Saving files from disaster

DALLAS — DALLAS -- If you got a digital camera or an MP3 player from Santa, you're going to be dealing with a lot of new files on your computer. It's time to figure out how to make sure those files are safe.

Hard-drive crashes have taught many computer users to back up their data to a blank CD or DVD. Others use an external hard drive.


But there are some problems with those techniques. A fire or flood could ruin those backup CDs. A thief could steal the external drive along with the computer. And as computer users put more digital media on their computers, they require more and more space for their backups, building up unwieldy stacks of CDs or buying bigger and bigger external drives.

That's why an alternative form of backup is becoming a more attractive option. Instead of saving data on a disc or a drive, it's possible to send it to a company that can store it on its large computing infrastructure.


There are pitfalls to this approach, too. For one thing, you have to have an Internet connection to get access to your backup data. Backing up lots of data can take awhile, even with a broadband Internet connection. And, you have to trust that the online storage company won't meddle with your data.

But the convenience of online storage - not to mention its increasing affordability - makes it worth considering.

"Local backup is a very manual process, typically," said Josh Coates, chief executive of online storage company Berkeley Data Systems, making the pitch. "You have to fiddle with CDs, DVDs, external drives. You've got to plug them in, push buttons - it's just a pain. If you can get a remote solution that's automatic, that has just the same features and functionality, why wouldn't you do that?"

Berkeley, founded last year, offers a service called Mozy. The company provides two gigabytes of free storage and unlimited storage for $5 per month. It's one of several small companies in the online storage market.

Some Internet giants are also offering backup services. AOL bought online storage pioneer Xdrive last year, and AT&T; Inc. launched its Online Vault service in September. Google Inc. has hinted about an online storage service called GDrive, and some knowledgeable consumers have learned how to use Inc.'s online storage service aimed at businesses.

In fact, companies have offered some form of online storage for a long time. Yahoo Inc.'s Briefcase service, for instance, debuted in 1999, offering 10 megabytes of online storage space - enough for a few MP3s. Apple Computer Inc. introduced its iDisk service in 2000, giving away 20 megabytes of space.

Times have certainly changed. Yahoo gives away an entire gigabyte of space these days just for e-mail. AOL's Xdrive offers 5 gigabytes of free service.

Digital storage has gotten cheaper in the last few years with advances in technology and increased capacity. That's enabling companies to offer bigger amounts of storage for free or for a small monthly fee.


But the basic concept of online storage is the same. Users choose which files they'd like to save. Software transmits those files to the company, which stores multiple copies in redundant storage facilities, making the files safe even in the event of a natural disaster.

Online storage doesn't have to replace local storage such as an external hard drive. The two methods can actually complement each other, making the most important files accessible without an Internet connection while keeping the rest of the valuable data somewhere safe, said Michael Cai, an analyst with Parks Associates, a Dallas market research firm.

"I definitely think online storage and backup solutions have a future, but I don't think it's an either/or situation," he said.

The software for online storage has improved in recent years, making it easy for consumers to choose which files to back up and how often they're saved. The software tools can also encrypt data to keep hackers from intercepting it.

Broadband Internet connections have helped online storage companies grow, since they allow consumers to send greater amounts of data more quickly. But depending on the amount of data on a consumer's hard drive, it can still take hours or even days to back up data to an online storage company for the first time. After the initial backup, only changes to the data will be updated, so the process speeds up considerably.

Online storage services aren't just for backup. Since files are accessible over the Internet, online storage subscribers can use their passwords to get their data from any computer. Services such as Xdrive allow users to organize their data and find it through the Web, making it easy to pull up a photo or a music file at a friend's house.


"It's not just storage and sharing, but it's also access anywhere," said Andy Erickson, Xdrive's product management executive director.

Online storage companies use top-notch encryption technology to keep the data safe. When it's stored in their computing facilities, the data is often arranged so that a thief can't make sense of it.

"The files we have are sent and stored in individual small segments, much like puzzle pieces," said AT&T; spokesman Dan Gugler. "That further ensures there will be no unauthorized access."

Some services also take steps to keep passwords protected. Spare Backup doesn't have access to a user's password at all, entrusting that information to a third-party escrow service. If a user forgets his password, he must retrieve it from the third party.

Mozy offers users an option. They can trust the company to keep password information safe, or they can opt to keep their passwords to themselves. If a user can't remember his password and has chosen not to let the company keep it, the data is inaccessible, since it's encrypted so that even the company can't unlock it.