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A few points to consider about off-site backups

Some thoughts about an article on off-site backups in <i>The New York Times</i> by David Strom.

Michael Horowitz

Michael Horowitz wrote his first computer program in 1973 and has been a computer nerd ever since. He spent more than 20 years working in an IBM mainframe (MVS) environment. He has worked in the research and development group of a large Wall Street financial company, and has been a technical writer for a mainframe software company.

He teaches a large range of self-developed classes, the underlying theme being Defensive Computing. Michael is an independent computer consultant, working with small businesses and the self-employed. He can be heard weekly on The Personal Computer Show on WBAI.


Michael Horowitz
3 min read

A few days ago, David Strom wrote an article in The New York Times about making off-site file backups over the Internet. There is no one right answer when it comes to making backups, but I'd like to expand on a few points he raised.

At the beginning of the article, Strom says that "for a few hundred dollars a year you can buy inexpensive protection." Hopefully, readers weren't scared off by the price. Many off-site storage companies will hold backup copies of your files for much less money. Personally, I started out paying $10 a year for 1 gigabyte of off-site storage. Now, I pay $20 a year for 2 gigabytes.

Mozy is one of the off-site storage companies mentioned in the article. I wrote a two-part review of Mozy back in July. Perhaps the most important point about Mozy is that it will, at times, delete your backup files. Anyone who mentions Mozy and leaves out this fact has not done their homework.

The sentence in the article that most prompted this posting was this:

"It's a good idea to try out a service to see how long it takes to make a complete backup of each computer you want to protect."

Off-site storage is not the appropriate medium for complete backups of a computer. Off-site backup is only appropriate for your important files. For most broadband users, uploading large files is slow, drastically slower than downloads (the exceptions being fiber, SDSL and T1 connections). And the cost of off-site storage usually increases with the amount of data stored.

Strom warns that "in some cases, the first backup will take hours, if not days." If it takes you days to make a backup, take it as a hint you're barking up the wrong tree. Complete backups, those that include the operating system and applications, are best done with a disk imaging program to an external hard disk or DVDs. Fedex is what I suggest for any complete backups you might want to store off-site.

Features and services

In choosing an off-site storage company, software that automates the backup process may sound like a good thing, but there is a downside--automation can go too far. Last year, Business 2.0 magazine almost didn't publish an issue because they lost all their files. Their automated backups were a bit too automated; the backups hadn't been running and no one noticed.

Many file storage companies provide you with software. Just say no. For one thing, using their software makes it harder to switch companies in the future. Also, there is no way to have real security if the same organization is both encrypting your files and storing them. Finally, it may limit you when it comes time to restore files, and, in your hour of need, that's the last thing you'll want to deal with.

Any off-site backup company should let you upload and download files from any computer connected to the Internet, using nothing more than a Web browser. Not all do. Charging customers based on the amount of data being stored is eminently fair. Charging based on the number of computers those files came from, strikes me as a rip-off.

Finally, anyone considering off-site backups for the first time should read Ed Foster's article, "Backup Service EULAs Warrant a Closer Look," from last February in which he discusses the End User License Agreement from Mozy, Iron Mountain, Carbonite, Xdrive, and SOSonlinebackup. Even expecting the worst, it's shocking.

So few people back up the files on their computers; you don't want to start off on the wrong foot.

See a summary of all my Defensive Computing postings.