Cloud Storage Is Not Backup

I recently found an interesting video explaining the differences between storing files in the cloud and backing them up (either in the cloud or locally). And then I re-realized how far I’d gone in trusting all my files to a company’s cloud servers, whether Apple’s iCloud, Google’s Drive, or Microsoft’s OneDrive. All my digital eggs have been in one basket! What if the cloud went poof? Wouldn’t all my files across all my devices also disappear in a flash?

Back in the day, when we all computed on terra firma rather than the mobile cloud, I had my files on my local hard drive, nested away in folders. And as it happens to probably everyone at least once, there was a day when my laptop hard drive died; I lost many photos, never to be recovered. The pain of that lesson taught me to back my stuff up.

Maybe the “up” direction is a confusing part of the problem. You see, with cloud computing, all my files now go up to the nebulous cloud. So that must mean they’re backed up, right? Actually, no, not really.

Synced-up and backed-up are not the same thing.

With cloud storage, if a file is deleted or becomes corrupted on one device, that problem is promptly propagated across all devices. While it might seem like there are three files — one each on phone, tablet, and laptop — the fact is there’s one file in the “cloud,” a server somewhere else. The copies on my devices are instances where I access or use that one file, but they are not backup copies. And the file in the cloud is also not a backup copy, it’s effectively the original file.

When relying only on the cloud without proper backup, one computer glitch can really ruin your day. A technical malfunction is not the only potential error. What if a cloud computing company goes out of business? Where would that leave my data if it can no longer be hosted on their servers?

It so happens that Amazon recently announced it will be shutting down Amazon Drive. For anyone relying on that cloud storage, it’s time to move on to a less nebulous cloud. A file storage system shouldn’t become vaporware, treating your data like it’s ephemeral. But this kind of thing happens, so proper backup is key.

Data storage and sync services — all those clouds — are run by for-profit businesses. Trust is a big factor. Sure, Google has the power to slurp all my files to its cloud drive, but what are they doing with my data besides storing it? Who has access to the servers my data resides on? How can I truly know and hold any company to account for data breaches and the like?

How reliable is the cloud, really? The wispy illustration itself is far less stable than even sand. Lose your persistent internet connection and you lose access to your files. I guess the only thing worse would be a total power outage.

All this has made me rethink where my files live and how they’re stored.

Apple Time Machine

Instead of solely relying on iCloud to store and sync all my files, I could opt to keep them local only like in the days before cloud computing was a thing. But I dislike the inconvenience; cloud sync is the norm. So why not do both? I’ve set up my MacBook to use iCloud but not optimize local storage. That means all my photos and notes are in the cloud and they’re also kept on my local hard drive. One nice benefit is that if disconnected from the internet, I still have access to all my files because I actually have them stored on my MacBook’s internal storage.

Months ago, I thought about all this…and have finally repurposed an old Seagate external drive. Then I turned on Time Machine to backup my entire local storage to an external local hard drive. So now I have essentially the original version of my data — synced across my gadgets — and a proper backup copy of it on another drive.

With iCloud storing my files on several devices, it alone serves as a pseudo-backup such that if my iPhone sinks to the bottom of the ocean, my photos will still be “in the cloud” and accessible on my MacBook. And with Apple’s Time Machine, I have a true old-fashioned complete backup of my entire laptop. I think together, these are enough.

I’m still trying to fully understand the safest way to protect my data from loss and how these systems work together. By and large, Apple has it all designed to be easy enough for most people to use while mitigating data loss.

How do you backup your data? What cloud service do you use for sync and storage? Have you ever lost all your photos?