I have deleted the company’s name to make a point as opposed to criticizing a competitor.

Cloud-based backup services sound good in principle. The simplicity and convenience of having your data automatically copied to some server out on the Internet sounds like a good idea. Make sure you read the fine print, though, because you might not be getting the service you think you’re getting.

It’s a simple fact that you should back up your data. You probably don’t need to back up every file on your computer or mobile device, but most businesses and consumers have a fair amount of data–documents, emails, photos, videos, music–that would be impossible to replace in the event of a hard drive crash or some other disaster.

It’s also crucial to make sure your backup data is safe from whatever disaster might wipe out your original data. If your backup data is simply burned to DVDs, or stored on an external USB drive sitting in the desk drawer in your office, odds are fair that any flood, fire, or other natural disaster that destroys your computer will also destroy your backup data at the same time. To be safe, your backup data should be stored off-site at a location that is a safe distance from your original data and in a jurisdiction that protects you from security agencies gaining access to it without probable cause .

Backing up data to a cloud-based service has a few advantages over backing up locally. First, it accomplishes the goal of storing your backup data off-site. Second, most cloud backup providers replicate data across multiple data centers, so you have redundant backups to protect you even if one of the data centers goes up in flames.

There are also a few serious caveats to consider, though.

A professional photographer contacted me to express concern with her cloud backup service. She realized that she needed to have an automated tool to safely backup her client photos off-site, so she subscribed to a US based service provider. They promised unlimited online storage to backup your data for one flat annual fee .

The problem this photographer was having is that she had signed up for it in November of 2012. As of May 2013–six months later–it had not yet completed the initial backup of her data. She has roughly 2.5TB (terabytes) of data connected to her computer, but had only designated about 500GB worth of files to be backed up , and she was concerned that her important files were still unprotected in the event of a disaster.

When she contacted their support, she was told that the upload speed of her broadband Internet service was irrelevant. This provider transfers data at a maximum rate of 2Mbps–or about 22GB per day–for the first 200GB. After that point, they throttle the data upload to 1GB per day.

I thought this sounded incredible, so I reached out to them myself. Their spokesperson confirmed the bandwidth throttling, and sent me a link to where it is clearly spelled out in their customer knowledge base. They claimed that average users actually only achieve upload speeds of 3GB to 4GB per day for the first 200GB.

At that rate, it takes nearly two months just to upload the first 200GB of data, and then another 300 days to finish uploading the remaining 300GB. Assuming she doesn’t add any new data ever, it would take almost the entire first year of this backup service just to finish the initial backup of the data that existed when she signed up. In the course of that year, she might add another 100GB of client photos to be backed up, which would extend the initial backup another 100 days.

This provider has a TV commercial that shows a husband settling in for the drudgery of backing up data while his wife goes out for the day. The point of the commercial is to illustrate how simple it is. He pushes a button, then goes out for some ribs, a tennis lesson, does a little snorkeling to catch lobsters by hand, and squeezes in a trip to the barber for a shave, while his data is automatically backed up . The whole thing seems unrealistic considering the bandwidth throttling they impose, but if you look closely when the computer monitor is shown (around the 7 second mark in the commercial), his total backup is only 540.3MB–which would take about three-and-a-half hours based on the 4GB per day average claimed by them.

The  spokesperson explained, “We focus on the speed with which all files are restored after a data disaster.  We can restore data at up to 10 Mbps, although most consumer Internet connections may not be able to maintain this rate consistently.”

That sounds admirable, but it’s useless if the crucial data is never completely backed up in the first place. The photographer dropped the service, and was given a refund. Initially, they gave her a pro-rated refund only for the remaining months of service. However, the photographer argued the case that they hadn’t actually never backed up her data, and convinced them to give her a full refund. It seems fair–until all of the data is backed up, this company isn’t really providing the protection you’re paying for.

You should back up your important data, and you should store that backup data safely off-site somewhere. A cloud-based backup service makes sense. Just make sure you read the fine print, and don’t assume that the blazing fast upload speed you’re paying for from your broadband provider will actually make a difference.

Make sure you’re aware of just how long it will take to get your data backed up in the first place. If you have a lot of data–like the photographer in this story–you might be better off to choose a cloud backup service that will let you seed the initial backup by shipping an external hard drive to the provider rather than uploading the data across the Internet.

We have a 1 gig fibre backbone connection to our Canadian Data Centre (up and Down). The reason they are throttling back is simple, their business model is to gain accounts based on price alone. There is no doubt the backup works and restores, but time is money and you get what you pay for.

Data and information has become your most valuable asset in business. Never compromise that !


Keith Green