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.”


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 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.