Water Wheels and The Cloud Have More in Common Than You May Think

by Lynnette Nolan | Sep 07, 2010

Historically, factories needed to generate their own power. For example, a water wheel may have been built to power a factory’s machinery, with the construction of the wheel and its operation and maintenance falling entirely on that business. At some point, these local generators were replaced with centralized power generation, where power was generated remotely, distributed as a utility, and priced based upon consumption. There are many reasons why this development was a good thing. Utilities presumably know how to generate power better because that is their primary business, there are economies of scale, the consumer can ramp up or down its consumption quickly and easily, and the consumer doesn’t have to pay for the excess capacity that the consumer does not need.

From:  The Big Switch by Nicholas Carr

I recently came across this excerpt and it got me to thinking about the data backup options available to today’s businesses.  Those who choose to manage their own backup are not unlike the early factory owners who generated their own power – entirely responsible for the operation and maintenance of a local backup system. Similarly, those who have migrated to an online backup solution, like Carbonite Pro, are like those factory owners who outsourced power consumption to a centralized utility service.  They are free to focus on their core business operations, while only paying for the amount of backup their business consumes each month. Just as the utilities trumped local power generation, I have no doubt that cloud-based services will soon be the defacto data backup method for businesses of all sizes, worldwide.

As in the days of do-it-yourself power generation, do-it-yourself local backup carries with it inherent inefficiencies and hidden costs.  Here’s an example:  “Harold,” the owner of local company we interviewed (they are resellers for small business phone and data systems) has six computers in the office and three laptops that came and went with the sales people.  In theory all the computers are backed up to a local server with an external hard drive.  Once a week, Sally, the receptionist, had been taking the backup drive home where she swapped it out with the one from the previous week.  In theory, if a fire destroyed their building, they could recover everything to at least where it was the previous Friday. 

But there were problems:  Sally would go on vacation and the backups wouldn’t get swapped while she was away.  The salespeople with laptops would forget to connect to the office network and start their backup processes.  Nobody ever checked the actual backups to see if they were actually getting done properly and could be restored.  Nobody even checked to see that the external hard drives were working.  The final straw came when Sally decided to leave the company and got into a dispute with her employer over severance.  She refused to return the backup drive until her demands were met. 

Here are the differences between this common backup strategy and using an online backup service like Carbonite:

  • More efficient use of disk space:  Harold used 1TB external drives to back up a mere 20GBs of data, a 2% disk utilization.   A shared service like Carbonite can use more than 95% of its disk space.
  • Greater reliability:  External hard drives are notorious failure-prone – something like 3-4% failure rate per year.  Carbonite stores data on RAID6 redundant arrays that are theoretically 36 million times more reliable than a single drive. 
  • Safety:  The data on the drive in Sally’s basement was not encrypted.  If she lost it, somebody would have the whole company’s data.  Carbonite encrypts everything before it leaves the users’ PCs.  There is NO unencrypted data floating around. 
  • You know it’s working:  Unless you run tests on your external drive, you have no idea whether the backup is really usable.  Carbonite checks the integrity of every backed up file at the time it is stored and again every 3 months.  It will always work. 
  • Because Harold wasn’t in the backup business and really didn’t know much about backups, the whole process was risky, time consuming, and completely irrelevant to the core mission of his business.

Keeping those water wheels working was completely irrelevant to making sweaters, or shoes, or machinery.  What a pain it must have been to mill owners in the 1800s.  It’s no wonder that they replaced those water wheels with electric motors as soon as they could.  The ones who didn’t eventually went out of business. 

So it will be with backup.  It’s just a matter of time before people recognize that they are being penny wise but pound foolish with their data assets. 

CEO, Carbonite