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The Pros and Cons of Online Backup vs. Local Backup

written by: Lee Clemmer•edited by: Bill Bunter•updated: 5/27/2011

You may be considering switching from a local backup solution to an online one. Or perhaps you aren't persuaded that switching from a local solution would ever make sense because of the volume of data you have. So what are the pros and cons of online backup vs. local backup?

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    Backup Choices

    The online backup and remote data backup market has really exploded with solutions and options lately. Several of the contenders are running commercials during prime time--you know competition must be heating up. With so many choices out there, it can be overwhelming to evaluate them all. Questions always include "will this company be around later when I need my data?"

    The other choice is to use a local, on-site backup solution. Backup software running on your PC or server backs up or makes an image of the data on your drives, or more often copies files once then later only copies changed files. What's the best choice? What are the pros and cons of each?

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    Local Backup

    Local, or on-site backup has several strengths. Usually locally connected backup solutions can run far faster than Internet or Wireless network bandwidth allows. FireWire and USB 2.0 run at 480 and 400 Mbps respectively, much faster than any broadband link. Local LAN speeds are commonly Gigabit (1000 Mbps). This is likely both the greatest strength for local backup and the greatest weakness for online backup. For home users, the upload speed of their link to the Internet is far slower than their download speed. Backing up can be orders of magnitude slower using an online solution!

    Local backup, like the solutions from ioSafe, can offer disaster proof enclosures that are safe from fire or flooding. Even if your PC or server is a total loss, your data can be recovered in full. If you purchase a disk-based system and know how much space you need (or estimate very well) you pay once. This is another strength. On the other hand, if you add and create many files, you may find that you must purchase additional media or a larger model of the backup device.

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    Online Backup

    Backing up remotely, online, via the Internet has a couple of great strengths, especially for home users, students, and roaming laptop users. This is the ability to back up wherever you are, whenever you are connected to the Internet. There is no need to haul a backup device or media around with you, have it connected, and run a backup session every day. Online backup solutions check for and send changed files over the net whenever your PC is idle, (or at a time you select). Local solutions could do this too, of course, but then you must have the storage device with you, and connected all the time. A related big strength is the ability to restore from anywhere that you have Internet access, anytime.

    Robert Ellison, CEO of Cucku describes some of their online backup options:

    "Cucku Backup supports external, network, flash and many other devices. Cucku supports removing unwanted files from both local and remote backups. You can purge files that have been deleted and also files that are no longer included in the backup set. This prevents the common irritation of needing to start a backup from scratch in order to reduce the backup size. For remote backup Cucku allows you to send backups on an external hard drive and then new and changed files over the Internet, repeated if needed. This hybrid approach solves the upload speed problem inherent in most online backup products."

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    The Future

    Storage requirements for our data increase all the time. Storage media increase enormously in size as well. Digital photos and videos as means of communication and capture of any event fill our drives and removable media. Feature-rich document formats increase storage requirements with every new option added. Programs and operating systems grow larger and larger. Demands for the ability to recall any version of a document since its creation become prevalent. How will backup technologies continue to support these ever-growing needs?

    A byte-for-byte disk-based backup option has long been surpassed by compression, only-changed-file backup, and backup of only the different information or "delta" bytes or blocks (data deduplication). Can the best of these techniques keep up with our needs? And can network bandwidth perform well enough to continue as total data requirements increase? The best online backup solutions allow for shipment of disks or other media for the initial transfer of backup data. What else is in store in the future? Time will tell.

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    A Note on Backup Storage Space

    HP and others have begun promoting their products' capability for data "deduplication". Often in businesses (and even for home users) there are many files that are identical, just in different locations. The files have usually already been backed up at least once. Some backup software notes this and does not make a 2nd copy (or any additional copies) of files, simply referencing the first. Data deduplication goes beyond this and copies only the blocks of data that are different. Similar files with redundant data share pointers to the same block, copied only once. There is nothing stopping online and remote backup solutions from using this technology, of course.

    Robb Moore, CEO of ioSafe notes "Data storage requirements are growing rapidly - up to 60% and 100% per year in some cases. Because internet speeds are not growing at the same rate, local data storage will increase over time for the foreseeable future. Some estimate that the average home user will have 12 TB in the home by 2014!"

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    Stronger Together Than Apart?

    For the home user and small business there may be a middle road. Robb Moore says: "I see disaster proof hardware as an option to be used along with replication, internet cloud backup and offsite data vaulting wherever appropriate... Some business applications will migrate to the cloud but local storage trends are increasing - not decreasing. As internet speeds increase, the human tendency is to hoard more data not reduce data storage."

    I expect many of you are doing something like this right now, since you may have an external hard drive you use for backup, and at the same time you are trying out one of the online backup solutions like Mozy or Cucku. This may be the strongest backup strategy possible for many of us. A drive image of our system disk and programs made with an external, portable hard drive, combined with online backup of our documents, photos, and all our other data. We can restore what's online wherever we are, whenever we need it. With our local backup we don't have to reinstall the whole system and every program if the hard drive crashes.

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    More Information

    To learn more about online backup options see my articles on how to use Mozy, and the top three online backup solutions. Also check out our reviews of Mozy's MozyHome Remote Backup, Cucko Social Backup and the ioSafe Solo disaster-proof external hard drive.