Should You Back Up Physically or On The Cloud?

The cloud has gotten massive since it first started becoming a phenomenon. In particular, cloud storage seems to be the most interesting (and fastest-growing) service for both the consumer and business markets. As each year passes, bandwidth just keeps getting cheaper. This makes cloud-based storage space more accessible, in some cases, than buying a new hard drive for some people. For those of us who still work heavily with personal computers, though, the external hard drive will always be an option. This leads us to one question: Which one is better?

cloudstorage-cloud

Cloud storage is getting cheaper as each year passes. The monthly fee you pay guarantees you a certain amount of space for your files, which will be stowed away safely in a data center far from your home. There are many advantages to this, of course:

  • You don’t have to invest a lot in the short term. Instead of shelling out $300 on a good high-storage hard disk drive (HDD) or a more expensive, but faster, solid-state drive (SSD), you can pay as little as $15 a month per terabyte of space online.
  • If something terrible happens to your house, your data is still going to be out there. This is especially advantageous if the files you’re saving are important for doing business.
  • You can access your files anywhere by logging in securely to an account without any hassle. Yes, you can do this with physical storage by setting up an FTP server, but it just isn’t going to be as secure as, say, Google Drive.
  • High-quality storage services will store redundant backups of your backups! If something happens to their drive, your data is still safe.

These are all wonderful advantages, but there are lots of caveats involved with cloud storage:

  • In the long term, your investment could surpass the price of a hard drive. Let’s say you pay $15 a month for 1 TB of online storage space. In roughly two years, you will have paid enough to buy yourself a high-end 1 TB hard drive.
  • The data you store is subject to the conditions of an agreement. Some of these agreements can allow the provider to look into your files or turn them over to someone else upon request.
  • You renounce to the absolute control of your data (that is, unless you use third-party encryption before you store it).
  • Uploading and downloading files from your storage provider depend on the connection speed of both you and your provider. The transfer speed, in many cases, is inferior to that of a physical drive.

cloudstorage-tape

So, you’ve seen everything there is to see about cloud storage. I didn’t talk about reliability because, in this day and age, we can at least expect most storage providers to be considerably stable. But there are still reasons you might want to stick to storing all your most important files in a physical drive:

  • Hard drives are getting cheaper. Even in countries that impose several frivolous taxes on electronics (like mine), a decent multi-terabyte hard drive will cost you no more than a few hundred US dollars. Tape storage is even cheaper, allowing you to purchase a 1.6 TB tape for prices as low as $40 (although the drives that read them are quite expensive, clocking in at over $1000).
  • There’s nothing to sign and no account to log in to (unless you are hosting an FTP server for the drive). Just pop the files in and that’s it!
  • All of your files are at your fingertips. This means that you can manipulate the data directly in any way you wish.
  • Transfer speeds are as fast as your drive allows.
  • Take a physical copy of all your data anywhere you want!

As it is with every other facet of life, storing data physically can have disadvantages that the cloud doesn’t:

  • The accessibility of your data is hampered by the fact that it has to be physically accessed. If you want to host your files for others to download, you need to set up an FTP server, which can be clunky. Any way you look at it, sharing your files through a physical drive isn’t as user-friendly as it is on the cloud.
  • In case of a catastrophe that affects your computer, your drive may also be affected. There’s no way out of that!
  • If you back up your data on one drive, and that drive doesn’t want to work anymore after your main system crashes, you’re out of luck (although this is fairly rare, unless we’re talking about a fire or other such disaster).

The conflict between physical and cloud storage will likely never end. There are always going to be reasons why one is better than the other, which always seems to depend on the situation. In general, these are the guidelines you should follow:

Use cloud storage when:

  • Storing very important files you can’t do without, but don’t contain any information that could compromise you or your reputation;
  • Storing files you need to access quickly on many different devices, such as family photos; and
  • Editing collaboratively across multiple points of access, like you would on Google Docs.

Use physical storage when:

  • Storing files that could compromise you in any way;
  • Backing up an entire system; and
  • Storing files permanently without fear of losing them because of a lost fee payment.

Following this formula, you’ll find that both types of storage may overlap more often than not when you’re deciding where to store something. Now, it’s time for you to make an informed decision.

Are you storing your files on the cloud, or dropping them in a physical drive? Tell us what motivated you to make this decision in a comment below!

10 comments

  1. “The data you store is subject to the conditions of an agreement.”
    And the conditions could be changed unilaterally, without notice, by the provider. The user is presented with fait accompli.

    I know how I secure my data and my drives, and who has access to them. I don’t know what the cloud storage provider or his employees are doing with my data. They could be disseminating it in a number of ways. That may be unethical, or even criminal, but if I don’t know about it, there is nothing I can do.

    My drive(s) can undergo a catastrophe along with my house but the same or worse can happen to the cloud providers data center. A natural disaster (tornado, flood, etc.) severe enough to destroy my house will likely destroy or at least damage the data center.

    One negative to cloud storage you did not mention is the provider totally going out of business. How do you get your data back when the company’s assets (in this case, storage devices) are liquidated?

    • This is a great extension to what I’ve said. Thanks for sharing :)

      I don’t like being anecdotal, but I’ve been through two liquidations of cloud storage providers and they both allowed me to retrieve my data for a period of time. Nonetheless, the risk you mention exists.

  2. I backup locally with Acronis true image and off-site via backblaze. The backblaze backups are encrypted with a symmetric key and my private key. I’m covered in multiple circumstances:

    1) If I delete a file I need, or my computer completely fails, I can restore from local backups.
    2) If my house, along with my computer and local backups, is destroyed, I can restore from remote backups. Backblaze will even ship a 4 TB drive with my backups to me.
    3) If backblaze goes under, I still have my computer and local backups. My exposure is minimal because all my data is heavily encrypted.

    In any case, it is very unlikely I’ll have a double failure, and even less likely I’ll have a triple failure.

    • “In any case, it is very unlikely I’ll have a double failure, and even less likely I’ll have a triple failure.”
      Don’t forget Murphy’s Law! :-)

      • If the IRS are to be believed, 7 of their hard drives crashed. Talk about a run of bad luck (or, much more likely, very bad lying).

    • It can get expensive very quickly backing up terabytes of data to USB sticks and SD cards.

  3. Another great article, Miquel. I so, enjoy reading what you have to say. :)

    It took me, a long time, to buy and use an External Drive. I felt, since, I was basically a home user, that backing up wasn’t that important. I know, you don’t have to say it. It wasn’t until, this past 18 months, that I honestly, realized the importance of backing up.

    18 months ago, we leased a home and the lease was done totally, electronically. While, it was a complete time saver, it also, didn’t leave me with a printed copy. So, it was then, that I truly realized, just how important an External Drive would be, for me. Not only do I have a backup of my lease, I also, have a back up of all my confirmations and receipts, for my monthly bills. I can only say, my External Drive has saved me lots of printing and paper!

  4. I have a 4 system back up
    I back-up everything at home on a 1TG HD,
    make a copy on another 1TB HD; I then take that 1TG HD to my banks safety deposit box;
    as well as store files on the cloud encrypted.
    (got to love the size of hard drives now a days compared to 10 years ago even)

    I also use the cloud to keep files when I don’t want to carry a laptop, and can retrieve from other PC (only those I trust, like at my parents when visiting during the holidays), and can access from my cell phone as well as my tablet. Yes I also use USB drives and encrypted files there also, I’ve USB drives failed too, or can get lost or misplaced when I need something rather quick

    With 1TG HD costing under $200.

    Before the cloud, I always had a copy of my back-up offsite (for us old timers, we used this method when backing up our data center, and sending to a 3rd party for storage, and safe keeping)

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