Surviving the Fall of the Cloud

by Mike Shea on 18 December 2010

30 second summary

While the whole cloud isn't likely to disappear, never trust any single cloud with your data. Like any backup system, store your data in two places, either two clouds or, ideally, both locally and in the cloud. Ideally, choose tools that store both locally and in the cloud such as Evernote and Dropbox. Verify that you can fully export data from any cloud service you use. Never trust a single cloud with your data.

There is no one cloud

Alarmists think about "the cloud" as a single place that holds your data across the internet but this isn't the right way to think about it. Each cloud service you support, whether it's Amazon S3, Flickr, Twitter, Facebook, or Gmail, is its own risk. Short of a catastrophic meltdown of the entire internet, the entire cloud isn't going to go down.

But as the recent Yahoo Delicious fiasco shows us, we can't really trust any single cloud to survive the insane reactions of a foul-mouthed CEO like Carol Bartz. We can trust the cloud, but we can't trust any one single service. Whatever service, however strong, might not last the ages. Even giants like Google and Amazon are beholden to shareholders who might decide that Gmail just isn't pulling its weight anymore.

So how do we protect ourselves from the fall of one of these cloud services? I'm glad you asked. Let's take a look.

Store data in two places

Every good backup system tells you to store your data in two geographically separated locations and data in the cloud is no different.

Store your data in two locations, whether they be two clouds owned by different companies or a single tool that stores your data both locally and in the cloud. Storing in two different clouds has the advantage of ensuring your data doesn't stay in any single proprietary format.

Choose tools that store locally

You can kill two birds with one stone by choosing tools that store your data locally as well as in the cloud as part of their built in system. Evernote, for example, stores all of your items on its own servers as well as in a series of HTML and binary files in its own local directory structure. If Evernote disappears (or you decide to stop paying for it), you can either export from the tool itself to a more structured HTML dump or you can simply deal with the data in its own directory structure. Either way, you have your data both in the cloud and stored locally on any PC or Mac you connect to your account.

Dropbox does the same thing. It stores your files in its own cloud-based storage system and locally in a standard directory structure. Should you turn Dropbox off or should the service disappear, you still have all your files stored locally.

Verify for full data exports

A lot of systems advertise their ability to export data but exporting can be really hard for a service like Flickr or Evernote that stores a lot of files. Every large data export costs them money in processing power and bandwidth. They don't want to make it easily available to everyone.

For this reason, it isn't enough to read about how the service you use can export, you have to verify it yourself. For example, test Facebook's data export yourself to see what happens.

On Digital Rights Management

Digital Rights Managed data has its own set of problems. First of all, you can back it up everywhere and it can still fall apart when the service holding the keys goes down. There is no way for you to spread DRMed data across two clouds or on the cloud and locally. For this reason, consider all of your DRM'd content (like my beloved copies of Sons of Anarchy from iTunes) temporary. Do not trust that you will have them forever.

Luckily, most DRMed content isn't unique. If your entire library of Glee episodes stops working when Apple is bought out by Dell, you will likely be able to replace them, though at a cost.

Some tools to preserve your data

Here's a list and descriptions of some tools to help you preserve your cloud-based data.

Gmail: While your mail is all stored in the cloud with Gmail, Gmail let's you connect any POP mail client and download your entire archive. My email archive, for example, contained 12,000 messages and took up about 2 gigs of space. Not too bad, really. Make sure to run this every month or so to get all of your email locally.

If you care about preserving your email address even if you leave Gmail, consider registering your own domain name and pointing it to any email client you prefer. This way you can switch from client to client without losing your primary email address.

Find out more about exporting Gmail information at Google's Data Liberation Front.

Google Docs: In general, Google does a good job at letting you export your data. Check out the Data Liberation Front's instructions for pulling data out of Google Docs. Do so regularly if you use the service often.

Backupify: The Backupify service works very well for preserving your cloud-based data from sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, and others. You can set it up for a couple of accounts for free and pay them to set up a few more. I recommend downloading local copies of your archives from Backupify regularly in case their business model falls apart.

I particularly like Backupify for its Twitter archives. Twitter does a very poor job at letting you download all of your tweets at once. It's something to do with scaling, I presume, but still bothersome.

Evernote: As mentioned, Evernote does a wonderful job storing your data in a non-proprietary format both locally and in their own online service. Any time you connect a full PC or Mac client to your Evernote library, you can download the entire contents of your archive locally.

Dropbox: Like Evernote, drop box keeps a local directory tree that matches the tree it stores in its service. You don't need to regularly download a copy of your data, every time you connect you're already doing so.

Picasa: Picasa's service lets you manage photos both locally and in Google's Picasa web-based service. This way you always have a way to manage your photos both locally and in the cloud. Personally, however, I use iPhoto and Flickr to preserve my data the same way. Learn more about preserving photos with Picasa on the Data Liberation Front's Picasa page.

Our inability to see beyond our nose

As technology leaps forward, it becomes harder and harder to think about our digital holdings long-term. This potentially leads us towards a digital dark age where all of the daily holdings of information we hold dear falls apart over a 100 year period. While hiring a bunch of zen monks to carefully record all of our tweets onto nickel tablets isn't practical, we can spend a little time up front preserving our data for the long term. As cloud-based services become more and more popular, we need to understand the dangers and limitations of storing our most valuable data in the cloud. Store in two places, store locally, use the right tools, and verify your export capabilities and you're headed in the right direction.

Don't let it bring you down, it's only castles burning, find someone who's turning, and you will come around.

- Neil Young

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