The Internet has changed a lot of things, but one of the most useful is the new ways in which you can back up your data.
As we've discussed for some weeks now in this series on home-computer security, a good backup and disaster-recovery system is your last line of defense against the growing number of viruses and hacker attacks. Internet backup schemes, available for a fee or improvised for free, are ideal for situations where a modest amount of information, say, less than 100 megabytes, needs to be backed up by a non-professional.
First off, Internet backup gets your data off-site. You're protected not just from computer crashes, viruses and such, but also from fires, floods and anything else that might destroy your home. What once cost corporations a fortune -- trucking tapes to some lead-lined salt cavern -- is now easily achieved by the click of a mouse.
Another advantage: There are no format hassles, and data can be restored to any computer that's connected to the Net.
Lost data on a home system is effortlessly moved to the office or a handy laptop; indeed, you can also use some of these services to store and synchronize a series of common files on two computers.
If your needs are modest and your budget is tight, the best free service may be the one that comes with your Internet account. Many offer a Web site and 20 megabytes of storage. But usually you can store any kind of file in that space. Just get an FTP program (we like WS--FTP, which is free for personal use at www.ipswitch.com). The paid-for professional version ($39.95) includes encryption and scheduling functions that help automate uploads. You could also struggle with Windows built-in FTP utility, wh ich lets you map remote sites as disk drives, but I've always found the feature flaky, slow and unreliable.
Other potential backup services are free. (See www.prospector.cz/Services/Storage--Space for a list.) I like Yahoo here. Besides free 30MB of storage (you can get 50MB more for $29.95 per year), an account also entitles you to e-mail, an online notepad and a customized home page that can include, let's say, news headlines. There's a nifty little program that lets the Yahoo "virtual drive" show up on your desktop. You can also upload your e-mail address book to the mail account, yet another feature tha t will allow you to function from anywhere. And when you don't need the Web-based mail feature, you can forward it to your regular account. If you set all this up correctly, you're still pretty much in business when your main computer goes south.
If you're willing to pay for a remote disk drive, take a look at Xdrive (www.xdrive.com, $4.95 per month for 75MB, $49.95 per gigabyte). The neat thing about this service is that you can access it directly from your computer as a regular disk drive, or use Windows' backup program. This is one of the oldest online disk services, and the software is the most polished out there.
There are also more professional services that are oriented exclusively toward backup; not too surprisingly, they tend to be more convenient for people with lots of important stuff to save. Run a Google search on "online backup services" to get an idea what I mean.
The pick of the bunch here is Connected (www.connected.com), which sells to a lot of Fortune 500 firms. The consumer version of the service costs $6.95 per month for 100MB of space and $14.95 for 4GB of data. As with Yahoo and Xdrive, you download a mini-program that in this case performs backup. A couple of features make it particularly useful. First, it compresses your data automatically befo re sending it. Then it backs up only the data that's changed (the buzzword here is "incremental backup"), not just individual files, but internally as well. In other words, if you edit a paragraph in a word processing document, it will back up the change and modify the original file at the other end. This way, only the first backup of your disk drive takes a long time; subsequent ones are mere updates. You can restore online, or have the data sent to you on CD for $24. For extra security, the data is encrypted before it is sent, and stored in an encrypted format.
On my cable modem my initial 100MB backup took less than half an hour, and a few minutes a day seems sufficient to refresh it.
There's a second form of network backup that is an option in today's increasingly networked households, namely, backup to another computer. Let's say you have two computers. In this scheme, you use Windows' built-in networking to give Annie's computer access to a folder on Dad's computer, which you designate as a remote disk drive. You can now copy files from Annie's computer to this folder on Dad's, or use the built-in backup program. Then do the same thing in the opposite direction, i.e., give Dad's computer access to a folder on Annie's.
One last tip: If you perform a full backup, or a backup in which you include settings and the registry, don't assume (in fact, don't even try) to restore it to a different computer. Odds are the second PC won't work, unless it has identical hardware to the first. Rather, just restore data, e.g. word processing documents, photos, etc., to an alien computer.
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