Project Management

Captain Obvious reports, "Web apps are not foolproof."

The popularity of Internet applications means lots of businesses and individuals are storing data online, but what happens when web apps go down? While we can't keep sites from crashing, support pros should remind users to back up the files they store "in the cloud."

The popularity of Internet applications means lots of businesses and individuals are storing data online, but what happens when Web apps go down? While we can't keep sites from crashing, support pros should remind users to back up the files they store "in the cloud."

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Web sites go down.

It seems obvious to say, but it does happen. With so many of us storing information in online applications, it is worth being reminded of that fact.

Some people who got this reminder the hard way are users of the bookmark-sharing Web site Ma.gnolia.com. That site had a critical failure last weekend that took out the main data store, and there doesn't seem to be a backup readily available. Right now, members of the Ma.gnolia community are still waiting for answers, and the site may never recover.

So while online applications offer great opportunities for sharing data and increasing its portability, nothing in life is perfect. Google's Gmail has stumbled on occasion, and Amazon and Apple have had their own problems with the availability of their Web services. Clearly, you can't trust even the most established companies to run their systems flawlessly.

You certainly have some users who have come to rely on Web services to run their personal and professional lives. While you can't be responsible for somebody else's server, you can make sure that your clients know how to protect their data. I've discussed backups before, and if there is one rule of thumb I think we can agree on, it's that a file isn't safe if there is only one copy, even if — especially if — that copy is stored online.

A few tips...

Don't use Web mail exclusively. Many free e-mail services offer some way of archiving your e-mail locally. Google's Gmail and Yahoo Mail offer IMAP downloads, as do most other ISPs that provide mail accounts (not Hotmail though...tsk, tsk Microsoft). Set up a local mail program on your client's computer and configure it to download complete copies of all incoming messages. Look for ways to export data. It may be hard to find, but many sites have a means of saving a local copy of the user's data. If the Web service doesn't provide an export tool in its interface, try Googling the site's name with the word "backup." Lots of online applications provide programming toolkits, and a developer may have built a third-party utility that can help. Share horror stories. They might make your people more protective of their stuff. I've seen firsthand how crippling it can be when an online service drops the ball. A couple of years ago, my fiancée lost the contents of her Yahoo Mail account right after there was a service upgrade. All the messages and contacts stored in her profile just disappeared, and she was told restoration of her data was not possible. To add insult to injury, Yahoo never admitted any culpability or apologized for the situation. They implied that it was all my fiancée's fault, that she must have somehow allowed someone to get access to her account.

The lesson that I learned from my fiancée's situation is that as great as some free online services can be, sometimes you get what you pay for. Users of a free service have little recourse when things go wrong, so it is prudent that your clients protect their data when things are working.

15 comments
AllanV
AllanV

Actually Microsoft has an add-on to access & manage Hotmail accounts from your local Outlook 2003/2007. Search for "Microsoft Office Outlook Connector".

williamjones
williamjones

...of the more recent versions of Outlook and Outlook Express. I stand corrected. Not the same thing as IMAP access, but a way to keep offline copies. That is, if you use MS's approved client. Thanks, Allan.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

hehe.. your title says it all. The new cloud fad has benefits but at the expense of some nasty trade-offs that most people don't take the time to consider or dis-consider as "doesn't effect me".

fewiii
fewiii

1. If you are using Microsoft Windows, you can use Windows Live Mail Desktop app (or whatever it's being called now) to connect to your hotmail. Once installed and working, put the 'Save As' icon on the toolbar, and viola: you have a way to save off hotmails. 2. If you have your own PC and you use gmail, enable POP3 (unlike Yahoo!, it won't cost you a dime). Then, in your preferred email client, create the account following Google's instructions *to the letter*. Now, you can save off your gmails. 3. As for "cloud storage", I only approach it as a "backup for my backups" - even that data I store for sharing or for "mobility" reasons, I always keep copies locally. Because of the many issues mentioned in the article and in the comments, I never, ever will rely on "the cloud" as my primary (or *only*) backup plan.

sonicsteve
sonicsteve

I'm using Yahoo, I have 3 or 4 accounts with them. I use pop3 with all accounts and never paid a penny.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

That's one of my problems with yahoo. The site uses https during login but then drops it. If you manually switch back over you get an error because the "reading mail" server doesn't have ssl enabled. With Google, it uses https during login then flips over to http when your sent on to the reading mail screens. If you manually change back to https, you get the closed tunnel. It would be better if they just defaulted to https since the login confirms that the browser can manage. Being able to change back is better than not available at all though.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

...being wholly dependent upon "the cloud". My (and my client's) critical data will always be primarily under my direct control.

Jaqui
Jaqui

Never keep critical data in an online service. doesn't matter if it is free or paid for, you have lost control of that data if it is in an online service. You covered how you can lose data with them. What if the data lost was the only record of your accounts? [ yes, I suspect some small business operators are that silly. ]

breck.carter
breck.carter

Personally, it's on my "to do" list to back up my gmail... somehow :) For the rest of the (limited) material I store in the cloud, I enter it into local text files and then publish. Plus use whatever "backup" feature the site offers; the output from the latter tends to be inaccessible to the human reader (XMLCrap), another reason for the (Wordpad) text entry then publish approach. For most stuff. Not this comment, I'm not *that* anal :) With respect to Ma.gnolia disaster, I am particularly interested in the lessons it might offer to other systems developers; see http://sqlanywhere.blogspot.com/2009/02/web-20-meets-database-101.html

sonicsteve
sonicsteve

Yes I literally want to puke at the idea of giving a website or "cloud" app any kind of real importance in my computing environment. I do use foxmarks. However if I lost the ability to use foxmarks I wouldn't be that lost. I would go back to what I used to do. Copy and backup my favorites. For email, I hate using webmail. I use it on the road when I don't have a laptop with me. Otherwise I enable it's pop3 access and use thunderbird. I chose a program that will run on multiple OS platforms, unlike Outlook or windows mail. Succeeding in IT is all about giving yourself options. Not being tied to one OS, to a web app, or.... Lastly I will only use web apps when I have no other choice, and I will do my part to make sure I have a choice. Web apps are controlling road that we don't want to see computer technology go down.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

You should be able to sync your gmail back down to Outlook or your prefered PIM; you get access on the go and the sync software takes care of what changes need to move in which direction.

williamjones
williamjones

Most of us are storing a lot of data online. We count on our service providers to take care of our stuff, but sometimes things fail spectacularly. Thankfully, as I discuss in this week's post, there are ways we can protect our users and ourselves from data loss. Have you had a web service let you down by losing your data? I think this may happen more often than anyone realizes, especially with free services. edited for formatting

pcrx_greg
pcrx_greg

SAAS and online storage is great if you work in an area where internet access is 99.999%+ reliable. We work in a rural area where internet access can go out for hours at a time (somebody damaged the only fiber optic link into the region). If my company or my clients relied soley on online Apps and storage, they would have to close. Retention of data and applications locally is important for my clients if they want to stay in business.

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