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Should I Use Cloud Storage or an External Drive for Data Backup?

November 23, 2022

At, we’ve restored files for thousands of businesses, non-profits, and personal computer users — and at the end of every case, we usually get the same question:

“How can I make sure that this never happens again?”

The simple answer, of course, is to back up your data. In other articles, we’ve discussed the importance of keeping at least three copies of mission-critical data — including one off-site copy, which provides vital protection if you’re impacted by a natural disaster.

But many of our customers ask whether we recommend cloud backup services (such as Dropbox, Google Drive, or Amazon’s AWS Backup) over local media (such as external hard drives, solid-state drives, and USB flash drives). Both options can be excellent for long-term data backup — but no data backup method is 100% perfect.

Below, we’ll discuss a few considerations to keep in mind when building your data backup strategy. 

The Case for Cloud Data Backups

Cloud storage services have become extremely fast, reliable, and robust. While they’re more expensive in the long run than external hard drives, cloud backup offers several major advantages:

  • Cloud services are reliable. Major providers like Google and Dropbox operate enormous servers with layers of redundancy, so from a media perspective, there’s no single point of failure, and data loss is virtually impossible. Google claims to offer 99.999999999% data durability.
  • Cloud services can be configured to back up your files automatically. When you reduce the chances of human error, your backup strategy is much more reliable.
  • You can use a cloud service to back up several computers without moving physical hardware.

Of course, cloud backup services have certain disadvantages, which you’ll need to keep in mind when making your decision:

  • Cloud services can be expensive. Most plans offer 2 terabytes (TB) of space for about $9.99 per month, which can quickly eclipse the cost of a new hard drive or solid-state drive (SSD).  
  • You’ll need to set up adequate security for your account. We strongly recommend using two-factor authentication (2FA) and choosing a secure password.
  • Cloud services require an internet connection to operate. If your connection is slow, backing up your data may take hours (or days, or weeks). 
  • If your cloud backup operates automatically, it may be susceptible to logical data loss. For example, if your computer is infected with a virus or if you accidentally delete files, the unwanted changes may be reflected in the backup.

Overall, cloud services are best for computer users who need a consistent, “set it and forget it” backup routine. However, you’ll need to spend time configuring your backup and establishing strong security protocols — and you should still test your backups occasionally to make sure that they’re operating as expected.

Related: Why People Don’t Back Up Their Data

The Case for External Hard Drives and SSDs as Data Backup

A few decades ago, nearly all consumer backup was accomplished with external media. Times have changed, but external hard drives and SSDs still offer some notable advantages:

  • A local backup gives you direct control. Depending on the nature of the files, you may not want to trust a cloud service with your data — an external device may be a more secure solution.
  • External media is affordable. If you purchase a few hard drives or SSDs, you’ll pay less in the long run than you’d pay with a cloud service (and you’ll probably get more storage capacity). 
  • If your data doesn’t change very often (for example, you’re backing up old videos and photos), you can simply copy the files to an external drive and store it in a secure location. We still recommend checking your backups occasionally to make sure that your hardware is operational.

The primary disadvantages of external hard drives for data backup:

  • All physical media eventually fails. While you can set up a RAID or other multi-disk setup to improve reliability, this increases the cost of your backup solution.
  • If you store your backup media in the same physical location as your primary computer, you aren’t protected from fires, floods, and other natural disasters.
  • While you can download software to run backups automatically, external backups are generally more difficult to manage than cloud backup services.

You should consider external media as your primary backup method if your data doesn’t change regularly, if you have a limited budget, or if you have security concerns (and you’re unconvinced that cloud services will address those concerns). 

Related: What is an Air-Gapped Data Backup?

What about USB flash drives?

2TB USB flash drive scam deviceUSB flash drives are best for moving data from one place to another — unlike external drives, they’re fairly small and fragile. They also vary greatly in quality.

Perhaps most importantly, it’s easy to forget that you’re carrying important files in your pocket. We frequently recover data from USB drives that have been snapped in half, washed with the user’s clothes, or unintentionally formatted. 

While you can use USB drives as an extra safeguard against data loss, we wouldn’t trust them as your sole means of backup. 

Related: The 2TB Flash Drive Scam: Why “High-Capacity” Flash Drives Are Fakes

For data backup, “more” is always better.

The safest way to protect your data is to keep a secondary copy of your files on a local device (such as an external hard drive) and keep a third copy on a cloud backup service. 

With that said, any backup is better than no backup — but the more layers of protection you can implement, the better.

If you’ve lost data due to hard drive failure, malware infection, user error, or for any other reason, we’re here to help. We provide free media evaluations, industry-leading success rates, and a comprehensive no data, no charge guarantee.  

To get started, call at 1-800-237-4200 or set up a case online.