One of the most common pieces of advice for people who use personal computers is that it's important to make backup copies of all important data. That was once normally done using floppy disks, but for most people that's no longer practical: On my 3-gigabyte system, that would require more than 2,000 diskettes.
The alternative is tape, cartridges or removable hard disk systems such as the Zip drive. But they can be cumbersome and expensive, and unless you take the trouble to store the backed-up data away from your computer, they don't protect against those all-too-common California disasters: fire, flood, earthquake or burglary.
Now the Internet is beginning to serve as a new backup medium--and the many who rely on faith that their hard drives will never crash now have even fewer excuses for avoiding a tedious but important task. Several companies are offering Internet-based backup services priced to compete with the cost of backing up on tape or cartridge.
SafeGuard Interactive Inc. (http://www.sgii.com) and Connected Corp. (http://www.connected.com) each allows you to back up all or part of your hard disk via a standard Internet connection. Both services assume you already have an account with an Internet provider.
If you download the software from its Web site, SafeGuard charges $119 for it and a year's worth of service. Starting in August, the company will offer its new SafeGuard Interactive Backup software at retail outlets for $29.99, including three months of service (each additional month costs $9.95).
The pricing strategy makes it affordable to back up your entire hard disk, regardless of its size. But there's a catch: It generally takes about 10 hours to perform an initial backup of a gigabyte of data, according to SafeGuard President Bill Krewin. Subsequent backups are much faster because the system transmits only the files that have changed.
The service uses another interesting trick to save time and storage costs. When you transmit a program file--such as Microsoft Word--it checks to see if there is an identical file anywhere on SafeGuard's machines. If so, it just uploads a token, which tells the system that you have that file. There is no reason to upload it again, because it's already stored.
Because of this trick, SafeGuard was able to back up my 68-megabyte Microsoft Office directory in a few minutes rather than the five hours it would take (at 28,800 bits per second) if it had to transmit the actual files.
The data is stored at a 10,000-square-foot secured facility in Pittsburgh and is encrypted using DES, which protects it from all but the most sophisticated hackers. By default, you can restore the data only to the machine that was used to transmit it in the first place, although it is possible to make special arrangements to restore it to another computer by calling the company and verifying your identity.
Should your computer crash completely or if you just want your own extra copy of your data, the company will send you the data on a CD-ROM for $14.95, which includes overnight shipping.
At $9.95 a month for unlimited storage, SafeGuard offers a very affordable alternative to traditional backup systems, considering the price of a tape or cartridge backup system plus the cost of purchasing multiple backup tapes or cartridges.
Connected, which is aimed primarily at corporate users, uses a somewhat different approach. You download the software for free and, after a free month of trial service, pay $14.95 a month. There is no charge for storage, but there is a fee if you transmit more than 50 megabytes a month.
That's not as bad as it seems, for several reasons. First, it really isn't necessary to back up your software, because you already have the original CD-ROMs and floppies. With the exception of video and very large graphic files, data files tend to be a lot smaller than software, so you may not have nearly as much data to back up as you think.
Second, like SafeGuard, the company uses compression to minimize what you need to transmit. Finally, it has a clever system that backs up only the portion of the files that change after you do an initial backup. I tested this by backing up a 1-megabyte graphic file, making a minor change and backing it up again.
The second time, the system backed up only a kilobyte--1% of the original file. The same test with a 700K word file yielded a 90% reduction on the modified version. Connected has two mirrored storage sites in different parts of the Northeastern U.S. For security reasons, the company does not disclose the location of its data-storage sites.
Both Connected and SafeGuard offer easy-to-use software, but I found Connected's service considerably faster.
A downside to either company's strategy is that you are relying on the Internet for both backups and restoration. Should there be a problem on the Internet itself, on one of the company's servers or with your connection to the Net, you might have a problem when trying to back up or restore data.
One advantage to this strategy, however, is that your data are not only more secure than they would be at your home or office, but they are available to you when you're on the road.
Connected gives you an account password that you can use from any machine. SafeGuard requires you to call its customer-support department if you're using the system from another machine.
Even if you don't subscribe to one of these services, you can use the Internet to back up critical files.
I don't do this with every file, but every few weeks I'll take my Quicken financial data files and compress them and password-protect them into a single file using PKZIP or WinZip. I then e-mail that file to a friend. He stores it on a floppy disk at his office and will return it to me should disaster strike.
Lawrence J. Magid can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. His Web page is at http://www.larrysworld.com