The web apps and services you use are often ephemeral. Your data could disappear in an instant due to an acquisition, failure, or even a domain seizure. Although the cloud offers many advantages, you never know when it may dissipate. Here's how you can safeguard your data in case of a shutdown and select your web apps more frugally to mitigate the risk.
Photo by Steve Parker.
While most companies are good at providing you with a means of migrating your data, that isn't always the case. Some sites, like Oink and Gowalla, are more investments of your time than explicit data. All the reviews you wrote on Oink aren't exactly transplantable and your Gowalla check-ins aren't going to earn you a history on the still-living Foursquare. In the case of the MegaUpload seizure, everyone's data was suddenly unavailable and people had to resort to a law suit to even try to retrieve it. So far there has been no success.
Using a web service is an investment, so you don't want to simply sign up and hope for the best. In this post we're going to take a look at how you can make more informed choices when selecting the webapps you'll use and how you can keep your data safe in case your cloud service of choice disappears.
How To Choose A Webapp Wisely
It's hard to resist an awesome new webapp. They offer enticing one-minute introductory videos and signup only takes a few seconds. Before you know it, that webapp is a part of your routine. This is fine so long as the service survives, but when it doesn't you're in trouble. Making better choices in the beginning can help you avoid shutdowns.
Make sure your data is portable and not locked into the service. If it is, you may not have access to your data in the event of a shutdown. It's a popular trend to allow you to download your data at any time, just in case you want to migrate it somewhere else. Even Facebook does it. Before you sign up for a service, find out if it will let you take your data and leave as well. If not, you'll either need to consider another backup option (which we'll discuss a little later) or consider looking for a different webapp that does.
Sign up for the service, but don't use it for a month. Why? Because you might want to secure a username or see if it's something you want to use eventually. Signing up is often the best way to tackle both of those goals. Just resist the urge to use the webapp right away. Give it a month to see how it fares after the initial excitement wears off. If it still retains an active community and can be useful to you, start using it. If the webapp's activity appears a little anaemic and there's no way to keep your data when it shuts down, you might want to consider moving on to a better alternative.
Don't succumb to the allure of newness. New is exciting, but it isn't necessarily better. Before you commit to using a web service, consider whether you're attracted by its fresh coat of paint or what it can actually do to help you. A lot of webapps try to reinvent the wheel and few succeed. This not only means that the service might not be as revolutionary as it initially seems, but also that there are plenty of well-established and widely-used alternatives out there that are more likely to survive in the long run. Before you commit to a new option, make sure it can do what you want. Compare it to existing, safer services and only sign up for the new one if it really fits you the best.
Back Up Your Cloud Data
Although you can't really back up the investment you make in sites like Gowalla and Oink, webapps that centre around data storage (such as Flickr, Vimeo and Posterous) are great candidates for backup. As with all backups, your ideal goal is to have the data in three places: the original location (which is the webapp you're using), another remote location (somewhere else in the cloud), and on a local disk. The original location is obviously covered, so let's take a look at how you can both keep that data local and in another location.
Where To Keep A Local Copy
If you're uploading photos or videos, keeping a local copy is simple: just save the data to a hard drive. When you share a video on YouTube, make sure you keep a local source copy. When you upload your photos to Flickr, save them to a hard drive as well. This is easy to do but often neglected because the goal -- sharing the media itself -- has been accomplished and keeping a copy nobody will see appears pointless. Making local copies can be a little tedious, but desktop apps can make it easier. Photo management apps, for example, are a great way to keep local copies of your pictures and easily share them online.
Desktop email clients are another great example as they can keep a local copy of your messages (and often do, by default). Using desktop email is an inadvertent backup strategy. Even if you prefer to use the webapp, you can always run a desktop client for backup purposes as well. Desktop apps were the original paradigm, so chances are you can find something capable of making it easier to keep local copies on your computer. Just search for options for the webapp you love and you'll likely find something.
In the event that a local backup isn't as simple as saving the data on a hard drive or using desktop software, see if you can export your data from the webapp directly. As previously discussed, many webapps offer data portability in case you want to use a different service some time in the future. You can use the data export feature as a backup strategy and just download your data once a month. Copy that to a backup hard drive and you'll be good to go.
Where to Back Up Online
When it comes to simply backing up raw data -- like videos, photos, text or even data dumps from a webapp -- there are numerous services offering free cloud storage in the gigabytes. Just pick one, sign up, and start uploading. That's all you need to do to have an online backup. Alternatively, you can use a service like CrashPlan to set up an automated bulletproof backup plan so you don't even have to think about it.
But standard backup procedures aren't your only option as there are a handful of online backup services that can handle the job for you. Often you'll end up paying for this convenience, but that may be worth it for you if you tend to neglect your backup duties. Backupify is one of the best and has been around for a while. It can backup any Google app plus several social media services like Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and LinkedIn. You can get a free 1GB account, too, so you don't have to pay if you only have a small amount of data. Although you can often handle these backups yourself, services like Backupify make it a whole lot easier.
How do you mitigate the risk of webapp shutdowns and keep your data safe? Share your strategies in the comments.