Some of you may read this title and say, "No duh!" but I think it's worth talking about. From email to pictures to storage, if you're storing your data on somebody else's servers, it probably isn't getting backed up. Let's talk about that.
First, let's talk about email. There are three primary ways that people use ISP-provided email systems. They generally use POP, IMAP, or a web clients. If you use POP, you download the email to your server, then it's your responsibility to back up. If you use IMAP, your email client may or may not have an offline copy on your computer, but the main idea of IMAP is to leave the email on the email server. If you use a web client, then your email definitely stays ONLY on the backup server. If you're using either of the latter two methods, your data is on their servers.
Next, there are all these picture services. They now sell cameras (and a nifty Wi-Fi SD card ) that will automate uploading your pictures to their site. They make it easy to share your pictures with friends, which is great. But once again, you now have the possibility of having all your important data on somebody else's servers.
Many sites also offer storage services. They make it easy to upload files to their servers. Some even have software you can load on your PC to make their systems appear as a drive letter on your computer, making it even easier to store your data (and often the only copy of your data) on their servers.
The summary statement is that if you are a typical user, you could have everything from your email to every photo you've ever taken stored somewhere other than your site. You might think that data is getting backed up — and it may be — but my research is showing that you might be surprised if something bad were to happen. Your data could be gone forever.
What started my interest inm this was this story about a large ISP (Charter) that deleted 14,000 users' email accounts and had no backup of them. They're offering each user $50. I hope every one of them take it. That amounts to a $700,000 cost to Charter for not doing something I think they should have been doing all along.
This started me wondering. Do ISPs back up email? What about other online sites? It turns out, well, not so much. Some don't back up at all — claiming it's just too expensive. Some say that they back up but they don't take those backups offsite. In the "smoking crater" scenario, all their customers would just lose their emails. One company said they don't back up users' accounts because they don't want to be named in an electronic discovery request for a user's emails. Now there's an interesting twist.
Now, for the price you're paying, maybe you can't complain. You're only paying $10-$50 month for your ISP. You're not paying gmail or those picture services anything. Just what you did you think you were getting for your money? Actually, most of these companies have documented that they don't back up your data in the contract they gave you that you didn't read. It says something like "we are under no obligation to protect, back up, or recover you data if it disappears." If that was in the Charter policy, then their users can't sue. But if it wasn't, I hope somebody sues their pants off. Feel free to contact me to be an expert witness for the plaintiff.
What's the reality out there? Talk to your ISP/photo site/storage server and find out what they're doing to protect your data, and what would happen if they did like Charter did and deleted your account, or the server your account was on caught on fire. Let me know what you find out.
I have this crazy notion that if you're going to store people's data, you have a responsibility to safeguard it. Charge me for it, sure. But don't take my data, hold on to it, and then not back it up! Are you kidding me? Some of my techy friends say I don't understand the ISP business — that there's no business justification for backing up email. Part of the problem is that you often don't get a choice of broadband ISPs, so they know you can't go to someone else even if you're ticked off. (Some have a choice between DSL, Cable, and FIOS.) But if all the other ISPs do the same thing, then so what?
My biggest problem is that the average doesn't know all this, and they're going to be screwed just like those 14,000 people if something happens to their data. So that's the main purpose of this blog entry: to get the truth out there.
The only answer that I have is what I've already given in my previous "Friends and Family" blog entry. Keep your data on your own computer and figure out some way to automate backing it up to somebody else's servers. (Use mozy.com for Windows & Mac data and Jungledisk and Amazon's S3 for Linux data.) Even if mozy or S3 do something stupid and lose your data, at least all they are losing is your backup — not your only copy.
There. I feel better now.
----- Signature and Disclaimer -----
Written by W. Curtis Preston (@wcpreston). For those of you unfamiliar with my work, I've specialized in backup & recovery since 1993. I've written the O'Reilly books on backup and have worked with a number of native and commercial tools. I am now Chief Technologist at Druva, the leading provider of cloud-based data protection and data management tools for endpoints, infrastructure, and cloud applications. These posts reflect my own opinion and are not necessarily the opinion of my employer.