Sync and share services need backup for all the same reasons that you need to backup everything else. A lot of people think this isn’t the case, but the short version of the answer to the question is yes, you need to backup your file sync and share service data. There are reasons that people think that file sync and share services don’t need backup. This article will look at those reasons first.
Cloud providers have done a good job of explaining they store data in multiple locations in order to survive multiple simultaneous outages both from an availability and durability perspective. (Availability is whether the service will be available despite an outage, and durability is whether the data will remain undamaged after something that would delete or damage it.) There is an understanding that companies providing cloud storage services would go out of business if there was a significant breach of availability or durability of their data. That gives rise to the understandable belief that these companies are going to work very hard to make sure that doesn’t happen.
File sync and share services also typically offer a file versioning feature, which will store multiple previous versions of every file including deleted files. A single use of the file versioning feature to restore a previous version of a file that has been inadvertently deleted or corrupted instills great confidence in the services. Sadly, this is a feature that is lacking in most enterprise backup and recovery systems. Most users who damage or delete a file have to make a phone call or go to a webpage to initiate a restore. They then have to wait several minutes or hours for the restore to take place. Compare this to simply right clicking on a file and selecting a previous version and having that restore occur instantaneously.
While all file sync and share services are not created equally, and one cannot make a blanket observation about all such services, generally speaking these companies are doing their best to store data safely and make it available even in the event of an outage. Why then, should it be backed up? Simply put, there are things that can happen that the file sync and share service will not be able to recover from.
Potential dangers to your file sync and share data: The Cyber Threat
The first and most obvious danger to data stored in such a service is what the data security industry calls black hats, a term borrowed from the old days of Western movies when good guys wore white hats and bad guys always wore black hats. Black hats seek to damage data for a variety of reasons, many of which are hard to understand for the typical person. Perhaps they are an anarchist wanting to destroy the data of large corporations, such as the hackers in the TV show Mr. Robot that deleted all records of everyone’s loans and credit cards. Perhaps they are simply out for the money and want to infect data with ransomware and give it back once someone has paid them anywhere from hundreds of dollars to millions of dollars. And if the ransom is not paid, they might delete everything just to prove a point, such as what happened to codespaces.com. Their entire company was in Amazon Web Services and was deleted in an instant when they did not pay the ransom, and as a result they no longer exist!
Regardless of their motivation, the risk is the same: someone can delete, corrupt, or encrypt your data without your knowledge and prevent you from accessing it forever. Unfortunately, a file sync and share service will immediately replicate the attack into the cloud, immediately overwriting all of the data stored there. It will then replicate those changes to other locations where it is syncing the data.
Or perhaps hackers will simply gain access to your login credentials and login to the central cloud site. They can then instruct the server to delete all previous versions of your data, all file folders with data in them, and replicate those changes to your multiple locations before you even realize what happened. Hackers and ransomware are an increasing cause for concern and should not underestimate the danger. And it’s important to say most file sync and share services will be completely unable to assist you if this happens to you.
The User Threat
The next and actually most common risk are errors made by the users themselves, which has been the number one cause of restores for many decades from all types of backup systems. Remember that any error that a user makes, such as accidentally deleting a file, is immediately replicated to the cloud and to anyone else syncing the same data. One of the most common mistakes with file sync and share services are users that are trying to reduce the space taken up by the synchronized directory. They accomplish this by deleting an entire directory of files they no longer need on their system, instead of logging into the system and telling it not to sync that directory to their system. This deletion will, of course, be replicated to the cloud and to everywhere else that the data is stored.
Those familiar with file sync and share services might find themselves thinking that at this point you would simply use the file versioning feature to restore the missing directory. Hopefully it will work. The experience of many people who have tried to do use the versioning feature of these services in order to restore significant numbers of files suggests the process of restoring large amounts of data can be quite clunky and unreliable. It is certainly nowhere near as reliable as restoring an individual file via the same system.
The Software Threat
It’s also important to state that even the most reliable storage system or service can make a mistake. If you are not backing up your data outside of the version stored in the cloud, you would be unable to recover from something such as a rolling code bug that accidentally deletes large sets of data. Some say there’s virtually no chance of this happening. A small chance is still a chance, and you need to protect against it.
For those that say that there is no chance of this happening, it actually happened to Storage Switzerland. We were using a file sync and share solution, and that solution pushed out an update that offered many new features. But one of our users had an old laptop that he didn’t update because he barely used it. Then one day about three months after the update that user turned on the old system. The old system had the old FSS client on it, and for some reason it decided to delete all data that was created after the new FSS client was installed. In a matter of minutes we lost access to all of our most recent data, including previous versions. Good thing we follow our own advice and back everything up.
There are also plenty of reports of users that have had synchronization issues with their desktop client. If the desktop client becomes confused as to what has been synced or not synced, it could result in logical corruption of your file system and deletion of data that you had no intention of deleting. This is what backups are for.
How to protect your file sync and share data
Assuming you decide the risks are worth investigating the idea of backing up your file sync and share system, you will find there are two ways to accomplish this. You can backup one or more of the synced clients, or you can backup the file sync and share service itself. Each method has advantages and disadvantages.
Backing up an individual synchronized client is relatively simple and will have the most broad support from the vendor community. Simply install a traditional backup client on a Windows, Linux, or Mac system that has the data synced to it and backup the appropriate folder. This is better than nothing, but it has a number of challenges. It will only be able to backup the data synced to that system, therefore you must sync the entire folder to that system in order to back up everything. You cannot exclude subdirectories of that folder and still back it up. If you have multiple accounts, you will need to install the client on multiple systems. You will have little control over users that might delete or stop syncing a particular subdirectory from the local system, and if that happens that data will stop being backed up. Another challenge with this method is you may backup some data multiple times, depending on your setup.
The better method is to backup the cloud system itself. You only need to configure a single backup system, you can ensure you will back up everything, and you will be impervious from user configuration changes stopping you from backing up. Data can, and should, be backed up to a different cloud provider than the one storing the data in the first place for the same reasons that you don’t store the box of backup tapes on top of the server you are backing up. The biggest challenge with this method is there are very few companies that backup file sync and share services, and there are some file sync and share services that have no such companies that can back them up. However, this is an important enough issue that one should consider this when examining which file sync and share service to use.
There are a number of things that can happen to file sync and share data that the service provider might not be able to recover from. File versioning might be able to recover from user errors such as accidental deletion or accidentally corrupting a file. It also might be able to recover from an accidental deletion of an entire directory, but restoring entire directories can be more difficult than restoring a single file.
Depending on the vendor, they also might not be able to recovery from either of these two scenarios. Two things that file sync and share services are definitely not setup to protect you from are hackers who may purposefully damage your account and any mistakes in the code that could damage data. This is why such data should be backed up. It is possible to back it up from the client, but the larger your organization is the less possible that becomes. The wiser thing is to back it up from the central repository. There are a number of companies that can help you with that, and if there are no companies that back up your particular file sync and share service, it’s time to consider a different service.
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