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July 2014

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Is Your Data Safe Up in the Cloud?

It seems sometimes that you can divide people who lose computer data into two groups: (1) those that didn’t have a backup and (2) those that had a backup which, for whatever reason, didn’t work for them. You might wonder what kind of person doesn’t have a backup – until you ponder how all those other people spent time and money on a backup which, in the end, didn’t help them out either. It makes it easy to understand why some people reason: why bother, it’s probably just an exercise in futility anyway.

Along comes cloud backup, which promises fast, easy, secure, automatic, (often) limitless backup storage for a small (or no) fee.  Naturally, the knee-jerk reaction is to wonder: so what’s the catch? Furthermore, just the term “cloud” fills people with misgivings. Do I want photos of my kids, critical business data, tax returns, etc. to be out there, floating around in a cloud? Additionally, what happens if the company doing my cloud backup goes under or they, themselves, suffer a data loss or security breach? Does my stored data just go poof?

The first thing to realize is that the cloud is not so much a location as it is an idea. Your data is not stored in the stratosphere, but on some hard drive connected to some large-scale server. As such, your data is probably no less or more safe that it is sitting on your hard drive in your own computer. The big difference is that you’ve now got a duplicate which is protected from fire, flood, and theft at your premises. The idea of the cloud is that you don’t need to worry about where your data is actually located. It might be distributed over several locations or it might even move about. The important point is that it will be accessible somewhere if and when you need it. That’s the cloud.

The next thing to realize is that you can think of the cloud as being just another storage media with its particular media advantages and disadvantages (e.g. capacity, speed, ease of use, accessibility, etc.); however, just like any other security measure, a critical element is that somebody, somewhere needs to take personal responsibility to monitor and ensure that all is secure. For example, you can install a video camera surveillance system; but, if there’s nobody watching the video feeds to make sure that all looks normal, then it all goes for naught. This is a mistake that many people make regarding data backup. They install hardware and software, and execute processes for backup, but somehow personal responsibility is left out of the equation. Cases abound:
  • the backup process runs daily and terminates every day with an error “data for backup not found”
  • the tape (tries to) write everyday but never verifies  – when examined, the tape is blank
  • the backup runs successfully every day, backing up the wrong files
  • the backup ran great and replicated our corrupted database precisely
  • the weekly backup is nice, but I need my file back from earlier today
Who is taking responsibility that your backups are functioning as required? You? Your employee? Your IT guy? Your IT company? With cloud backup, it’s often all too easy to assume that somebody else (the providing company, the person whose files they are, the tech guy) is taking responsibility for the proper functioning of your data backup process.

Another important thing to remember is that you often get what you pay for. If you’re using a free service for backup, then consider for a minute that company’s level of culpability if the data restore doesn’t go as planned – or doesn’t go at all. When considering service pricing, consider as well:
  • Can I see my data there in the cloud to retrieve it?
  • Can I restore my data to another (possibly brand new) computer?
  • Can I restore my data myself?
  • Can I restore my data with help?
  • Can I get help from the backup company? From a person? By phone, by web chat, by email?
  • How much do I need to store? How long will it take to upload? How long will it take to download again, if necessary?
The web is full of stories of people whose backups ran fine – until they needed to retrieve data. Then they got a surprise. You should look at the reputability and stability of the company.  As always, I recommend looking up reviews before dealing with a particular product or company – especially something that demands a certain level of trust. After all, why are you purchasing a backup service if you don’t feel assured that it’s protecting you?

Another aspect that gives people the willies is the question of how private the data is when stored in the cloud. Most providers offer some level of encryption, but questions always loom.
  • Can the company storing my data (or individual employees) spy on the content?
  • Can a hacker get access to my data?
  • Are file names encrypted or publicly viewable?
  • What if somebody breaks into the data center? Is the data stored encrypted or just encrypted for transfer over the network?
Finally, there’s the issue of versioning. Back in the days of tape backup, there would generally be multiple tapes used. Each day of the week might have had its own tape. Then there might be an end-of-the-month tape; or, there might be multiple Friday tapes for different weeks. Aside from redundancy due to the unreliability of tape media, the advantage of this scheme was that different past versions of files and folder  were available. For example, if a file got corrupted on Wednesday, but this corruption wasn’t discovered until Friday, then a good version of the file would still be left uncorrupted on the Tuesday tape backup.  With physical media, having multiple past versions is doable; however, with cloud backup, it may not be obvious how to extract a past backup, if the past version even exists to begin with. Different cloud backup providers have different limitations on past versions of files.

If you’re not using a cloud backup system already, then you may want to look into it. But if you’re already using a cloud backup system, then it’s even more important to know what’s going on and how you’ll be able to restore your data if and when disaster strikes.

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