Evaluating Online Backup Services

Online Backup Services are the by far the most effective way for business and home computer users to backup their important data to an offsite facility. Tape backup systems are no longer the most cost effective or reliable solutions. Backing up data to portable disks, CDs, and DVDs works but has some serious drawbacks when it comes to offsite storage, security and data retention. New remote backup services are coming online every month. Everyone who stores important data on computers who does not have professional IT support should be evaluating online backup services, if they are not already using one.

Below are some guidelines and important features of online data backup services that should be considered selecting a provider:


This may be the single most important area that should be examined when evaluating an online data backup service provider. You obviously don't want your data stored on a web server somewhere on the Internet where it can be accessed by hackers, identity thieves, or any other unauthorized persons or entities. Almost all online data backup services provide basic levels of security that will prevent most exposures. Most of the online backup services will provide information about their data storage facilities on their websites. There are two distinct types of security that you should be looking for.
  • Physical Security - the better online service providers locate their servers in secure co-location facilities. This provides excellent security for physical access to the hardware. Co-location centers provide power, bandwidth, and environmental controls to companies who lease space in their facilities. These facilities are utilized by most large companies as well as online service providers of all kinds. Good co-location facilities control access to the equipment and also use surveillance so that all access is monitored and recorded. When evaluating an online backup service, make sure the data is stored in professionally managed facilities. The server room in some leased office space is not usually secure enough to be used for online data backup. You also should be aware that some of the newer online backup services are being offered by companies who have traditionally been in another business, and they may be storing your data in facilities that were not designed for online backup services.

  • Data Security - Firewalls are commonly used to protect servers and systems from unauthorized access and attacks from the Internet. All Internet service providers, including online data back up services use firewalls for basic and fundamental protection against attacks. Online data backup service providers need another level of protection to ensure that customer data is never disclosed either intentionally or accidentally. Data that is stored offsite should always be encrypted using modern and strong encryption technology. SSL is not adequate protection. SSL encrypts data while it is being transmitted, but does not offer any protection against someone gaining access to the stored data. It is absolutely essential that your data be stored in encrypted form. Do not compromise on this. Many of the online data backup service store data in encrypted form and many store data in unencrypted form. This should be stated clearly on the service providers website. Some of the better online data backup services allow you to maintain your encryption key without ever providing it to the service provider. This is an excellent way to ensure that your data is never made available to any unauthorized person, not even an employee of the service provider or a technician at the data center. It is highly recommended that you select an offsite data storage service that stores your data using strong encryption and they do not have your encryption key.


Online data backup service providers can suffer the same hardware, software, and equipment failures as any other business. If you are going to rely on one of these providers to safeguard your data in case you have a loss of data, then you want to know that your will be available when you need it. Offsite backup storage facilities should use redundant hardware to ensure that your data will not be lost in the event of a disk or hardware failure at their facilities. Your data should be stored on redundant disk arrays at a minimum. The better online data backup services not only store your data on RAID arrays with hot spare disk, but they also replicate the data to secondary facilities to protect data in the event of loss of the entire primary facility.

Incremental Backup

All online data backup services use incremental backup to reduce bandwidth requirements. Only new files and files which have changed since the last backup need to be backed up. There are some online storage providers that were not originally designed to be data backup systems that do not directly support incremental backup. Online storage providers are different than online backup providers in that they offer a certain amount of storage on a remote server or storage system that their customers can use for anything they want to. Some online storage providers market their products as online backup solutions, but they don't have the full functionality needed to be an effective backup solution.

Delta Backup

Incremental backup limits the files copied to the offsite storage facilities to the new and modified files. Delta backup technology takes incremental to whole new level. With delta backup technology, only modified parts of large files are transmitted to the server. Email databases are a great example; the entire file may be multiple gigabytes in size, but only a small part of it changes on a daily basis. Rather than backup the entire file, only the sections that have changed are actually sent offsite where they can be assimilated into the entire file. In recent years delta file technology has become extremely efficient and reliable. If you have a need to backup large files that change frequently to an offsite data storage service, then you will find that delta backup technology is a must have.


Most backup solutions, traditional and online, provide some kind of automated scheduling mechanism to help ensure that backup jobs are run on a consistent schedule. One huge advantage to using an online data backup system to backup data to offsite storage facilities is the fact that it can be 100% automated. No backup system that involves removable media can be completely automated. While almost all true online backup services provide a way to schedule backups, there are many online storage providers that are being marketed as online backup systems which do not automatically backup your files. Eliminating human intervention, eliminates a major source of failed backups and failed backup policies. For the most reliable backups, select a service that automatically backups up your files without any need for human intervention.


Online data backup services have various policies on file retention. Some retain old and deleted files for 7 days or 30 days. Others allow for the extension of the retention period for a fee. Depending on your situation, you may have requirements for the retention of backup data. You should evaluate online and offsite data backup services to ensure that your data can be retained at the offsite facilities to meet your requirements. The better backup services allow the customer to set their own retention policies according to their needs. Some of the online services even allow the customer to specify elaborate retention policies that allow for end-of-month, end-of-quarter, and end-of-year backups to be retained for specific periods of time.

Continuous Backup

While most of the true online backup services allow for schedules to be set so that backup jobs will run automatically according to a schedule. Some of the services are providing a continuous backup system, where changed files are backed up immediately as soon as they are saved. There may be situations where this is warranted, but be aware that the processes that are running on the computer to monitor all file changes and perform backups while you are working on your computer do levy a price in terms of overhead and performance. Some online backup systems offer a good compromise to this level of backup, in that you can schedule multiple backups to occur at various times during the day. Rather than monitor all file activity and start backups immediately, they wake up and check at predetermined times to see if any files need to be backed up. This is usually much more efficient and less likely to affect performance.


You should never assume that no news is good news when it comes to backing up your data. Automation of backups is essential to eliminating the manual procedures that often break down over time, leaving data vulnerable. Automation must be complemented by a notification system to alert the appropriate persons when backups fail. In addition to notifications of errors, online backup systems have the unique ability to notify you when the backup job itself does not run. This is a significant advantage to using a professional online backup service. When your computer fails to contact the backup system and perform a scheduled backup, the server systems at the offsite data storage facilities should notify you that a scheduled backup was missed. A good email notification system is an important component of an online backup system.

Price / Plans

Finally, pricing and plans. While price is important to most of us, it shouldn't be the primary factor in selecting an online backup service provider. Having reliable backup copies of your data in a high-security and high-reliability offsite data storage facility should be the primary concern. Most of the features discussed above are essential to ensuring that your data will be secure and available when needed. With that said, there are widely varying prices of services available. You should determine the type of service that meets your requirements and then shop around for the best value.

Be aware that some services may have hidden costs that are not apparent in their pricing and plans. Some providers charge fees for bandwidth utilization, others charge fees for restores, and yet some use bandwidth throttling to keep their costs down. Another factor that can have a significant impact on the price is how the provider charges for storage, some providers quote storage allocations assuming that you certain data compression ratios will be achieved. We prefer the providers that allocate the amount of storage that you pay for and then let you store compressed files in the space you paid for.


Backing up computer data should be taken seriously. Online data backup services are an effective and reliable way to handle offsite backup. The cost is usually very affordable compared to using traditional methods. All online service providers are not the same. You should determine which features and criteria are needed to meet your requirements and then visit the websites of the providers to find a service that meets your needs. There are a number of reasonably price providers that are very good.

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