More and more, individuals and businesses are turning to the cloud for data storage. For some, the primary reason is that the cloud is the easiest, surest way to back up photos, e-mails and all sorts of documents. Others choose the cloud because of space – the cloud makes a great storage option if the sheer volume of data on your computer threatens to overwhelm it.
But for many computer users, there is a nagging doubt: Are my files really safe in the cloud, or do I need to back up the backup? The debate has gotten more intense as cloud data storage has become widespread – despite some headline-making failures.
The whole phenomenon of cloud computing is evolving. Debates also rage about ownership of and access to data in the cloud. The answer largely depends on individual circumstances: How good is the cloud storage service you're using? And how vital is the data you're storing?
For most data that's of relatively minor importance, cloud storage is probably OK. For essential data, you might want to think seriously about the need for backup.
Coming up with a good answer means understanding what's involved. Learn more about cloud storage in the next section.
Where's the Cloud?
Even if you haven't been consciously using a cloud storage service, you probably have data stored in the cloud. With many services, you post something or send an e-mail and don't even think about storage. If you use Hotmail, Yahoo or another web-based program, your e-mail history is in the cloud. If you post pictures on Facebook or another social networking site, those images are in the cloud. If you work with others through Google Docs, those documents are in the cloud. If you've posted a video to YouTube, it's in the cloud. If you pay GoDaddy, or a similar company to host your blog, all your blog entries are in the cloud.
We call it the "cloud" because for years, computer professionals have used a cloud icon as shorthand for everything that makes the Internet work – servers, data centers, networks, storage, various services. The cloud is made up of shared resources for us to access through our Internet devices, and we use it on a self-serve basis.
In recent years, as more businesses and individuals see storage as a problem, scores of businesses have sprung up offering to keep data in the cloud for a fee. Some offer a limited amount of storage free, in hopes of gaining your business when you want more.
Essentially, all you need to store data in the cloud is an Internet connection and an arrangement with someone with a server.
You'll want to know more than that about the storage you choose, though. Most cloud systems back up the data they store in multiple computers in multiple locations. That way, if a catastrophe strikes in one place, data is protected elsewhere. Storing data in multiple places is called redundancy. Backing up the data you already store in the cloud would add another layer of redundancy that may not be worth the trouble.
Let's look at the pros and cons of cloud storage. Read on to the next section.
Cloud Storage: It's Great, but Not Foolproof
Let's look at the major advantages and disadvantages of cloud storage. There are lots of arguments in its favor:
- It's easy. You choose a cloud storage provider from the many available, such as Mozy, Carbonite, Dropbox and SugarSync. Install the software and choose which types of documents you want to back up. You may be able to choose the method for encrypting your data for security. Then you just let the service do its job, and you don't have to think about it.
- It can save money. For individuals as well as businesses, cloud storage can be a money saver. You can buy a basic computer model rather than one with lots of storage capacity.
- It can save space.
- It's away from your home and business. If disaster strikes, your data is safe somewhere else.
- You can access your information from any device anywhere you have a good Internet connection. You can also share access with others.
- You can find something on the cloud when you need it more readily than searching through all the discs and folders in your personal archives.
But nothing is foolproof. One big drawback of the cloud is the possibility that your data won't be kept private. If you're wondering whether to back up data that's already in the cloud, you've probably satisfied any doubts you had about security by checking your provider's encryption and authentication practices.
Reliability is another matter. Startup companies sometimes don't last. And devices like Microsoft's Sidekick have had highly publicized failures [source: Dilger]. You never know when and where problems might crop up on the Internet.
Aside from major system failures, data often gets lost in the cloud because of human error or sabotage. For that reason, some people use services like Backupify, which has no delete function, to automatically backup their calendars, pictures, documents, e-mail, social networking accounts and other data in the cloud.
But even if you use Backupify or a similar service, your data is still in the possession of someone else, in the cloud. Is there another approach? And do you need to back up everything some other way?
Read on to the next section for more options – and answers.
Do It Yourself Alternatives
If you're leery of cloud storage providers, or don't want to pay someone else for the service, you can make your own cloud storage system.
A personal cloud is centered on a network attached storage (NAS) device. You can buy a hard drive specialized for use as a NAS or adapt an extra computer. Essentially, you're setting up your own private, local data backup and connecting it to the Internet to share as much or as little as you choose.
The advantage to a personal cloud is that everything is under your control and in your possession. Your NAS is in your home or office. You have the one-time cost of the hardware, but no monthly storage fees. You use your own network to access your data anywhere you have an Internet connection.
The main disadvantages are what prompt many people to choose cloud storage in the first place: You have to remember to back up your data. You might make a mistake. And if disaster strikes your home or office, you've lost everything.
All storage solutions involving the cloud require a good Internet connection. People who have no Internet connection or weak broadband probably aren't going to find it possible, and certainly not convenient, to use cloud storage. Saving data into the cloud strains a weak Internet connection, and retrieving it would be too time-consuming.
These people must depend on the old-fashioned ways of backing up their data. They can copy it to an external hard drive, a USB (universal serial bus) flash drive or onto CDs, and store it in as safe a place as possible.
People who don't completely trust cloud storage can also resort to such old-fashioned backups.
Is Cloud Storage Safe?
That gets us back to the question of whether it's necessary to back up data that's already in the cloud.
At this stage in the evolution of cloud storage, there's no definitive answer to the question of whether it's necessary to back up data that's already in the cloud.
If you've chosen your service provider well, the cloud is most likely going to be at least as safe as and probably more so than anything you devise yourself. Professional companies are in the business to earn money, and their reputation and success depends upon protecting your data.
Another thing to consider about your storage provider is what the fine print in the agreement you sign says about how readily available your data will be. If you need to access it only periodically, you'll probably be fine. Certainly if the data is something you could live without, even if you'd miss it, you can probably skip additional backup. It's highly unlikely that you'll lose your data.
But if you're very cautious, you might want to provide additional back up for any items of absolutely critical data whose loss would cause you severe problems in your business or personal life. You might want to provide your own additional redundancy for them. Back up those especially valuable items up somewhere other than on the cloud, and store them away from your home or office. Just for the peace of mind.
When I started researching this article, I thought it did not apply to me yet, although I might learn something that would change my practices. My first surprise was the realization that through e-mail, social networking and a blog, I am already using cloud data storage.
I learned that cloud computing is rapidly evolving, and that today's best answers might not apply a few years from now.
Probably because things are changing so rapidly, I did not find definitive answers to the question at hand. The general consensus is that for most people and most data, professional cloud storage is at least as safe as the alternatives. I talked to some computer professionals, most of whom were willing to share their opinions but did not want to be cited as sources.
- Clark, Andrew. Director of Strategy, IBM Venture Capital Group. Personal interview via e-mail. Sept. 20, 2012.
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