An article by Scott Clark – Sept 2006

I know a great final exam project for an advanced screenplay writing course: Challenge the students to write an exciting story about backing up computer files. If they can make that into an exciting plot, there is some serious talent in the room deserving some good grades. Of all the things that broadband Internet has offered us, off-site backup is probably the least sexy. But when called on, they can save the day, jobs, and even businesses.

Like insurance, backups don’t get attention until needed. “We had backups of that, right?” is not something you want to be asking after you smell the electrical smoke. So when disaster hits, be it a simple hard drive failure or something as bad as a fire, you want to be able to buy a new computer, log in to your off-site backup system, and get your operation back on track.

Backups have always required three things:

  • a reliable technology,
  • a consistent methodology,
  • and a knowledgeable human operator

Busy companies do not have all three of these available at the same time very often. We might buy hardware and software with good intentions, and perhaps run a few backups, but eventually one of the three legs of this process fails. Murphy’s law kicks in, and we have a crisis. Even those who manage to create the backups may not be able to restore them. Mechanical failures of tape (as high as 50 percent) and media “rot” of CD and DVD media can produce unrestorable backups.

online backup stress outAs much as 80 percent of the time, business-critical files are stored on a single computer in an office – and this is often on the administrative assistant’s machine. I’ve found this computer is usually bought in a rush from an office supply store and built from very poor components. Worse yet, many make-or-break files are on laptops – the least reliable computers available – and rarely or never backed up.

Thank goodness Web-based backup has become so good and affordable. Properly configured internet-based backup can eliminate almost all of the risks while keeping costs manageable. You set up the system once, and then it pretty much runs itself. I’ve not touched my setup for months except to add new folders to the backup plan, and it has flawlessly saved my butt several times.

The only challenge is deciding what files are important and where they’re located on your hard disk or network. Email, for example, may be in different places depending on your configuration. Many never stop to think how much of a disruption the loss of their collection of Outlook emails and contacts would be, but I have witnessed the pale expression on the face of someone who has lost over a gigabyte of Outlook data, and it’s not pretty.

Each of us has our own way of organizing word processing, spreadsheet, and other files, and we simply need to teach the off-site backup software what that is. Some of us can use this opportunity to improve our organization a bit. It took me about 45 minutes to configure iBackup to point to the important files on my server. Laptop users only need to keep their machine connected long enough for the backup to complete occasionally, such as overnight at the hotel or at home. Since the backup tools only copy what’s changed, it’s often surprising how little time is required to complete the backup.

The costs for off-site backup with commercial systems average around $300-600 per year for 50 gigabytes of storage – plenty for most small offices – and dropping fast. A few services offer “pay-as-you-use” services by-the-meg, but they end up being far more expensive in the long run. Packages exist for as little as 5 GB, but you’ll be surprised how fast you use that up.

I tried several systems, including iBackup.com, AT&T’s Vault, and XDrive. Each is easy to set up and offers many features. I think that iBackup’s system is about the most comprehensive, while AT&T’s system is set up for a single user and highly simplified. Some are Web-based while others involve a small desktop program. Some of them work directly with Microsoft Exchange, Quickbooks, Act! and other databases to maintain the integrity of these systems’ structure. In most cases, you must remember to close the programs with files you want backed up, or the tool will be unable to copy those files since they will be locked.

So without really picking a “best” solution for Web-based backup, I encourage you to get out there and find something. The systems are just too good not to have one backing up your files each day. Some of them offer free trials and others have pay-as-you-go programs. Statistics show that many small businesses do not recover after a catastrophic data loss, so while it may not be sexy, putting together a solution is definitely smart.