21st-Century Backups

Think your documents are safe, now that they're stored in the Internet cloud? Think again

Animation: Greg Mably

So you’ve never gotten into the habit of making regular backups? Fortunately, nowadays copies of your e-mails probably rest safely with the likes of Yahoo, your photos with Flickr, your word-processor documents with Google, your music with iTunes, and so on. Whew! These applications reside on massive server farms, surely making your data as secure as they’d be with one of those fancy corporate disaster-recovery services.

But no. Data in the cloud are still vulnerable—in fact, your precious documents are no safer there than they ever were on the noisy, ancient 10-megabyte hard drive of your first PC.

Consider this. Within the past year, Apple discontinued its .Mac Groups and personal home pages, and AOL closed down its AOL Pictures, Xdrive, and BlueString services. Things are even worse over at Yahoo, which terminated Yahoo Briefcase, FareChase, My Web, Yahoo Audio Search, Yahoo Pets, Yahoo Live, Yahoo Kickstart, and Yahoo for Teachers, and will soon shutter the venerable Geocities, a site that was already five years old when Yahoo bought it in 1999.

At least these services folded in an orderly fashion. Linkup, formerly MediaMax, closed its doors in the summer of 2008 with little notice, taking with it hundreds of gigabytes of personal photos and videos. Its customers needed backups, and so do you—even a robust service like Gmail goes off-line from time to time.

In fact, things are in some ways worse than ever. On your own computer, you can just pop in a blank CD and burn a backup of your data. But how do you copy a Web-based inbox?

Google’s answer is Gears, an open-source browser extension that works with most modern Web browsers and can copy data locally for some programs. Unsurprisingly, Gears works best with Gmail, Google Documents, and other Google apps, though a few others, such as Zoho Writer and Zoho Mail, are also ”Gears aware.”

Gears works by keeping a database on your PC and a Web server that lets you access mail, documents, or what have you when you’re off-line. Your initial backup depends greatly on your download speed. While Gears itself doesn’t take much time, even with a connection of more than 10 megabits per second your PC will chug all night on a gigabyte of Gmails.

If you’re using Yahoo Mail or Hotmail, your only real choice is to use a POP (Post Office Protocol)-based e-mail client like the Mozilla Foundation’s Thunderbird to create local copies. If your goal in using a Web-based e-mail service was to keep those thousands of messages from cluttering your hard disk, sorry about that.

Gears also copies photos from Picasa Web Albums, but if your pictures are elsewhere, you’ll need another solution. And what about those painstakingly added descriptions, dates, and place names—your photos’ metadata, as it’s called?

If you’re an Apple iPhoto and Flickr user, you’re in luck. The latest version has built-in backup for Flickr (and Facebook) images and metadata. Windows users need a third-party program like FlickrMetadataSynch or FlickrEdit, which automatically download copies from your Flickr account and allow you to synchronize metadata. (FlickrEdit also works on Linux and Mac desktops.) Another program, Migratr, lets you also transfer photos from one online image service to another, including Flickr, Picasa, Phanfare, Photobucket, and Zoomr.

Last, but by no means least, if your music or video collections are in the cloud, you may have problems. For example, when Walmart started to sell music free of digital rights management (DRM) protections in 2008, it turned off its DRM-licensing servers, temporarily leaving its earlier music customers in the lurch.

The DRM schemes used by iTunes, HDGiants, VuDu, and the rest similarly require you to authorize your local copy of an album or movie before playing it. If HDGiants, which is currently in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, goes out of business and takes down its authorization servers, the movies and music you bought there might as well be on eight-track cassettes for all the good it will do you.

Mercifully, Apple has started to make DRM-free versions available at its iTunes store, and for US $0.30 per song, you can remove the DRM from songs previously purchased. The music at some other stores, such as Amazon.com, is also blessedly free of copy-protection schemes, making it easy to copy the files.

Don’t wait for it to rain to think about fixing the roof. Now is the time to ask yourself how, in the event of a temporary or permanent shutdown, you would get your hands on your data or purchased media. Cloud computing can make some things a lot easier, but it doesn’t eliminate the need to back up.

About the Author

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols won’t say how long he’s been writing about technology, but he remembers filing stories via a 300-baud modem. He has a blog at Computerworld magazine and can be reached at sjvn@vna1.com.

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