Explain computer data storage/backup to me like I'm five
February 18, 2019 2:38 AM   Subscribe

I'm a stressed out, overwhelmed grad student and not so great understanding the cloud, dropbox, time machine, etc. Demystify all this for me?

I have a mac running on Sierra 10.12.6 (whatever that means!), with years of dissertation research on it (photos, docs, videos). I want to keep everything backed up to avert a disaster. But tech is not my strong suit.

All anyone ever says is: "save it to the cloud" "save it to dropbox" and "back it up on time machine" So...these are three different ways of doing the same thing (saving/storing my files)? Or not?

I know that time machine and dropbox are icons at the top right of my computer, and the Cloud is something Apple is charging me for monthly (like $1) on my iPhone. Sometimes I get notices that my dropbox is "almost full." I know TM is connected to an external hard drive. Other than that I really don't understand any of this! Ideally I'd like all of these things to have all the same info on them.

Would LOVE if someone could break this down super simply as if I'm five (or eighty-five)? And maybe provide some feedback as to what method is easiest/most intuitive and user-friendly. Do I need to be using all three of them? Is privacy a concern? I don't know who can else see my files when they are uploaded. I don't encrypt anything.

What I've been doing is just dragging and pasting my important stuff to an external HD or emailing it to myself, and assuming that it's also backed up automatically without me doing anything, but I don't know if it is? Like, when you set everything up in the beginning is that something that happens, or do I need to be doing other stuff manually every once in a while?

Thanks for your patience!
posted by CancerSucks to Technology (13 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
What you want is something that automatically keeps your backup updated. I have used Backblaze for about seven years now and have been happy with it. It just works in the background and constantly updates your backup, while remaining unobtrusive. Just this weekend I used their restore feature for the first time, since I switched to a new PC. I used an external drive to transfer some files, and Backblaze restore for others. The restore method was faster (with 100 mbps download speed). Another nice thing: I downloaded Backblaze onto the new computer while the old one was still running. It immediately started backing up the new one under a 15-day free trial. I kept both backups going until the new machine was all set up, then transferred my existing subscription to the new computer.
posted by jkent at 2:51 AM on February 18 [1 favorite]


Basic idea is no matter how many backups if they are all in the same building that burns down they are all gone. So there are many options and the details are maddening but keep one or more copies physically separate.
posted by sammyo at 4:15 AM on February 18 [1 favorite]


All anyone ever says is: "save it to the cloud" "save it to dropbox" and "back it up on time machine" So...these are three different ways of doing the same thing (saving/storing my files)? Or not?

I know that time machine and dropbox are icons at the top right of my computer, and the Cloud is something Apple is charging me for monthly (like $1) on my iPhone. Sometimes I get notices that my dropbox is "almost full." I know TM is connected to an external hard drive. Other than that I really don't understand any of this! Ideally I'd like all of these things to have all the same info on them.


These terms all relate to systems of storing your data somewhere outside your personal physical devices. "The Cloud" is just a generic term for resources (including but not limited to disk space) owned by others and accessible via your internet connection. That internet-accessible storage capacity might be owned by apple (iCloud), Dropbox, Google, Amazon... think of these as off-site storage spaces where you can keep copies of your data. These are competitors seeking your data storage dollars, and opinions will vary about which is best / easiest to use / cheapest / etc. Often they'll offer a small amount of storage space for free and then charge as your stored data expands, the way it works on your iphone.

Often these are paired with proprietary applications installed on your device to make it easier to maintain those copies in a specific company's storage space, move files back and forth, etc., e.g. DropBox is both a local app and an off-site storage space.

I'm not a Mac user but it looks like Time Machine is a local application built into your operating system, meant to help you make backups but not tied to a specific data storage space.

Basically you're looking for a safe place to put the data and a simple, foolproof way to get it there. You have a lot of options. The big name options might not vary all that much.
posted by jon1270 at 4:26 AM on February 18 [1 favorite]


Time Machine automates backups to an external hard drive. This is great except for one thing--you have to remember to connect the external hard drive. I have a Buffalo LinkStation that (in theory) my computer connects to wirelessly/automatically, but, in practice, is pretty flaky with Time Machine. I suspect Apple's Time Capsule would work seamlessly, but it's very expensive. Time Machine could be a good option if you're in the habit of plugging in an external hard drive already. (Or if you can get in the habit of keeping one on your desk in the department. That also has the advantage of keeping your backup outside your residence.)

I actually used Dropbox to back up my dissertation, in addition to keeping a version on the department's computer. Dropbox doesn't follow aliases, so you either need to store your work in your Dropbox folder (which I didn't like--I already had files where I wanted them) or create a symlink as explained in this StackExchange answer. Your could take the previous sentence and replace occurrences of "Dropbox" with "Google Drive", I believe. Depending on your research, you may have regulations that preclude use of these services with your data, though.
posted by hoyland at 5:20 AM on February 18


Sounds like you have some combination of iCloud, a local Time Machine backup, and Dropbox.

Time Machine will back up your data to restore your mac in the event of a crash. If you used the defaults it should be able to help you recover if your mac's drive dies (or the entire mac dies), and is useful in setting up a new mac if you buy a new machine.

Time Machine is very handy but I've heard too many horror stories to rely on it 100% for my data protection. It should serve as a full machine backup, more or less, including your documents. But I would not assume you are 100% covered with Time Machine, even excluding the comment about how you use the external drive.

iCloud is usually used to sync photos, etc. I have a small paid account for iCloud but don't use it for anything on a mac, just for saving my photos, etc. "to the cloud." Assume that it is not taking care of your data on the mac.

Dropbox is only going to back up data that's literally in your folder labeled "Dropbox" (*unless you've changed the defaults and/or they've added options to save more than a single folder since I last used it).

What I've been doing is just dragging and pasting my important stuff to an external HD or emailing it to myself, and assuming that it's also backed up automatically without me doing anything, but I don't know if it is?

Oh, probably not. An external HD is probably not automatically part of the Time Machine backup and is external to Dropbox and probably iCloud.

If you're getting messages about Dropbox "almost full", I'm guessing you have either more than 1TB of data or are on the unpaid plan. (You mention videos, so maybe it is more than 1TB...) If it's less than 1TB of data for your dissertation and other important data, I recommend doing this:

- Pay for a Dropbox 1TB plan
- Move everything that you can't recreate, re-download, or live without to the Dropbox folder and let that sync to Dropbox
- Keep using Time Machine, this may save you trouble restoring your mac if it goes south

Is the external HD the same as the drive you use Time Machine with? I'd just use the external HD for Time Machine and maybe a second for a safety backup.

Is privacy a concern? I don't know who can else see my files when they are uploaded. I don't encrypt anything.

Whether privacy is a concern is entirely dependent on your level of paranoia and the importance / secrecy of the data that you have stored in Dropbox. You should assume that Dropbox and any government agency with a subpoena (and possibly without) can see your data if it's stored in Dropbox. That's pretty much true of any cloud storage service that isn't using client-side encryption where the service provider can't see your private key.

I used Dropbox for many years and stopped using the service in protest when they added Condi Rice to their board of directors. This was purely symbolic because I have little data that would interest the government that was stored there. The data that was most sensitive consisted of my tax returns/data which.. you know, they already have. And if they want access to the extensive collection of pictures of my cats, they only need to follow me on Instagram.

I did not, however, store any work data in Dropbox when I used it unless it was already for public consumption. It's against the rules of my company to use a private cloud storage service and they provide an enterprise account for SpiderOak.

Services like SpiderOak do client-side encryption but they're a little more complicated and I've gotten mixed reviews on restoring from SpiderOak. Also, if you lose your encryption key / password, you're hosed. They cannot recover your data.

As for others seeing your data. Dropbox, last I looked, used Amazon S3 for storage. In theory, barring any bugs in the code or security breaches, the only people who can see your data in Dropbox are Dropbox employees, possibly some Amazon employees if Dropbox isn't doing a form of encryption to protect from Amazon, and nobody else. If there's a security breach, who knows? Maybe nobody, maybe everybody. If that happens, though, it'll be your data and (I think) millions of others aired out.

Same with iCloud - except Apple may run its own servers and not be dependent on Amazon.

Sorry for the length but I do hope this is all helpful.
posted by jzb at 5:20 AM on February 18 [2 favorites]


Treat Dropbox like your my documents folder. Put everything there.
If you get a new computer or need to access a file on another computer, you can log into Dropbox.

To be honest, I'm shocked you're not doing this already.
posted by k8t at 8:23 AM on February 18


Also you're at a unviersity, go to the help desk! You're paying for that access somehow.
posted by k8t at 8:24 AM on February 18 [1 favorite]


A good backup strategy keeps historical versions of your files in the cloud, not just the latest revision. This protects you from human error as well as disk failure... E.g., what happens if you accidentally delete a section of your dissertation, and by the time you notice, the corrupt copy has overwritten other copies in your "back up" location. I suspect people who just copy their stuff to DropBox as a backup often overlook this. You can roll your own versioning scheme, but by far the better way to do it is to pay for Backblaze or some other service that does the work for you.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 10:03 AM on February 18


Dropbox is a service that makes it so files are accessible from different computers.
When you install it, it makes a special folder on your computer. Any files that you put in that folder are copied to a storage service run by the the company. This is sometimes called the cloud.
Dropbox gives unpaid accounts a certain amount of free storage quota. You can pay more money to increase the amount of storage available.
If you install it on a different computer, it will make a copy of that special folder on that computer as well. Any changes you make in a special folder on one computer will be copied to the other. This is often called 'syncing', or synchronization.

You can also use Dropbox to share subfolders with collaborators. Both of you will need a dropbox account. If you share a subfolder with someone else, that subfolder will appear in their special folder. If you make an edit to the folder, the change will be synced to your collaborator's account, and vice versa. Note that Dropbox recently made a change so that shared folders count against everyone's quota.

Dropbox only 'backs up' files in your special folder. You can log in from a different computer and restore the files that are in there. It also keeps a file history - if a file is deleted or changed, you can restore it. I do not recommend Dropbox as your only backup, because with a standard account, it forgets any changes older than 30 days.

Time Machine is a file history and backup system provided by Apple. It saves changes to an external disk. This can be a USB drive you plug in, or a drive accessible over the network. Apple sells (an expensive) disk called a Time Capsule that works pretty well.

Time Machine saves pretty much everything on your computer. You can restore old versions of files by entering the 'Time Machine' application, which allows you to navigate back through your file history, and choose which files you want to restore. You can also reinstall a computer based on a Time Machine backup, or set up a new one.

Time Machine is convenient, particularly if you have a Time Capsule. I do not recommend it as your only backup:
  • If your disk stored in the same location as your laptop is stolen or damaged, you're out of luck
  • If you forget to plug in your disk, it can't back up. It does pop up little notifications to remind you.
  • It is possible for the backup to become corrupt, which means you can lose your file history
iCloud is a storage service run by Apple. (Again, this is what people call the Cloud.)
Apple has three products that are part of iCloud:
  • iCloud Backup
  • iCloud Photos
  • iCloud Drive
The free iCloud account gives you a woefully insufficient 5GB quota to store things. Sounds like you're paying for the $1/month 50GB plan. Backup, Photos and Drive all count against this quota.

iCloud Backup automatically saves what Apple considers the most important information on your device. iCloud Photos 'syncs' your photos from your iPhone to other Apple devices. The Photos app on your Mac can connect to iCloud Photos and do the same thing.

iCloud Drive is like Dropbox for Apple devices. It has the same 30 day history limit as Dropbox.

-----
What to do:
See if your university provides Dropbox or an equivalent. Some universities have campus deals with Dropbox, Box.com, Google Drive, or other competitors that will offer a lot more storage than your current Dropbox quota. As a bonus, it'll probably make sharing data or revisions with other people at the university easier. Make sure you have a plan for when you're no longer a student.

Something you should watch out for if you're switching to a different sync service is whether they store a copy of your files on your computer, or if the files only exist out in the cloud. The second option saves space on your disk, but you need to be connected to the internet to retrieve your files. This can particularly cause problems if you're backing up with a different service, since it can be tricky for the service to back up a file that's not really there.

Keep using Time Machine. It's pretty straight forward to use, and makes restoring files trivial.

Consider paying for an automatic cloud backup service like Backblaze. It's not that expensive, it'll put your backup in a different location from your computer, securely encrypted, and it'll happen automatically. Backblaze has an explainer on their encryption setup.
posted by zamboni at 10:56 AM on February 18 [2 favorites]


Other answers seem good. Re: encryption, your files when stored on these services are reasonably well encrypted, but for example a Dropbox employee could still access files in Dropbox, although such access would be tightly controlled and monitored.

If you have to comply with HIPAA or other privacy laws, or have good reasons to be super paranoid -- look for another service or rely only on local Time Machine.
posted by vogon_poet at 11:06 AM on February 18


Use Dropbox. It's the most user-friendly, and also the most used by many people, so you'll get a lot of support.

Pay for an account.

The biggest reason to use Dropbox (as a student) is that it remembers old versions. So if you accidentally delete everything in your word doc, and save it, Dropbox will still remember an old version that you can restore from.
posted by suedehead at 7:06 PM on February 18


So if you accidentally delete everything in your word doc, and save it, Dropbox will still remember an old version that you can restore from.

As long as you notice within 30 days.
posted by zamboni at 7:30 AM on February 19


Dropbox is a great sync service, but is is not a backup. It is practically the opposite as a bad sync could cause you to lose data. It is sort of like a backup in that if your computer dies and you get a new one you can install Dropbox to get back in business, but only for the files in it—not your desktop, not the settings for any apps, etc. It doesn’t handle resforing large quantities of files, requires you to notice a problem on your own within a month, doesn’t protect against file corruption, crypto malware, or a variety of other problems.

You want a local and a remote backup. For local Time Machine will backup your entire drive to a USB drive, a Time Capsule (now discontinued), or local network drive like a Synology. It will only happen at home if it is a network drive or when you manually plug in the drive if you do USB. For remote backup (sending your files over the internet) you will need a subscription to Backblaze or Crashplan. What makes both of these as well as time machine backups is they keep old versions of your files so you can go back in time to a file, a folder, or your whole disk. You will use local backup to restore in most cases unless something happens like your laptop and the drive are stolen or destroyed. For that scenario you will use the remote backup.

Crashplan is more expensive ($10/month), can backup files outside of your home folder, properly stores meta data. It is unfortunately a clunky java app and with very large quantities of files it can fail to work.

Backblaze is cheaper ($6/month), can only backup your home folder, doesn’t properly store meta data, is a Mac friendly app that doesn’t noticibly slow down the computer, can handle larger quantities of files, and unfortunatley if you backup an external drive and leave that drive unplugged for a month they will delete your backup archives of that drive.

For either Crashplan or Backblaze set a strong encryption key and password and store them somewhere off your computer such as safe deposit box. Likewise for time machine be sure to choose encrypt backups and store that password safely elsewhere as well. That will prevent someone finding your USB drive from reading your files.

Also be aware that Dropbox and iCloud settings can prevent Time Machine, Crashplan, Backblaze or any other backup program from working. If you have iCloud photos library set to optimize storage, or iCloud Drive Desktop Mac Documents set to optimize storage then those files are not actually on your computer so won’t actually be backed up. Likewise use of Dropbox Selective Sync or Smart Sync will mean some files aren’t actually on your computer to be backed up.
posted by ridogi at 10:28 PM on February 20


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