A common enough scenario made me reconsider the need for backing up the cloud. It began when the hard drive on my wife’s laptop was too full to download more TV shows from Apple’s cloud-based iTunes Store.
Apple appears to have addressed this scenario by offering to re-download past purchases. Just delete the file on your laptop, then click the little cloud icon that appears next to the episode and it re-appears for you to watch once more.
But before you rush off to delete much-loved Mad Men episodes to make room for the next instalment, read the fine print.
“Previous purchases may be unavailable if they are no longer on the iTunes Store,” says Apple’s support page.
Movies in iTunes can disappear with no notice so they can be sold on cable and free-to-air TV channels or DVD outlets. Apple is effectively saying, “You can re-download the shows you bought IF we still have it in our cloud.” Not very comforting.
Can businesses rely on cloud software companies to protect their data? Luckily these providers take their responsibilities to protecting and preserving data far more seriously than consumer players. If Dropbox or Box could only promise their users’ data “might” be retained in their clouds they would go out of business overnight.
While business software companies have the best intentions, business owners tend to be a rightly paranoid bunch when it comes to protecting the information that makes them money.
Here are some observations on backing up the cloud.
Cloud apps for storing and sharing your files are easy to backup. Dropbox, Box, SugarSync, Google Drive, Microsoft SkyDrive Pro and the like store your files on your laptop or desktop as well as in their cloud data centres. As long as you make a local backup of your computer then your cloud-based files will be recorded there too.
Most of these services make it easy to recover deleted files online. Users can log into the Dropbox website, view deleted items and restore them with one click, for example. Easy and very useful if you’re on the road and nowhere near your desktop backup drive.
Google Gmail and Microsoft Exchange Online (the email apps for Google Apps and Office 365 respectively) can sync many gigabytes of emails with the email program on your laptop.
Emails and their attachments in Microsoft Outlook, Apple Mail or some other email program will be backed up along with your local hard drive.
Business Apps – accounting, CRM, invoicing, etc.
There’s a good reason why backing up file storage services is easy – all they do is copy a data file. The user has to keep a copy of the application to turn the data into something meaningful. It’s not much use having a Word document without Microsoft Word to open and read it.
Business apps such as cloud accounting software or cloud CRM are a different case altogether. Even if the user had a local copy of the data, the cloud software company needs to keep providing their online application to read it properly.
Ultimately business owners need to place much more faith in their cloud software providers than a company that sells desktop software. If the cloud software company goes out of business or has a catastrophic loss of data then its users are in a lot of trouble.
This is a new risk for using IT services which businesses must evaluate like any other. But it’s important to keep risk in perspective. While not impossible, the likelihood of a cloud app by a global player crashing in a way that permanently loses the data of thousands of users is far, far lower than data loss by accident or otherwise in a business using server-based or desktop apps.
Why? For the simple reason that the large cloud companies spend a lot of money and employ a lot of people dedicated to making sure their customer data is safe.
Small businesses bear the same responsibility – and all the same security risks – but have little or zero budget to deal with it.
Google, Microsoft, Salesforce.com and so on invest millions of dollars in state-of-the-art data centres which continuously backup users’ data to data centres hundreds of kilometres away.
Tips for Backing Up the Cloud
But in business only the paranoid survive, as Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel has said. There are a handful of cloud apps built specifically for backing up other cloud apps, such as Backupify. However, they have limited coverage. Here are two alternatives:
1. Regular Exports
Almost all cloud apps will give you the option to export raw data which, in the advent of catastrophe, is better than nothing.
Accountants and bookkeepers using cloud accounting software often download key reports and statements for their clients every quarter or every financial year and keep the PDF in their files.
CRM programs generally let you export your lists of customers, if not the record of conversations and interests.
2. Sync to Safety
Customer records tend to be one of the most valuable types of data in any business. A contact list can be easily synced between cloud apps, including CRM, accounting, email, job management and invoicing. If one of those apps disappears your list of customers won’t disappear with it – you can still look them up in one of the other apps.
The advantage of this multiple-cloud redundancy approach is that you can set it up once and it will automatically continue in the background. Unlike exporting data there’s no action required by the business to maintain a base level of safety.
In my experience the productivity and efficiency gains and competitive advantage of using cloud apps far outweigh the risk in handing over your backups to a third party. In fact, many businesses do a terrible job of backing up their data and have few processes in place for testing backups and measuring restore times. In those cases the cloud may – dare I say it – even be the safer option.