern and Southern California, and LiveVault has four locations in the United States and two in Europe.

Mechanisms for backups vary. Some, like Englewood, N.J.-based Intronis Technologies' eSureIT service, use Windows-only applications that back up files that change every night. Apple Computer offers its own Macintosh-only backup option as part of its .Mac service. Unix users have long enjoyed standard, free--though tricky to configure--utilities like "rsync" that do the same thing.

Sam Gutmann, president of Intronis Technologies, said hurricanes tend to draw customers. "Before every major hurricane that hit Florida last year, we got dozens of customers calling and wanting to sign up for our service," he said. "I remember one, they were literally leaving and they were on with our tech support getting set up as quickly as possible, and they were hoping their files would get backed up before the power went out." (His company's rates start at $10 a month for 1GB of space.)

Cramer, LiveVault's chief executive, said one of his last-minute customers during Hurricane Charley ran a small insurance agency. "She was in a closet at 11 o'clock at night, all the lights out, with a flashlight and a cell phone," asking the company to back up her data before the power died--and they were able to, he said.