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Ten years ago an external hard drive – or even a physical disc such as a CD-ROM – was the only practical way to back up files. Consumer-grade network storage solutions were primitive, expensive and hard to use. Cloud storage? What’s cloud storage?
More choice is great, but it also brings a dilemma. What should you choose to handle your backups? Is there one solution that’s clearly the best? Let’s apply some thought to this problem and see what comes out ahead.
Before we can gauge backup solutions we first have to decide the metrics we’re judging them by. I think there are four details that are important.
This one is obvious. An inexpensive solution is better than an expensive one if everything else is equal.
How much can you realistically store? A backup solution that can’t contain all your files is ineffective and annoying.
How quickly can you create a backup and restore from it? This is an ease-of-use issue and also a functionality concern when backing up large amounts of data.
What’s the chance that your backup will be destroyed or lost? Can it be stolen, erased, or lost in a disaster?
This article is looking at backup solutions from a satellite view. It’s not meant to help you find a specific product but instead decide what category of backup solution is best for you. Now, on to the contenders.
The undisputed champion of backups of years, external hard drives are still popular but now have serious competition. Is this still you best bet?
External hard drive prices change over time but are currently sitting at around $100 for 1TB of storage. This is by far the cheapest solution in terms of capacity-per-dollar.
This is another high point of the external hard drive. Though the 1TB drive is currently the volume leader, there are drives in 2TB, 3TB and even 4TB capacities. Only one other option can offer more.
Today’s external hard drives have mostly transferred over to USB 3.0, which is extremely quick. Even at USB 2.0 speeds are fine – a typical example with a typical drive will net you around almost a gigabyte per minute, which is faster than most any other choice.
External hard drives are vulnerable to theft, physical destruction and hacking. They aren’t particularly secure unless encrypted.
NAS is the cousin of the hard drive, but it connects to a network directly. Some options can handle everything over Wi-FI while others have to plug in to a router.
A decent NAS unit can easily run over $200 before any hard drives are installed in it. Some hard drive manufacturers are now selling external hard drives with network adapters as a poor man’s NAS, but reviews of such product aren’t great.
NAS can meet or exceed the capacity of an external hard drive. The largest units, which are designed with enterprise solutions in mind, can 8TB, 16TB, 32TB or even more.
Network hardware is usually the limitation on speed. Data can be transferred quickly with the best Gigabit adapters or a strong 802.11n. A weak network, on the other hand, can slow transfer speeds to far less than a gigabyte per minute.
Like an external hard drive, this solution is vulnerable to theft, physical destruction and hacking.
The new kid on the block, cloud storage offers traits that are opposite of the physical storage options. Let’s see how it stacks up.
Cloud storage services charge by the month. A small account with around 10 gigabytes will cost about $10. Storage in the hundreds of gigabytes can cost $50 or more per month. Capacity-per-dollar is clearly not the strong point of cloud storage.
It’s possible to purchase cloud storage in almost any capacity, as different services offer different plans. Pricing is the limitation.
Your Internet connection is the bottleneck. Many users will find that cloud storage is relatively slow as a result. Also, because most Internet service providers offer lower upload speeds than download speeds, backing up data will usually take longer than restoring it.
Hacking is the main threat to cloud storage. Theft and physical destruction, though possible, are extremely unlikely – and most services claim to implement redundant file storage that protects against disaster. Most issues with hacked accounts occur because of a breach in the user’s security rather than a breach in the service.
Backing up to a physical CD, DVD or Blu-Ray disc seems archaic, but it can still be done, and is an option some users might want to consider.
Individual discs may cost only a few cents or dollars (depending on the format) but the need to constantly buy discs can make this an expensive option over time.
Theoretically there is no limit, but time and money are factors. Most people won’t be able to practically back up more than one hundred gigabytes of data.
The speed at which data is burned varies significantly from one burner to the next. Data transfer rates typically lag USB connections, and even if they did not, the need to switch out discs while backing up data instantly puts this option near the back of the pack.
Physical discs aren’t vulnerable to hacking even when inserted because they can be made read-only. Theft and destruction are potential threats, but discs are small enough to easily secure in a safe or even an off-site lock box. Discs are fairly resistant to impact damage and invulnerable to both water damage and power surges.
These four backup solutions are not the only options, but they’re the only ones I can seriously recommend.
I think the external hard drive remains the overall champion. It is inexpensive, offers plenty of capacity and can quickly handle large backup and/or restore jobs. Most users faced with the question of backing up data should buy an external drive and be done with it.
With that said, both cloud storage and physical media are good choices for backing up important data. Despite fears of hacking, cloud storage is secure overall because it is nearly invulnerable to other threats. Physical media is even more secure but a pain in the butt to use.
Now, geeks, it’s your turn. Based on the criteria listed in this article, what do you think of this verdict? What do you use as your data backup solution? Do you know of an amazing alternative that isn’t listed here? Let us know in the comments.