Is Backing Up Online Safe?

The growing ubiquity of broadband Internet access combined with ever decreasing data storage prices have led to an explosion in online data backup services over the past several years. Numerous businesses today offer services that are designed to give consumers and enterprises a way to quickly and securely back-up their critical data to remotely located storage and server systems. Many of these companies provide multi-platform services, meaning they allow data to be backed up from Windows, Macintosh, Linux, Unix and other operating system environments.

Using such services can yield significant benefits, but it is important to also be aware of some of the potential downsides of storing data in the Internet cloud.

One of the biggest advantages of using an online backup and data recovery service is that it gives enterprises and consumers a convenient way to store a copy of their most critical data at a remote, secure offsite location. Unlike in the past where a company would have to manually ship and then store a storage disk or backup tape at an offsite facility for safekeeping, online backup allows the same goal to be accomplished far more quickly over the Internet. For companies, such a capability can be a huge asset from a disaster recoverability and business continuity standpoint. Consumers who sign up for such services similarly have a way to protect and quickly access a copy of their data in the event that their primary system crashes or becomes unavailable for any other reason.

Many online data backup services allow for data to be backed up automatically without user intervention. The time period between such back-ups can sometimes be set by the users themselves. Large companies back-up data on a near continuous basis so that no data is lost in the event of a catastrophic system failure. The major advantage with this sort of automated backup is that users do not have to ever worry about forgetting to make copies of their critical data.

Businesses and consumers who are considering online backup services are often concerned about the safety and security of having their critical data hosted by a third-party service provider. While such concerns are natural, most of the larger and more reputable service providers today provide a variety of capabilities that are designed to ensure data security. Typically the data centers and the systems hosting customer data are protected by several layers of physical and virtual security controls. Online backup providers these days routinely deploy technologies to ensure proper segregation of customer data, and tools for monitoring access and detecting intrusions.

Large backup services also typically use mirror sites and real-time disaster recovery facilities to maintain copies of all of the customer data they are storing. So even if a disruption were to hit a primary facility, the service provider would still have a copy of all of the data it is hosting on behalf of customers.
While there obviously is a cost associated with using such services, the intense competition in the field has resulted in prices for online backup services becoming increasingly affordable for most users over the years. Those who do not want to pay for such services can also take advantage of offerings that allow them to backup limited amounts of data online for free.

Despite the many benefits, there are caveats associated with the use of online backup services that potential customers need to be aware of. One major issue is data privacy. Since service providers are hosting all of the customer data on their own systems, they can potentially have access to it as well. In almost all cases, service providers also host data belonging to potentially thousands of customers on the same system. Without proper data segregation and access controls, this could allow data belonging to one customer being accessible by another customer on the same server. As a result of such issues, security experts advocate that customers only use online backup providers who are willing to encrypt customer data.

There are other concerns as well. Customers who are entrusting their data to a third-party service provider need to make sure they understand how long it would take for the provider to restore their data in an emergency. Data restoration can sometimes be slow in situations where a service provider may not have adequate network bandwidth or may have stored the data in an offsite facility. As a result, businesses using online backup services need to clearly specify their restoration time requirements in their service level agreements with the provider.

A remote backup service provider could also go out of business, be purchased by someone else, or suffer a catastrophic system failure themselves. Such events could result in customer data becoming unavailable for an extended period of time. Service providers who fail to properly secure their networks and systems could also be victimized by a hacking attack that could potentially expose all of their customer data to criminals.
While such reasons should not dissuade someone from considering online backup services, it is always wise to be aware of them so that measures can be taken to mitigate the risks.