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Back in April, we speculated about one of the hidden dangers of depending on web services to store your data: the possibility that no one was doing backups. Now that possibility may have turned to reality for users of Omnidrive (once touted as the “clear leader” in the online storage field by TechCrunch). The service has been offline for some days, with its servers currently not responding at all. A December article at ReadWriteWeb contains serious allegations of fraud from the company’s ex-CTO (as well as a defense from the CEO).
My sympathies at this point are with Omnidrive’s users, particularly those who have their only copies of documents on an unreachable server. I can think of plenty of times when a days-long outage (let alone a permanent loss) of my own document storage would be devastating. The larger question, though, is what you as a user can (or should) do about this? Online document storage is certainly attractive to the web worker; being able to access and share your work easily in any browser is definitely a killer feature. But how do you balance that off against the fact that your documents could simply vanish overnight?
One possible approach is simply to choose your storage vendor very carefully. Backup vendor Mozy, for example, is owned by giant EMC, Jungle Disk uses your Amazon S3 account for storage (so your data will be available even if Jungle Disk itself goes under), and Google Documents is, well, Google. Some smaller vendors have their own serious backup policies to guard against hardware failures.
Yet in a world of imperfect hardware and software, as well as regulatory and legal issues, choosing one company for storage is still ultimately a gamble. It may be unthinkable that an EMC or Amazon or Google could fail, but it’s not impossible. No matter how carefully you choose, entrusting your data to a single online storage vendor is the equivalent to storing it on a single hard drive: it introduces a single point of failure into the system.
For hard drives, of course, we’ve long had several answers to this problem: backups or RAID. If disks are unreliable, make a copy of the data elsewhere. If one disk is unreliable, store your data on three or five or seven disks, with a scheme that allow perfect data recovery even if one or two disks should suddenly be reduced to iron filings by hardware failures. What the disappearance of Omnidrive suggests to me is that it’s time for the next step in the evolution of online file storage, now that there is more than enough competition in the market for simple storage. We need the online equivalent of backups and RAID.
This doesn’t mean that the online storage services need to use backups and RAID on their servers; that’s irrelevant to me as a consumer in providing protection against vendor failure. Rather, I’d like to see products that automatically back up, say, a Box.Net account to Amazon S3 storage. Or an API that writes copies of my data simultaneously to Amazon and the fabled GDrive, and allows retrieval from either service if the other is missing. Or even a way to mirror my online storage, overnight, down to a desktop drive for safekeeping.
Until products like these are available (and if I’ve just missed them, please let me know in the comments), storing your documents online will remain a gamble. Perhaps a safe gamble, but it could be made far safer with more vendor independence.