Your computer has exploded. Your external hard drive was stolen from your car. Then your house burned down. By all rights, you're having a total fail of an afternoon. But by backing up your computer's data to the cloud, none of these tragedies need cost you your precious memories. We're going to explain what cloud backups are, and which companies provide the best ones.
So then, what is cloud storage?
Put simply, backing up data to the cloud means you're backing up data to a hard drive in a secure data centre via your Internet connection, instead of just to a hard drive in your house. In fact, that data centre might be located on the other side of the world.
Using cloud backups, you've removed from your shoulders the burden and stress of protecting whatever device your data is stored on. A decent provider will also backup your backups, making sure those embarrassing pictures of an ex-partner are never at risk of being wiped because, y'know, he came round and took back your laptop, microwaved your dog and blew up your house.
Security is generally taken extremely seriously, and your data will be -- or should be, if you're using a backup provider worthy of its name -- heavily encrypted before being transferred from your machine. In some cases, levels of encryption used exceed government standards, and no-one -- not even the backup provider itself -- will be able to access your files except you.
Of course, because you're uploading data via the Web, the downsides largely concern the limited speed at which even a sweet Internet connection can upload your data. In fact, a large initial backup of, say, 200GB of files could take several weeks to upload if you're on a typical UK home-broadband connection. Subsequent uploads may require only a few seconds, however, as only changed files or completely new files will be uploaded.
But once your data's up floating in the cloud, it's safe from fire, flood and computer viruses that occur post-backup. Some backup and storage providers will give you access to your files regardless of where you are in the world, too, via their Web sites. We'll cover these shortly.
Naturally a hard-disk backup will almost always be faster, and for some people more convenient. But online backups can offer extra peace of mind and much greater levels of security.
Before we answer the question of which cloud-storage provider is best for you, a quick cloud backup checklist is in order. Regardless of who you choose to backup your data with, make sure they meet the requirements they ought to.
The CNET UK Cloud Storage Checklist
Does this backup provider use a good level of encryption? When transferring sensitive files, it's essential for this data to be encrypted so the only eyeballs that can read your files are the ones set into your face. A good level of encryption for backups is 256-bit or higher.
This is obvious: how much data can your provider give you, and for how much money? 2GB of storage will contain, very roughly, around 25 albums bought from iTunes. Make sure you have the option of getting more storage for your account if needed, or get an unlimited plan for large backups.
3. Data transfer limits
How many files you can store is one thing, but how many of these you can upload or download in one month is another. If you've run into usage caps on your broadband before, you'll know what we're talking about. Most backup providers won't restrict your data transfer, but be wary of any that do if you're planning on backing up an entire hard drive.
4. Web access
If you think you might want to access backed-up files from a machine other than your own, check that your new backup provider allows you access to files via a Web browser. By ensuring this, you'll be able to log into your account via your provider's Web site and download that bill, spreadsheet or photo when you're away from home.
5. File size limit
If you're backing up music and video files, some providers may impose a limit on how large any one file can be. It's not a common issue, but be wary of these limits if you deal with large media files.
6. Multiple machines
Do you need to back up loads of computers? If so, be sure your provider allows it. Also check if this will cost you extra (it probably will).
7. Monitor folders
If you're looking to leave your computer backing itself up whenever any files are changed, you need to see if your provider's software actively monitors your computer's folders for changes. If it doesn't, you'll need to make sure you manually upload files to be backed up or stored.
Now you know what to be looking for, we're going to review four services, each with their own strengths. We'll kick off with our favourite free option, Dropbox.
Dropbox is a dead simple online storage facility. Think about a folder sitting on your computer's desktop. You can drag stuff in, drag stuff out. That's basically Dropbox, only the folder's contents are also stored in the cloud, instead of just on your computer's hard disk. Add Dropbox to another machine and it'll download the folder from the cloud and keep it in sync with the folder on your first computer.
The instant advantage here is that Dropbox is multi-platform, but uses a central folder in the cloud. So any file you add on a Windows machine will be there in the same folder on your Mac, and also on your Linux-powered netbook. When you fire up one of your other machines, new files are downloaded from the server to make sure that machine's Dropbox is up to date with additions, deletions and changes. There's also a Web-based interface for downloading files on any computer in the world.
Oh, did we neglect to mention you get 2GB of storage absolutely free? We probably should have. And if you want more space, you can pay just over £6 per month for 50GB of storage, or just over £12 per month for 100GB.
How good is it?
It's hard to criticise such a neat little free product. We love the stripped-down simplicity of Dropbox, and its almost flawless ease of use. You can use either a public folder for sharing individual contents with standard HTTP links, or just use the private folder. And of course you can create folders within folders and organise to your aortic pump's content, with no limit on how large individual files can be (as long as they don't exceed your overall storage capacity).
As with other services your uploaded files are encrypted with 256-bit algorithms, and are sent over a secure SSL connection via the Internet. You just download a little app for Mac, Windows or Linux, which integrates into your OS of choice to manage the uploads and encryption.
What it won't do is function as an automated backup service. Unlike more comprehensive backup tools, it won't monitor folders and files for changes and additions and back them up. Instead, it's designed to be a central file repository where you drag and drop stuff you want backed up, or simply need access to on multiple machines.
The ideal user?
Anyone who regularly needs to access and edit the same files on multiple computers, but doesn't need to backup an entire hard drive.
Having been using Mozy's MozyHome service, which offers unlimited storage of data, for a year now, we feel qualified to tell you from first-hand experience that it's smashing. Mozy works on PC and Mac, and automatically monitors your entire computer -- or just the files and folders you tell it to -- and backs them up in the background whenever they're changed.
After signing up you'll download a small program that sits in the background of your computer (meaning you won't notice it's running). After telling it which folders or hard disks on your machine you want it to watch, it will monitor all files within them for changes, and upload all and any that are altered.
It does this for as many tens or hundreds of gigabytes of data you own, for one set price per month: $4.95 (about £3.20). That's your entire hard disk backed up for the cost of a pint of beer every month. Should your machine go down, you can download your data over the Internet, or use the Mozy Web site to download individual files or sets of files. If you have tens or hundreds of gigabytes of data, you can pay for Mozy to burn it to several DVDs and FedEx them to you.
How good is it?
In our experience, very. Our initial backup was 220GB, and took two or three weeks to back up entirely. But the backup didn't noticeably slow down either our PC or Mac, and the amount of your Internet connection it uses can be controlled within the app to make sure it doesn't kibosh your browsing.
We never needed to perform a complete system restore, but we made a point of accessing Mozy's Web site to download files anyway. Assuming we lost all of our documents, we selected to download our My Documents folder from Mozy. It took a while for the site to prepare the download, but after getting an email to tell us it was ready we headed over to Mozy's site once more and downloaded our entire collection of documents. And yes, they were all present and correct after being decrypted by the Mozy software on our computer.
Limitations to note: additional computers cost extra, and downloading individual files from a backup can take a few minutes -- it's not for you if you regularly need to access individual files quickly.
The ideal user?
Anyone who wants to backup an entire hard drive, rather than just a small selection of files.
Next: Jungle Disk...
Jungle Disk takes a different approach to backup. Rather than offering a finite or unlimited amount of data storage for a set fee per month, it charges you per month for the data you're backing up. You're billed $2.00 (£1.30), plus $0.15 (10 pence) per gigabyte stored, per month. So if you back up 10GB of data, you'll pay a total of roughly £2.30 a month.
But in addition, you can upload, access, manage and download everything stored online, from any number of computers on the planet, across Mac, Linux and Windows platforms. This is a huge bonus, as it essentially provides a virtual drop box in the cloud, which you can access anywhere, without charging you for space you don't use.
Desktop software for all platforms is provided, and you can schedule it to automatically backup files and folders on your computer. Or you can just manually drag and drop files into your virtual disk drive. All data is encrypted with a 256-bit AES encryption key, and stored in either Amazon S3's or RackSpace's data centres.
How good is it?
Jungle Disk is one of our favourite backup platforms, and gave great results. Uploads and downloads were insanely fast -- the fastest we've ever used -- with upload speeds hitting 6MBps on some occasions. The Web-based interface is excellent too, giving you access to all your files, which can be downloaded like any other file hosted on the Internet (though we'd love to see a 'Zip these files' option for downloading multiple files as a single zipped directory).
If you're backing up hundreds of gigabytes of data from a single machine, however, JungleDisk can be an expensive option compared to Mozy. Mozy will charge you the same per month for backing up 1GB of data or 500GB of data, whereas JungleDisk would charge roughly £50 per month for backing up 500GB.
The ideal user?
Someone who uses a number of machines and wants the freedom to store as much or as little as they like, and not be charged for storage they're not using.
Next, and finally: MobileMe...
Essentially MobileMe is Apple's backup service, though it's quirkier than those mentioned thus far. Quirky, because it's not so bothered about backing up your hard drive to the cloud, as storing the most important and most useful bits of it and making them available to you wherever you are.
Here's what it does. First, it takes all your contacts and their associated details, plus your email and your entire calendar, and stores it all in the cloud for access across a Mac, an iPhone and/or a PC. Change any details on one platform and it's synced instantly to all other devices over the air, automatically. And any email you receive from the @me.com email address you're given will be pushed to your devices. This is similar to how the BlackBerry email service works.
But it also offers an online repository for your files -- the iDisk -- which functions as a network hard drive just like Jungle Disk. It's essentially an online drop box you can use to share files with friends, rather than a true backup service. You also get a pretty slick Web-based gallery for sharing photos, and this is built into iLife's iPhoto app on the Mac for one-click uploads. This all costs £59 a year for 20GB of combined storage (this includes all saved email, contacts, photos and any uploaded files stored and shared via iDisk).
How good is it?
It's a weird one, this. The iPhone supports Microsoft Exchange, and you may have Outlook installed at work and Entourage at home. If so, you probably already have a complete list of contacts, email and calendar synced over the air, and there's little point to using MobileMe.
But where the service comes into its own is when you don't use Exchange for personal use. Then, you'll get an email address -- email@example.com, for example -- and all mail is pushed to your iPhone and to your Mac's Mail app. Contacts on your iPhone and those in OS X's Address Book are kept in sync over the air, regardless of whether you dock your iPhone, and the same goes for calendars on the iPhone and in iCal. A well-designed desktop-like Web interface is available at Me.com for browsing all this data as it looks on OS X.
As a service it works beautifully, just as advertised. It's a great Exchange-like experience, but for personal stuff rather than business. As is often the case with Apple, however, the benefits are greatest when you stay inside the pre-built walls. So don't use Gmail for email, use MobileMe's address. Don't use your Nokia's contacts list, get an iPhone and use that. And for that reason the service once again proves its worth most if you're on a Mac, with an iPhone, and perhaps a PC you're forced to use at the office, for which you can use Me.com's Web interface.
The online file storage is a bonus, as is MobileMe's little online photo-gallery app. But it's no substitute for having a complete backup via something like Mozy as well, because MobileMe is more about backing up communication and contacts than spreadsheets, your Sims 3 saved games and iTunes library file. Be aware as well that you're limited to a 200GB per month data transfer limit.
The ideal user?
Let's be honest, it's Mac users who own an iPhone and don't -- or can't -- use Microsoft Exchange. The ideal user will want push email, an online drop box for backing up and sharing photos, and for all that information to be available on their Mac at home, PC at work and iPhone on the road.