Online Backup or Local: Which is Best?

Category: Backup

When it comes to backups, you have two fundamental choices: local or online backup. Local means making backup copies on removable or external media that you keep nearby. With online backup, you're transferring your files over the Internet to a remote server. Here are the pros and cons for online backup, local backups, and two things you MUST back up, in addition to your hard drive...

The Best Way to Back Up Your Files

There are trade-offs when considering online backup or a do-it-yourself approach in your home or office. Local backup is secure while you are doing it. When you copy data from your computer to a DVD, a flash drive, or an external hard drive, no one else can steal it. Local backup is faster than online backup, because your Internet connection is not nearly as fast as your backup drive's data transfer rate. The initial full backup with an online backup service Mozy or Carbonite can take days or weeks, depending on how much data you have, and the speed of your Internet connection.

The downside of local backup is mainly before and after the actual backup process. Adhering to a regimen of regular, orderly backup sessions is hard for many people. Keeping multiple backup sets adds clutter and work. If you backup on DVDs, you have to swap discs, label them, put them in protective sleeves, and find someplace safe to store them. And if you use an external hard drive, should you have more than one backup image? Is it best to have daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly backups?

Backup Online or Local Backups?

When you need to restore data from backup copies, there is the problem of remembering where the right discs are. And there's always the question of what happens in the event of a fire or flood. Keeping your backup media in a fire-proof safe is a good idea, but safes can be stolen. If you keep your backup copies in a safety deposit box or an off-site location, the time and hassle of retrieving them can be significant.

One good strategy is to make backups to a set of external hard drives. One stays connected to the computer for automatic daily backups, and one stays in a fire-proof safe. Once a month, you swap them. This way, you always have a complete, up-to-the minute backup, and another one that's safely stored away and at most a month old.

If you need help getting started with a local backup regimen, see my related articles Free Backup Software, and Five Easy Backup Drives for tips and recommendations.

What About Online Backups?

Online backup services eliminate many of these hassles. You can configure backup sessions to run when your computer is otherwise idle, and backups will be made even if you forget about them. When you need to restore selected data, a Web interface helps you find the right backup copy and choose just the file(s) you want to restore.

So what's not to like about online backup? Cost is the first downside of online backup. Most online backup solutions give you a few gigabytes of backup storage space for free to get you to try them. But for a complete system backup, five gigabytes or even ten is often not enough. Then you have to pay monthly storage fees which can range from ten dollars upward.

Security is another big concern. But I'd argue that the online servers used to store copies of your files are MORE secure than the typical home or office environment. Online backup services employ strong encryption, 24/7 physical security, and have plans to protect against fire, flood and other natural disasters. They're also certified and audited by independent agencies. Chances are, the computer in your home is much more vulnerable. See my related article Are Online Backup Services Safe? for a more complete discussion on how online backup providers keep your data safe.

Speed is another consideration. The online backup process can run while you are asleep, but when you need to restore data you usually want it in a hurry. Even if you subscribe to the fastest broadband service available, Internet traffic jams can slow your online backup and restore sessions to a crawl. And if you need to restore a full backup, the sheer volume of data will make this a lengthy affair.

Mozy and CrashPlan both offer a service that helps you avoid the long wait times when making your initial backup, or if you need to do a full restore. They'll send you an external hard drive for your first backup. After you mail it back, all your backups are incremental, over the Internet. And if you need to restore an entire disk (or just a lot of data) you can have your backup drive sent by overnight mail.

Some online backup services to try include Mozy, Carbonite, iDrive, and CrashPlan. Check out my article comparing these offerings in Carbonite, Mozy, or Crashplan? Then try one or more, taking advantage of their free storage allowances, until you find one that suits your needs.

My Backup Strategy, and Other Considerations

Personally, I use a hybrid approach which combines both local backups and online backup. Using external hard drives, I make a full backup weekly, with daily incrementals. I then make separate backups of selected important files and folders. And I also backup my backup, so it's never just in one place. That's where the online backup component of my strategy comes into play. You can read more about how I do all this in Save Your Bacon With Acronis True Image Backup.

Oh, and don't forget that your hard drive is just one part of the backup task. Your webmail, social media accounts, and everything on your mobile phone needs protection, too. See Have You Backed Up Your Online Accounts? and How to Backup Your Smartphone for help completing your backup strategy.

Got something to say about backup options? Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Online Backup or Local: Which is Best?"

Posted by:

Lady Adellandra
04 Oct 2013

I use a variety of both. Yes, I have local -- and a lot of them I update every month. Yes, I have online -- SkyDrive, Google Drive, Amazon Drive (that came with my Kindle), Box and even Dropbox. For those installers or files I need but no longer use, I have either 4Shared or ADrive (50 Gig isn't bad for free!). These update and sync as they go, although SkyDrive on Win8.1 still doesn't sync correctly, so I must do it manually with GoodSync (or another syncing program.) For local DVDRs I keep them in a DVD book, like the ones you'd use for keeping physical copies of CDs or DVDs without cases.

Posted by:

04 Oct 2013

Hi Bob,
As a regular reader of your Newsletter I backup once a week with "Clickfree C6 500GB" it does it using USB connection. Have you any experience with "Clickfree"?
I have been using it for about three years and had no problems, so far!!!!! Please let me know what you think of Clickfree.

EDITOR'S NOTE: I actually recommended that drive in the "Five Easy Backup Drives" link. :-)

Posted by:

04 Oct 2013

Boy, Oh Boy!
You'd be a bazillionaire for all this invaluable information that you provide to us. But only if the money tree dropped down cash on your lap, for each topic that you share!

If I may add three tidbits to your great information, they would be: 1)Encrypting the back-up data should be seriously considered for the worrisome crowd. 2)Proper "file naming convention" for all of the back-ups becomes very critical, from the onset of creating files and prior to the effort of backing them up. 3)There really should be a two-tiered approach to the back-up plan/process; where the first set is a true 'back-up' and the second set is truly an "archive"! The problem, then, becomes whether the back-up or the archive belongs locally or online! Cheers!

Posted by:

04 Oct 2013

I use file hystory with Windows 8. It is automatic and very reliable. I have pluged a 1To USB HD in my router. I also use Skydrive espacially to save a copie of the photos of what I own for insurrance proof. Excuse my English it is not my mothertongue.

Posted by:

Dave S
04 Oct 2013

I have been using Carbonite for a few years. True, the initial backup takes a LONG LONG time, but I don't have to worry about my external hard drive getting zapped or crashing, heaven forbid a fire or flood or something natural catastrophe which may ruin my local backups.

Carbonite has been a life saver for me for two hard drive crashes and also when I've been away from my computer at a remote location and needed to access a few it's been great for that as well.

Posted by:

05 Oct 2013

I use Crashplan which is free for local backups (which include external HD, another computer on your local network, or to another friend's computer over the internet.) You only pay to store your data on their cloud servers.

Unfortunately I'm in year 3 of a 4-year subscription and they DRAMATICALLY increased prices since I subscribed, so when I renew I'm going to pay a LOT more. Google "crashplan price increase" to read more about that.

I supposed price increases are a risk with any cloud backup service. Even ones that offer a few gigs "free" today might start charging for them tomorrow. Caveat emptor.

Posted by:

06 Oct 2013

I have been using Memeo Instant Backup. It can as a free backup software program with the purchase one of my portable hard drives. I have had to do one reinstall and found it satisfying. What I like about it is that it instantly backs up any new documents or items that have been saved on my computer so I don't have to remember to run the backup program. The other thing I like is I can click on the backup in the connected portable hard drive and click through the completed backup and see a specific file. In other words, the backup isn't blocked from my view by a software overlay (this isn't the correct term but when I used Retrospect, all I could see was their blue icon and not actually the file unless I restored it). When I first started using Memeo I would check to see if a specific file was backed up. Now I trust it and don't worry about it. I have seen others online comments about not liking Memeo but it seems ok for me. It isn't the entire system but I may go with ordering the Memeo Premium which appears to let you choose what to back up and even backup your entire system. Plus it was really simple to use. Anyone have negative comments or more to add, please let me know.

Posted by:

Sumon Ali
08 Oct 2013

Living in an area that is prone to natural disasters as Hard drive crashes, spilled drinks, and accidental file deletion can occur at any time and put your company’s future in jeopardy. So my motto is Online Backup that’s why I use the cloud to do that. My choice is securstore because it is set it and forget. My wife can edit a picture, change a narrative and I do not need to worry about when is the last time I moved her things to the external hard drive.

Posted by:

01 Nov 2013

There's also Backblaze.

Posted by:

Lady Fitzgerald
03 Jun 2017

I also use a hybrid strategy. In addition to four backup drives (two onsite and two offsite) for each data drive in my computer, I also have a basic Carbonite account. I have the Carbonite backup primarily to recover data that was added or changed after the last time I updated my offsite backups but, if the absolute worst was to happen, I can recover all my important data from Carbonite (it just would take much longer). I also use the account to access data when I'm on the road and have a secure internet connection since my notebooks don't have enough room to carry all my data (nor do I want to carry all my data for security reasons).

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