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By Troy Wolverton
Friday, May 24, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

Your email is likely in the cloud. Your photos and music may be there, too. So is it time to back up all the files and data from your computer to the Internet?

Some storage experts and a growing number of consumers say yes. Online backup services have become more practical in recent years, offering consumers protection if their computers are lost or destroyed in a disaster. And in some cases, cloud backup costs far less in the short term than buying an external hard drive.

“We see more and more user interest in adopting the cloud,” said Pushan Rinnen, research director for storage and backup at Gartner, a tech consulting firm. “When you put content into the cloud, even if your house burned down, you have a copy somewhere else.”

Online backup services have been around for years. They differ from online storage services such as Dropbox in that they typically offer more storage space and generally were designed just to archive files and data, not to provide access to that data from multiple locations.

Backup services usually include a program that runs in the background on your computer, uploading new files to the Internet. Consumers usually can choose which folders they want to back up or have the software copy their entire hard drive. In case of disaster, they can simply download their files or, in many cases, have the service send them a physical drive with their files stored on it.

The services typically encrypt data stored on their servers. And most require little management by consumers after they install the backup program.

“Most of these are ‘set and forget,' ” said Dave Simpson, a senior storage analyst at The 451 Group, a technology research firm.

In recent years, the backup services have begun offering additional features that make them useful in more than just emergency situations.

Many services now offer mobile applications that allow users to view backed up files on their smartphones or tablets. Some, including Carbonite and Mozy, offer a file-syncing feature that acts much like Dropbox or Google Drive. Users can access files stored in a synced folder on multiple computers. Any changes they make to particular files are reflected in the versions stored in all linked computers.

And while the backup services offer broadly similar services, many have unique features. CrashPlan's software, for example, can back up data not only to the company's servers, but also to an external hard drive and even to friends' computers over the Internet.

At the same time, many services have particular limitations. Carbonite, for one, will slow down uploads if users are transferring more than 200 gigabytes of data at a time.

Many providers offer free trial periods, noted Donna Tapellini, a senior editor at Consumer Reports.

“I would try it out,” she said. “You want something that's easy to get your stuff up and get your stuff back.”

Troy Wolverton is a technology writer for the San Jose Mercury News.

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