File Sync is Not Backup

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4-Step Computer Security Upgrade

Learn to encrypt your files, secure your computer when using public Wi-Fi, enable two-factor authentication, and use good passwords.

If you are relying on a file sync service like Dropbox or SugarSync as your cloud backup, cut it out. It isn’t backup, and you are putting your data at risk. File sync is not backup.

Fortunately, it only takes a few minutes to improve your backup strategy. Read this post, then take a few minutes to properly set up both cloud backup and local backup.

File sync is not backup

Think about what sync means: if you delete a file on one computer, it is deleted from every computer you’ve synced up, and from the cloud. So if something causes all your files on one computer to disappear, you lose them everywhere. That’s what sync is all about. File sync services sync all changes, including deletions.

Backup works differently. With backup, your files are copied to a backup drive or service, and they stay there until you delete or overwrite them. Changes you make to the files on your computer (such as deleting your /Notes folder right before trial) don’t result in changes to your past backup. You can always go restore files from your last backup.

With incremental backup — the usual method — each backup builds on the one before it, so you have a record of changes (as of the date of each backup) going back as far as your drive can store. Dedicated cloud backup services like CrashPlan (the one I use to back up my family’s computers as well as my work computers) may even store an unlimited number of incremental backups.

Using file sync services for backup

File sync services like Dropbox actually aren’t quite so strict as to immediately delete your files everywhere. Dropbox saves changes to your files going back 30 days, which means that if you discover a problem within 30 days, you can restore the file(s) you need. Since you are just as likely to realize you are missing files on day 31 as on day 29, this just isn’t enough. I often don’t discover a missing file until well beyond 30 days. (SugarSync has a similar feature; it saves the most-recent 5 versions of a file. I can’t tell what that means for deleted files, though.)

With Dropbox, you can pay for the “Packrat” option ($39/year), which stores your files forever. It’s a good deal, and it transforms Dropbox into a perfectly good cloud backup option — although a dedicated cloud backup service like CrashPlan offers several additional security layers. (SugarSync may have something similar to Dropbox’s Packrat option, but I couldn’t tell from the website.)

If you use Dropbox and don’t use any other cloud backup service, take a minute to sign up for the Packrat option (or whatever is equivalent on your file sync utility of choice). Or else sign up for Crashplan.

Always have at least 2 backups in at least 2 locations

While having cloud (or some other remote) backup is important, it isn’t enough on its own. You should also back up your files to a local drive, too. You don’t need fancy software; the built-in backup utilities for Windows and OS X are perfectly good. All you need is an external hard drive (or an extra internal hard drive) to hold your backed-up files. Set your backup to run daily.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/90124154@N00/2976288086/)

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  • Would Google’s Cloud Connect plugin for Word count as a backup (for those files)? It seems to save new versions of the document into your Google Drive every time you make a change. I don’t think it deletes any of those unless you go into Drive to delete them (which I would never do, since I don’t go into Drive).

    I didn’t realize the Packrat option was so reasonable, though. I’ll probably add it now anyway.

    • If it only backs up your Word files, it’s not adequate.

  • Coleen Barger

    I thought this sounded good, at only $39.00 a year, but when I checked into it, I found that it’s not available to those of us using the Dropbox free account. You have to upgrade to Dropbox Pro at a minimum, which will cost you at least $9.99/month.

    So here’s what I’ve been doing (and will keep doing). For those things I don’t want to lose or for those things that I want to keep older versions of, I create a “Drafts” folder within my main folder for the topic. I put previous versions in there, named and organized by date. And then I make it a practice not to delete a “Drafts” folder.

    • This doesn’t sound like a backup plan at all.

    • That’s entirely insufficient, and if anything ever happened, I can’t imagine how it would not be considered negligent. My malpractice carrier would drop me if I did that – they require you to have at least one backup.

      That sucks about Dropbox, though. While $40/year sounded great, bumping it to $160 doesn’t. I’d rather take that and get an external hard drive.

  • Dan

    Doesn’t standard Dropbox still keep deleted files for 30 days? I know that’s not a long term backup, but it’s not just a sync.

    • Didn’t I say that in the post?

      • Dan

        You sure did. My apologies for not reading carefully… great article Sam, thanks.

  • What do you use to backup your emails? I was thinking either Office 365 or Google Apps but I’m not sure if this is the correct way of going about it.

    • How would you use those services to back up your email? I wasn’t aware that they have a backup function.

      • Dan

        A lot of people assume using 365 or Google Apps takes care of backup for you… in a sense, your data IS probably safer on Microsoft or Google’s servers, but it is still a good idea to backup the data you have in their respective Clouds. Even if they have data redundancy.

        For 365, if you use Outlook, it’s easy to backup Outlook data locally or with a service. For Google Apps, there are backup services out there, using imap or pop3 with your own computer then back that up is perhaps the easiest and most affordable.

        • You can also use Google Apps Sync for Microsoft Outlook® and have a complete backup of everything you’ve ever sent and received – on multiple computers. Nice post – I didn’t know about the ‘Packrat’ option for DropBox.

  • PETER J. NICKITAS

    Does anyone have a comment on “egnyte”?

    Does anyone have any comment to offer on a cloud-based back-up system that complies with local rules of professional conduct?