How to Backup Cloud Data

[This Part 2 of a series – be sure to read Part 1 and Part 3, too.]

Many of the services and apps we use today are based in the cloud. But what happens if that service goes down or even out of business? You could lose all that data forever. Where possible, you should make a backup.

cloud backup

The Cloud: Someone Else’s Computer

Remember that the “cloud” is just another word for “someone else’s computer”. We access many useful applications via the web today. The fancy marketing term for this is “Software as a Service” or SaaS. Think of Google Docs, Adobe Creative Cloud, iCloud, and Zoom. There are also many phone and computer apps where the data is primarily stored in the cloud such as email, calendars, contacts and cloud drive services like Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, DropBox, iCloud and others.

In my first backup article, I made a point of recommending that you have a cloud backup of your important computer data. But when the cloud is the primary storage location for your data, this flips the recommendation on its head: you should be sure to have a local copy of that data. The cloud is often billed as a secure and robust alternative to your computer. But you’re now trusting the cloud service provider (and all the service providers they use) not to lose or screw up your data.

Cloud Data Losses

You can lose access to cloud data in several ways:

  • Out of business. There have been many, many online service providers that have closed shop, or were bought out and then shut down. Remember Picasa? Wunderlist? Pebble? Insteon? There are whole websites dedicated to services that Google and Microsoft have killed off.
  • Service outage. Most cloud services are robust, but they still go down from time to time. If they’re a victim of a ransomware attack, they could potentially be down for days or weeks. Sometimes the problem is the internet itself, like the DynDNS attack or your own ISP going offline for some reason. In these cases, service usually returns and your data should still be there. But while it’s unavailable in the cloud, it can be nice to have local access to your stuff.
  • Sync errors. The main driver behind putting data in the cloud is to allow you to access it from anywhere and from multiple devices. This means that multiple copies of your data exist, with the cloud service working to keep them in sync. But that also means that if the data gets messed up on one device (including the cloud server), all copies of that data will be messed up. Some cloud drives have a history feature that will allow you to restore older versions of files, but even those have time limits.

The bottom line here is this. If you have important data that’s stored in the cloud somewhere – particularly data or files that you can’t replace – then you need to make copies of that data somewhere else.

Tips for Backing Up Cloud Data

How you create backups of cloud data will vary depending on the type and source of the data. But generally speaking, you’ll want to ‘archive’ or ‘export’ your data to a computer, and then make sure that your computer itself is backed up (see the first article). I put these files in a special “BACKUP” folder on an external hard drive, and that drive is backed up locally and to the cloud.

And because you’re making a copy of your data – a snapshot in time – you will probably want to get updated snapshots on a periodic basis. You can create a reminder for yourself, maybe once a month or once a quarter. I try to keep at least two snapshots at all times, getting rid of older snapshots when I need to free up space.

It’s important to understand the format of the data, as well. If you have the option, you should choose a download format that can be opened or viewed by some other tool or app. That is, avoid proprietary formats if you can in favor of open formats that are supported by many tools such as PDF, HTML, JSON or XML.

Cloud Data Checklist

The lists below will help you think about what data you might want to consider backing up. As you use apps on your phone or computer, or interact with web-based apps, stop and think: would I be upset if I could no longer access this data? If so, then you should find a way to download a local copy of the data.

Thanks to privacy legislation around the world, many companies are now required to provide you with tools to download a copy of all your data. Find the “Support” or “Help Center” on the web site and try searching for “download my data”. You can also try doing a web search for specific items, too – or even try asking ChatGPT. Note that these archive requests can take several days to complete and can be quite large. In some cases, you can choose to only download a subset of your data.

General Categories

  • Email (see this article for help)
  • Calendars
  • “Office”: word documents, spreadsheets, presentations
  • Images/photos
  • Cloud drives
  • Social media posts
  • To-do lists
  • Contacts
  • Two-factor authentication (2FA) codes (see this article)
  • Game saves
  • Fitness and health tracker info

Specific Services

Going Further

In the next installment of this series, I’ll talk about making backups of important data that you don’t directly control.

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