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Disaster recovery experts always recommend that businesses keep copies of their important data off-site, in case of a tornado, flood or similar catastrophe that could destroy not just your hard drive but also any backup tapes or discs you have in the same room or building.

It’s not bad advice for home users, either. Many people have precious photographs, irreplaceable email messages and documents that would be difficult or impossible to reconstruct if they were lost.

But how do you go about keeping backups of everything at a remote location? There are several ways. You could burn the files to a CD or DVD or save them to a removable USB hard drive (or, if the amount of data is limited, even put them on a tiny “thumb drive” or flash memory card). Then you can take them to a friend’s home, to the office or even put them in a safe deposit box at the bank. But that requires physically transporting the media.

Perhaps the most convenient way to store off-site backups is to transfer them to a remote computer over the Internet. If you have a friend who needs to do the same thing (and it’s someone you trust with your data), you can each email backup files to each other or set up FTP or SFTP (Secure FTP) sites on your computers and upload your backups to one another. That way, if your home were destroyed, there would be a copy of your data sitting safely on your friend’s hard drive miles away.

But what if you don’t have any friends or relatives to whom you want to entrust your most important and/or sensitive files? In that case, there are numerous online services, some of which are free and some of which charge a monthly or annual fee to store your files on their servers.

Microsoft’s Windows Live SkyDrive is one example of such a service. You can store up to 500 MB free and the folders you create and in which you store data are password protected with your Windows Live ID. You can also share your folders with others if you choose. File transfers are made using SSL encryption for better security. You can sign up here.

Google provides free file storage (almost 3 GB) with your Gmail account and last week they rolled out a new expanded online storage service with annual fees ranging from $20 (for 6 GB) to $500 (for 250 GB). For more information about upgrading your storage, click here.

Mozy has a service for $4.95/month but they also have a 2GB free plan.

Xdrive gives you 5 GB of free storage space. You need an AOL or AIM screen name/email address, but you don’t have to be an AOL subscriber. 

And if you really have a huge amount of data to store online, MediaMax offers 25 GB free or up to 1 TB (1000 GB) for $360/year.

These are just a few examples of the many online file storage services available. There are also commercial services for businesses, and some ISPs include free file storage on their servers with your Internet account. But what are the downsides of using one of these services?

Before you upload anything, read the Terms of Service, which should be accessible through the company’s web page. In most cases (especially with free and low cost services), you’ll find a clause stating that they can discontinue the service at any time, and that they are not responsible for any data loss you might experience. There will probably be a statement that they can modify the system requirements at any time – so you could suddenly find that you have to upgrade your computer or buy a new one to access your data.

The contract will require you to warrant that you aren’t going to use the service for any illegal activity, and some contracts also include weird prohibitions of activities that are legal, such as advertising the sale of firearms, alcohol, tobacco or “adult products.” The ToS will also probably specify that they can allow others to access your data with a court order or in the conduct of a criminal investigation and that they aren’t responsible if a hacker or other unauthorized person accesses your data.

So … should you trust your data to an online storage service? Only up to a point. I wouldn’t rely on it as my only off-site storage method, but it’s definitely convenient and can be a good solution, as long as you have a backup of your backup. You might want to go with the big name companies that aren’t as likely to go out of business, too – although nothing prevents them from just axing the service if they decide to (or start charging you to use it).

Also check out ease of use. Some services make it difficult to upload more than one file at a time – which makes for a tedious process if you’re trying to back up your entire Documents folder. Also be aware that you might have to install ActiveX controls to use the upload features. You can read about my experience with various file services on my blog post titled “Comparing Online Storage Services“.

What about you? Do you have an off-site storage method that you use regularly? Would you prefer to trust your data to a friend or relative, or to an online service where you can be relatively anonymous? How much is too much when it comes to paying for the service? Are Google’s prices too high? If so, what’s a fair price? Have you ever lost data that you stored online? 

Deb Shinder