The Myth Of Online Backup


Bradley, Tony

July 24, 2013

Cloud-based backup services sound good in principle. The simplicity and convenience of having your data automatically copied to some server out on the Internet sounds like a good idea. Make sure you read the fine print, though, because you might not be getting the service you think you’re getting.

It’s a simple fact that you should back up your data. You probably don’t need to back up every file on your PC, but most businesses and consumers have a fair amount of data–documents, emails, photos, videos, music–that would be impossible to replace in the event of a hard drive crash or some other disaster.

It’s also crucial to make sure your backup data is safe from whatever disaster might wipe out your original data. If your backup data is simply burned to DVDs, or stored on an external USB drive sitting in the desk drawer in your office, odds are fair that any flood, fire, or other natural disaster that destroys your PC will also destroy your backup data at the same time. To be safe, your backup data should be maintained in a disaster-proof drive like an ioSafe Solo, or it should be stored off-site at a location a safe distance from your original data.

Backing up data to a cloud-based service has a few advantages over backing up locally. First, it accomplishes the goal of storing your backup data off-site. Second, most cloud backup providers replicate data across multiple data centers, so you have redundant backups to protect you even if one of the data centers goes up in flames. Third, the backup data is accessible from the Web so you can retrieve and restore your data from virtually anywhere in the world. There are also a few serious caveats to consider, though.

A professional photographer contacted me to express concern with her cloud backup service. She realized that she needed to have an automated tool to safely backup her client photos off-site, so she subscribed to Carbonite Home. It promises unlimited online storage to backup your data for one flat annual fee.

The problem this photographer was having is that she had signed up for Carbonite Home in November of 2012. As of May 2013–six months later–Carbonite had not yet completed the initial backup of her data. She has roughly 2.5TB (terabytes) of data connected to her computer, but had only designated about 500GB worth of files to be backed up by Carbonite, and she was concerned that her important files were still unprotected in the event of a disaster.

When she contacted Carbonite support, she was told that the upload speed of her broadband Internet service was irrelevant. Carbonite transfers data at a maximum rate of 2Mbps–or about 22GB per day–for the first 200GB. After that point, Carbonite throttles the data upload to 1GB per day.

I thought this sounded incredible, so I reached out to Carbonite myself. A Carbonite spokesperson confirmed the bandwidth throttling, and sent me a link to where it is clearly spelled out in the Carbonite customer knowledge base. Carbonite claims that average users actually only achieve upload speeds of 3GB to 4GB per day for the first 200GB.

At that rate, it takes nearly two months just to upload the first 200GB of data, and then another 300 days to finish uploading the remaining 300GB. Assuming she doesn’t add any new data ever, it would take almost the entire first year of Carbonite Home service just to finish the initial backup of the data that existed when she signed up. In the course of that year, she might add another 100GB of client photos to be backed up, which would extend the initial backup another 100 days.

Carbonite has a TV commercial that shows a husband settling in for the drudgery of backing up data while his wife goes out for the day. The point of the commercial is to illustrate how simple it is. He pushes a button, then goes out for some ribs, a tennis lesson, does a little snorkeling to catch lobsters by hand, and squeezes in a trip to the barber for a shave, while his data is automatically backed up to Carbonite. The whole thing seems unrealistic considering the bandwidth throttling Carbonite imposes, but if you look closely when the computer monitor is shown (around the 7 second mark in the commercial), his total backup is only 540.3MB–which would take about three-and-a-half hours based on the 4GB per day average claimed by Carbonite.

The Carbonite spokesperson explained, “Carbonite spends a lot of its focus on the speed with which all files are restored after a data disaster.  Carbonite can restore data at up to 10 Mbps, although most consumer Internet connections may not be able to maintain this rate consistently.”

That sounds admirable, but it’s useless if the crucial data is never completely backed up in the first place. The photographer dropped the service, and was given a refund by Carbonite. Initially, Carbonite gave her a pro-rated refund only for the remaining months of service. However, the photographer argued the case that Carbonite hadn’t actually ever backed up her data, and convinced Carbonite to give her a full refund. It seems fair–until all of the data is backed up, Carbonite isn’t really providing the protection you’re paying for.

You should back up your important data, and you should store that backup data safely off-site somewhere. A cloud-based backup service makes sense. Just make sure you read the fine print, and don’t assume that the blazing fast upload speed you’re paying for from your broadband provider will actually make a difference.

Make sure you’re aware of just how long it will take to get your data backed up in the first place. If you have a lot of data–like the photographer in this story–you might be better off to choose a cloud backup service that will let you seed the initial backup by shipping an external hard drive to the provider rather than uploading the data across the Internet.

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