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Data backups always have been a problem for PC users.

The challenge has been to reliably copy data from one’s computer to some kind of data-storage device – tape, a hard drive, another computer’s hard drive, and so on – and then be able to retrieve the data quickly and easily if necessary some time in the future.

At one time the only practical way to back up large amounts of data off a PC was onto tape. But backup tape had a dirty little secret; it was incredibly unreliable. I believe these backup-tape devices bordered on a scam, in fact. They seemed to back up well enough, but when you tried to retrieve the data you would often find it in recovered.

After tape devices came various disk devices, and zip drives and even hard drives. For a long time I would back up data onto a large hard drive, and then take it to a safe-deposit box at the bank. But even these systems weren’t great. There’s the hassle of finding appropriate software _ often decent hardware came with terrible software – getting the backup off site to a secure location, switching backups now and then, and so on.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could just turn on a backup system and it did “everything” for you? That’s the promise of the new online backup systems, such as Carbonite, iDrive, XDrive, Mozy, ElephantDrive, BackupDirect.net. Even Amazon is in on the game selling storage space for 15 cents a gigabyte per month, through third-party services such as JungleDisk.com. These services automatically transfer data from your computer – once a day, maybe, or even multiple times during the day when your computer is not in use. The data is encrypted and transferred onto large storage computers somewhere out there on the Internet, computers in secure locations with backup power, fire and flood protection, even intruder security, such as biometrics devices that identify people entering the facility.

I’ve used many of these services; I’ve been seeking the perfect online backup service for years. I think I first tried using XDrive for complete backups seven or eight years ago; at the time XDrive was great for backing up a small number of files, and they claimed you could do large backups … but you couldn’t, it simply did not work. A few years later I used Mozy, which, again, was great for a few files but had huge problems managing large backups.

More recently, though, online backup services have improved greatly, and the speed of your home broadband service has increased dramatically, too. One of the weaknesses of these systems is that if you’re backing up a large hard disk on a mediocre broadband service, it can take literally weeks to get it backed up; once the initial backup is done, incremental backups don’t take much time, and restores are fast because broadband download speeds are generally “much” faster than upload speeds.

I do use these services, but I’m here to warn you … regardless of all the great reviews in the computer press, these services have serious bugs. Now, I’m not naming names, but I’ve worked with a couple of the top services, directly with their development staff who has admitted to me that there were serious bugs. What have I seen? Well, how happy would you be if you found that important files – such as your Outlook e-mail – had not been backed up for weeks? Or if when you select “back up this file now” the file “isn’t” backed up? Or if you discover that your backup system hasn’t worked “at all” for a week due to an (admitted!) bug in the software?

Right now this software is nowhere near 100 percent reliable. I simply don’t trust any of them 100 percent, so what should you do? Well, here are my recommendations.

First, you should use online backup. In fact, you should use two systems. They’re so cheap you could get two systems for $100 a year, and back up at least 150 gigabytes on each service … unlimited backups in some cases. I’m currently using Carbonite and iDrive. Carbonite has no limit, while iDrive has a 150-gigabyte limit; each costs less than $50 a year. I use Carbonite in “instant backup mode” and let iDrive back up at night.

Don’t be swayed by how fantastic a service sounds in the magazine reviews and go with just the best-rated one. These reviews are based on short-term use of the product, and the reviewers generally haven’t been using the systems long enough to see the serious bugs. At the time of writing, there are still serious bugs in these products; again, none are 100 percent reliable.

Once installed, get to know all the features of both backup systems; spend a few hours learning them. Your data is worth the time. And finally, check up on them now and then. Make sure that both systems are doing what they are supposed to do, and that your important files are being backed up. In the words of Ronald Reagan … trust, but verify!

Peter Kent the author of “Search Engine Optimization for Dummies.” For more information, visit www.PeterKentConsulting.com, or e-mail GeekNews@PeterKentConsulting.com.