A Cyberspace Safe Deposit Box

Online backups like Connected's DataSafe secure your files before a costly crash

If you use your computer for any sort of work, from running a business to keeping track of your personal investments and finances, odds are that the files on your hard drive are worth a great deal more than the machine itself. So of course you go to some lengths to protect that valuable information.

Following the advice of experts, you copy all your files to tape weekly. You run daily backups of new or modified files. And you keep a recent copy of the complete backup in a bank vault, safe from fire, flood, or theft.

You don't? You shouldn't feel too bad. Hardly anyone does.

Fortunately, protecting vital data has gotten a lot easier. New online services can automate the job of backing up your most valuable files and store them in the computer equivalent of a safe-deposit box. I've spent a fair amount of time with Connected Corp.'s DataSafe system (www.connected.com). Similar services are WebStor from McAfee (www.mcafee.com) and Surefind from EIS International Inc. (www.surefind.com).

NIGHT SHIFT. DataSafe's Windows software, downloadable from the Web, schedules automatic backups, normally in the middle of the night. You can connect over the Internet or by dialing into Connected's network. Data are encrypted before transmission, keeping your information safe from prying eyes in transit and in storage on the DataSafe servers.

It's not practical to do a complete online backup of today's huge hard disks. DataSafe assumes that you can find a way to reload software and only tries to protect your data. The initial backup can take several hours--my initial upload of 50 megabytes took about three hours at 28.8 kilobits per second. In subsequent sessions, only the portions of files that have changed--new cells in a spreadsheet or records in a database, for example--are transmitted.

This approach is much faster and has a potentially huge advantage over other methods, such as using a tape drive on your desk. The DataSafe system retains all the information you need to recreate any version of the file, by date. DataSafe allows you to roll back to a spreadsheet that existed before you made revisions last Thursday or to create a complete audit trail of each day's changes.

Restoring data couldn't be easier. Your computer maintains a directory of the files it has backed up and displays them on a screen that looks a lot like Microsoft's Windows Explorer. You can restore single files or entire directories. Multiple versions of the same file are shown in date order, and you pick the one you want. You also can use the service to share data between computers, say your desktop and your laptop. Again, the encryption scheme ensures that you're the only person who can read the file.

Recovery from a disaster, whether it's a disk crash that wipes out your data or a fire that destroys your office, isn't much more complicated. You install the software on your new computer, connect, and DataSafe downloads a directory of the files that you've saved. You can then restore any or all of them.

SLEEP WELL. The DataSafe service costs $15 a month (after a 30-day free trial) for transfer of up to 50 Mb of data, which could be anything from thousands of archived E-mail messages to five high-resolution photos. You will pay another 25 cents per Mb if you use Connected's network rather than the Internet. At those prices, you receive data protection that's the equal of the disaster-recovery programs of large corporations--and you don't even have to pay for tape.

Do you need this service? If you're careful, you may remember to back up regularly and keep the tapes somewhere safe. Or you may get by saving crucial files on floppies or Zip disks. However, unless you're more diligent than most of us, automated, online backups are a nice insurance policy.

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