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Hurricane Season Means Online Backups

As the 2004 hurricane season repeatedly pounds the Southeast United States, one part of the carnage will be lost data from home computers. Most home users don't have any kind of real backup plan for their data, so surely only the smallest percentage of home users actually get any of their data backed up offsite, far enough away to be safe if their house is destroyed. Online backup sounds like something for big businesses, but disaster strikes home users too, and they increasingly have valuable data at stake, such as tax returns, personal email, and precious family photos.

I know what you're thinking, "Boy, if I lived in a place where hurricanes came every year, I would sure have an online backup plan." Would you really? Then have you considered the disasters that could wipe out all the data where you live? Let's take a look at some of them.

Earthquake

Maybe you don't live in California. so you're not worried about earthquakes. California gets all the press, but other parts of the U.S. are vulnerable as well. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Alaska is #2 after California for state earthquakes (they may not be #1, but a magnitude 9.2 event that causes a tsunami that kills 110 people is nothing to sneeze at). The Puget Sound region of Washington State (including Seattle) was hard hit in 1949 and 1965 and is considered overdue for another house-destroying shaking. Hawaii hosted the 11th largest one to occur in the United States.

The actual earthquake may not be what destroys your home computer and backup discs. It's more likely that that the peripheral effects of earthquake will do that: fire and flood. If you're living on the coast, it's the tidal wave that goes with the earthquake that probably most threatens the life of both you and your data. Elsewhere, it's the fires that result when shaking breaks gas pipes and ignition occurs.

The heartland is not safe either; two of the ten largest events in U.S. recorded history took place near New Madrid, Missouri. A recurrence in this area is definitely a possibility, and since the formerly sparsely populated area is now packed with people, the results would be catastrophic.

The moral here is that living outside of California doesn't mean your house can't be leveled, along with the computer and backup discs inside it.

Flood

Still feeling safe from The Big One? Then try flood damage. You can find flooding damage in all coastal states and much of the Midwest (the Great Plains could just as well have been called the Great Flood Plains in 1997).

It's interesting to note the 2002 statistics offered by Safeware, a computer insurance company. The #3 cause for a computer insurance claim was "flood/water". Roughly speaking, the statistics indicate that a computer was more than half as likely to get damaged by flood as it was to get stolen!

It is often possible, at least theoretically, to recover data from a water-damaged DVD, CD, or even hard disk. The problem is, data recovery services can be quite expensive, and when you're trying to get a flood-damaged house livable again, you're probably not enthusiastic about writing a big check to try to restore a water-logged hard drive.

Flood damage is something a data recovery shop might be able to help you recover from -- though often for a steep price. In particular, recordable DVDs damaged by water may actual recover on their own if wiped dry and left in a dry environment long enough for water to escape from however deep it has penetrated.

Theft

Your house is on a hilltop, safe from floods, and far from any recorded seismic activity. Should you worry about having an online backup plan? Well, there is that pesky old problem of theft.

Were it not for accidental damage, theft would have been the #1 source of computer insurance claims for Safeware. If a burglar pays a call to your house, your computer(s) are likely to leave with him. Got your backup CDs stored neatly on the wall behind your computer? The non-technical thief may just figure those discs go with the computer and dump them in his bag as well.

It's hard to find very many locations that are immune to the problem of theft. If you're one of those people whose home computer is a laptop that you carry around, theft is even more important to worry about. It's hard to know if the estimate of 300,000 stolen laptops in 1999 is accurate, but the line that laptop theft is a "growth industry" is probably on target. Thiefs apparently prefer portable goods just like many computer users do!

Theft is one disaster that no data recovery service can help you with. The odds of ever seeing that data again are slim to none, if police statistics are any indication.

Fire

Fire is another data destroyer that visits every part of the country. In many fires, super-hot gases fill rooms from the top down before the actual structure burns down. Those recordable CDs or DVDs on the shelf containing your backup data may look like they are still intact after a fire, but the heat quite likely will have ruined them beyond the ability of any data recovery service to restore them.

Heat is likewise an enemy of hard drives and the electronics that drive them. You can read the sad story of what only a brief fire exposure did to one person's iPod. Can a data recovery shop help you if your hard disk no longer works after being baked by a house fire? As usual with data recovery, the answer is "it depends". Also as usual, it's much better to have online backups than to have to find out whether you can afford a data recovery service, and whether they can even be successful.

Online Backup for Everyone

If you're willing to admit that backing up your data somewhere else besides your house is a good idea, what can you do? There are a great many companies that offer online data backup services, and some of them target the home user, not just businesses. You download their software, tell it what files/directories to backup, and it periodically checks for changes and uploads them to an offsite computer where you can retrieve them in the event of disaster.

Of course, many home users probably aren't willing to pay an additional monthly fee just to backup a modest number of files offsite regularly. That's OK, such users can still often do offsite backups for free, if not quite as conveniently.

The odds are fair that your ISP either has its computers located distant from your house, or else has its own heavy-duty disaster recovery plan in place. Combine that with the fact that most ISPs give you some form of "web storage" for free, and you have all the ingredients for effective and inexpensive online backups.

All you need is some method of packing all the files to be backed up into one .ZIP file, and a method of uploading that file to your ISP. Most backup software can perform the former task, and most ISPs will show you how to do the latter. All you have to do is a little legwork.

A Seasonal Reminder for Online Backups

Changing your fire alarm batteries periodically is a mundane task that's hard to remember, but cheap insurance against disaster. Somebody came up with the clever idea of tying fire alarm batteries to something else that happens periodically: Daylight Savings Time. Thus, twice a year, you'll see a news announcement telling you to set your clock forward or backward an hour, and reminding you to put fresh batteries in your fire alarm and test it. As a result, a whole lot more people check their fire alarms on a regular basis these days.

How about using hurricane season for remembering to check your online backup plan? When you see the newscaster tracking a big hurricane heading towards Florida, think about your own online backup plan. Have you got this year's tax returns and other important data backed up offsite? When was the last time you verified that you could retrieve any of the data you've backed up offsite?

Remember, the computer you're backing up may well be destroyed when the time comes that you really need those offsite backups. Therefore, any information you need to retrieve that data (phone numbers, URL, account #, password, etc.) should be stored in a safe place where you'll be able to get to it later. In this case, your home computer does not count as a "safe place"!

The time to answer those questions is now, before the "hurricane" of data loss hits your particular town and your particular house. If you think about it, it can really happen to anyone, and online backup is cheap insurance.

Summary

  • It Can Happen to You: If you think there's no way you could come home to find your computer and its backup discs gone, you're fooling yourself. If you have any computer data you would mind losing, an online backup plan that gives you an offsite copy of your data is key to peace of mind.
  • You Can Do It: If an online backup service doesn't fit your budget, take advantage of your ISP's offer of free online storage.
  • Remember Hurricane Season: Next time you see the national weather forecaster pointing to that big rotating storm headed towards Florida, remember to think "Have I got an up-to-date online backup of my most important data?"
  • Avoid Data Recovery While it might be possible for an expert technical system to recover data, even off of a clearly damaged hard disk drive, these services are rarely cheap, and not always successful. The best thing to do is have a backup plan that keeps you from ever having to turn to data recovery services.


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