August 7th, 2014

Should I use an external hard drive or a cloud backup service?

A dilemma faced by so many individuals and small businesses … is copying my data to an external hard drive good enough, or do I need to pay for some cloud-based backup service?  Maybe I should do both?

The good news is that you are asking the question!  Make sure your data is backed up …. hoping things will “just work” is wishful thinking and will bite you some day.

What are you backing up?

Cloud backup services and external hard drives only backup the information actually stored on your computer(s).  They do not backup information stored elsewhere (e.g. email you have have stored at your email service provider) … you should also make sure important externally stored information is also being backed up.

Using an external hard drive


  1. Price. You buy one and pay once…. there is no monthly fee.  External hard drives are pretty cheap these days — a good one can be had for $100 to $150.
  2. Space. You can store a lot of information … good inexpensive ones can store 1000 – 2000 GB or more of data very easily
  3. Fast. Copying data to external hard drives is very, very fast (compared to cloud backups).  Similarly, restoring backups is very fast.


  1. Setup. It is easy to add an external hard drive, but it can be a bit of work to set it up to automatically backup your computer.  This is not the same as just storing your data on the external drive!  You want your data to be stored on your computer and copies of it to be also stored on the external drive.  Apple makes this very easy — any external drive can be made into a “Time Machine” and your Mac OS can automatically make backups and recover as needed. In windows and other operating systems, you will need to add and/or configure some special software for this.
  2. Proximity. Once you get your external drive backups going, you still have the issue that your backup drive and your computer are in “the same place” (at least some of the time).  So … in the event of a fire or other natural disaster (like a child …) both could be destroyed at the same time … rendering your backups useless.
  3. Redundancy. Most inexpensive external backup drives consist of a single disk drive.  As such, they can fail without notice destroying all backed up data.  You then need to quickly go and replace it and setup backups again. These drives are most likely to fail right after being purchased, or after a number of years … but in truth they can fail at any time.  You can get backup drives with “RAID” (multiple disks inside that give your protection in case one fails), however, these are somewhat more expensive .. and you still have to deal with replacing failed parts over time, even if you do not lose your backups in the process.

Using a cloud backups

There are many, many services out there offering cloud backups.  The purpose here is not to compare them to each other or examine nuances such as levels of encryption and privacy, but to compare them in general to using an external drive.


  1. Price. Ya – a pro of both solutions.  Cloud backup solutions do not have an up-front cost; they are instead “paid monthly”.  This can run from $2-$5, or a little more, per computer per month.  This is very cost effective.
  2. Proximity. Cloud backups happen … well, in the “cloud” somewhere.  That is really some virtual universe, and certainly nowhere near your computer.  So, if your computer fails or your town is hit by a meteorite, your data is still OK and can be recovered once you emerge from your bunker and buy a new laptop.
  3. Redundancy. Could backup systems are designed to be redundant.  Your data is (or should be) safe from hardware failure and you do not even have to worry about dealing with devices and parts and replacements and such.
  4. Setup. Setup with cloud backup is generally as easy as or easier than setting up backups with external drives.  You download an application from the vendor’s site (or app store), install it, and enter your details and off it goes.  After that … you don’t have to worry about it any more.


  1. Slow. Generally, cloud backups are slow.  If you have a lot of stuff (e.g. a large music collection), it could take days for the first backup to complete.  It could also take a long time to recover things if there is an issue.  Some services let you pay more for faster speed.
  2. Space.  Some cloud backup services limit the amount of data you are permitted to backup.  Some will only backup certain types of files or will not backup the data stored on your external hard drives … or charge extra for that.  Be sure that the solution you choose will backup what you need!
  3. Privacy. The backups of your data are in someone else’s hands … even if it is encrypted.  This is less secure/private than keeping the backups to yourself.

So, which do you choose?

We recommend going with a cloud backup solution coupled with an external hard drive.  This is your best bet for always having your data on hand and for getting fast recovery if there is an issue.

  1. If you are price sensitive … go with could backups unless you already have an extra external hard drive lying around.
  2. If you are really worried about privacy or security … use an external hard drive only (or maybe two … and keep the extra one in a separate location, like a safe deposit box).  You could still use a cloud backup vendor, just vet the company carefully looking for things like HIPAA compliance and such to help assure you of their security practices.
  3. If you have very large amounts of data … use external hard drives.  You can also use a cloud backup vendor for copies of only the most important items.

Just make sure that you are actually performing backups.  Also … make sure to check periodically that the backups are actually working!

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