Don’t Get Trapped in iCloud

By  /  April 4th, 2017

Don't Get Trapped in iCloud

Let me preface this with a bit of history: I’ve been using Macs for more than 30 years. I’ve seen an enormous amount of changes at Apple, and I’ve been using their online services since the AppleLink days (it was a pre-Internet dial-up service for Apple dealers and service people).

Over the past few years Apple’s made a lot of changes to iCloud. They’ve added some great additions to make it a world-class cloud service. But there are drawbacks. In the course of selling, supporting and writing about these devices, I consistently see people make the same mistakes. So with that background let’s get to my central point: I think it’s a big mistake to trust Apple alone with your data. Let me tell you why.

Apple aggressively promotes iCloud to its customers as a way to securely store information, photos and other vital data, leading to a false sense of security that all of your data is safe from harm. It isn’t. Let’s talk about some of the biggest mistakes you can make with iCloud.

iCloud Sync Does Not = Backing Up

Even if the picture of your puppy’s first bath time is on your iPhone and your iPad, it isn’t backed up. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to assume that since your photos, contacts, and calendar sync between devices, they’re backed up. There’s a big difference between syncing and backing up.

Repeat after me:
Syncing Is Not Backing Up
Syncing Is Not Backing Up
Syncing Is Not Backing Up

iCloud helps you sync content between devices. Add an event to the calendar app on your phone and iCloud pushes that change to the calendar on your Mac too. Take a photo with the iPhone and find it in your Mac’s Photos library without having to connect the phone to the computer. That’s convenient. I use that functionality all the time.

Syncing can be confusing, though. iCloud Photo Library is what Apple calls iCloud’s ability to sync photos between Apple devices seamlessly. But it’s a two-way street. If you delete a photo from your Mac, it gets removed from your iPhone too, because it’s all in iCloud, there is no backup copy anywhere else.

Recently my wife decided that she didn’t want to have the same photos on her Mac and iPhone. Extricating herself from that means shutting off iCloud Photo Library and manually syncing the iPhone and Mac. That adds extra steps to back everything up! Now the phone has to be connected to the Mac, and my wife has to remember to do it. Bottom line: Syncs between the computer and phone happen less frequently when they are manual, which means there’s more opportunity for pictures to get lost. But with Apple’s syncing enabled, my wife runs the risk of deleting photos that are important not just on one device but everywhere.

Relying on any of these features without having a solid backup strategy means you’re leaving it to Apple and iCloud to keep your pictures and other info safe. If the complex and intricate ecosystem that keeps that stuff working goes awry – and as Murphy’s Law demands, stuff always goes wrong – you can find yourself without pictures, music, and important files.

Better to be safe than sorry. Backing up your data is the way to make sure your memories are safe. Most of the people I’ve helped over the years haven’t realized that iCloud is not backing them up. Some of them have found out the hard way.

iCloud Doesn’t Back Up Your Computer

Apple does have something called “iCloud Backup.” iCloud Backup backs up critical info on the iPhone and iPad to iCloud. But it’s only for mobile devices. The “stuff” on your computer is not backed up by iCloud Backup.

Making matters worse, it’s a “space permitting” solution. Apple gives you a scant 5 GB of free space with an iCloud account. To put that in context, the smallest iPhone 7 ships with 32 GB of space. So right off the bat, you have to pay extra to back up a new device. Many of us who use the free account don’t want to pay for more, so we get messages telling us that our devices can’t be backed up.

More importantly, iCloud doesn’t back up your Mac. So while data may be synced between devices in iCloud, most of the content on your Mac isn’t getting backed up directly.

Be Wary of “Store In iCloud” and “Optimize Storage”

macOS X 10.12 “Sierra” introduced new remote storage functions for iCloud including “Store in iCloud” and “Optimize Storage.” Both of these features move information from your Mac to the cloud. The Mac leaves frequently accessed files locally, but files you don’t use regularly get moved to iCloud and purged from the hard drive.

Your data is yours.

Macs, with their high-performance hard drives, can run chronically short of local storage space. These new storage optimization features can offset that problem by moving what you’re not using to iCloud. As long as you stay connected to iCloud. If iCloud isn’t available, neither are your files.

Your data is yours. It should always be in your possession. Ideally, you’d have a local backup of your data (time machine, extra hard drive, etc) AND an offsite copy… not OR. We call that 3-2-1 Backup Strategy. That way you’re not dependent on Apple and a stable Internet connection to get your files when you want them.

iCloud Drive Isn’t a Backup Either

iCloud Drive is another iCloud feature that can lull you into a false sense of security. It’s a Dropbox-style sync repository – files put in iCloud Drive appear on the Mac, iPhone, and iPad. However, any files you don’t choose to add to iCloud Drive are only available locally and are not backed up.

iCloud Drive has limits, too. You can’t upload a file larger than 15 GB. And you can only store as much as you’ve paid for – hit your limit, and you’ll have to pay more. But only up to 2 TB, which will cost you $19.99/month.

Trust But Verify (and Back Up Yourself)

I’ve used iCloud from the start and I continue to do so. iCloud is an excellent sync service. It makes the Apple ecosystem of hardware and software easier to use. But it isn’t infallible. I’ve had problems with calendar syncing, contacts disappearing, and my music getting messed up by iTunes In the Cloud.

That was a real painful lesson for me. I synced thousands of tracks of music I’d had for many years, ripped from the original CDs I owned and had long since put in storage. iTunes In the Cloud synced my music library so I could share it with all my Apple devices. To save space and bandwidth, the service doesn’t upload your library when it can replace tracks with what it thinks are matches in iTunes’ own library. I didn’t want Apple’s versions – I wanted mine, because I’d customized them with album art and spent a lot of time crafting them. Apple’s versions sometimes looked and sounded differently than mine.

If I hadn’t kept a backup copy locally, I’d be stuck with Apple’s versions. That wasn’t what I wanted. My data is mine.

The prospect of downloading thousands of files, and all the time that would take is daunting. That’s why we created the Restore Return Refund program – you can get your backed up files delivered by FedEx on a USB thumbdrive or hard disk drive. You can’t do that with iCloud.

It’s experiences like that which explain why I think it’s so important to understand iCloud’s inherent shortcomings as a backup service. Having your data sync across your devices is a great feature and one I use all the time. However, as a sole backup solution, it’s a recipe for disaster.

Like all sync services if you accidently delete a file on one device it’s gone on all of your devices as soon as the next sync happens. Unfortunately “user error” is an all too common problem and when it comes to your data, it’s not one you want to take for granted.

Which brings us to the last point I want to make. It’s easy to get complacent with one company’s ecosystem, but circumstances change. What happens when you get rid of that Mac or that iPhone and get something that doesn’t integrate as easily with the Apple world? Extricating yourself from any company’s ecosystem can, quite frankly, be an intimidating experience, with lots of opportunities to overlook or lose important files. You can avoid such data insecurity by having your info backed up.

With a family that uses lots of Apple products, I pay for Apple’s iCloud and other Apple services. With a Mac and iPhone, iCloud’s ability to sync content means that my workflow is seamless from mobile to desktop and back. I spend less time fiddling with my devices and more time getting work done. The data on iCloud makes up my digital life. Like anything valuable, it’s common sense to keep my info close and well protected. That’s why I keep a local backup, with offsite backup through Backblaze, of course.

The safety, security, and integrity of your data are paramount. Do whatever you can to make sure it’s safe. Back up your files locally and offsite away from iCloud. Backblaze is here to help. If you need more advice for backing up your Mac, check out our complete Mac Backup Guide for details.

Peter Cohen
Peter will never give you up, never let you down, never run around or desert you. He also manages the Backblaze blog.

Follow Peter on:
His web site: peter-cohen.com | Twitter: @flargh | LinkedIn: Peter Cohen | Google+: Peter Cohen
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  • Becki

    does anyone have a possible solution as I am not tech savy. My daughters iphone 6 has thousands of pics on it. Her phone automatically backs up daily to the cloud. Phone suddenly started acting funny and started deleting her contacts. Before anything else happened we figured time for a new phone. Verizon swapped out the sim card, and had her sign in to icloud. It said NO RESTORE POINT so now everything was lost!! Where in the world does all this stuff go? We pay extra for more storage and had icloud for years now nothing? Photos are still are her old phone but cannot get them off, cannot even sent in message to self or anyone HELP

    • darwiniandude

      Most probably, you have signed into the new phone with a different Apple ID. Ensure it’s the same Apple ID used for backup. Maybe iCloud backup was not enabled, or was turned off instead of paying for storage. Try enabling iCloud Photo Library, if enabled the photos are stored there rather than in the backup. The phone should not delete contacts. Maybe any mother family member is using the same iCloud account (it should be one per person) and deleted contacts “I don’t need her contacts on my phone” which deleted them from her phone.
      Ideally, have the same iCloud account setup on a Mac as well, set to store original photos, and have a Time Machjne backup of that Mac and a Backblaze backup too – then you have decent backup with versioning as well.

      • Becki

        Hi, thanks for the reply. No one else shares her icloud account. Her phone starting acting strange and deleted her contacts as she was using it then when we went to verizon to get new phone, her icloud was suddenly off but she never has turned it off before, she had it automatically backup each night. Verizon had her sign in to her icloud for new phone and it said no restore point so she had to set up like a new phone. Anyway, we still have the old phone and can see the pics but cannot get them off. Where oh where does icloud keep the pics? No one has deleted them

        • darwiniandude

          If the old iPhone works well enough to view the pics, can you connect it to Wi-Fi, leave it plugged into power, and turn on the iCloud Photo Library switch in Settings, iCloud (or tap her name then iCloud, Photos? With iCloud Photo Library enabled (not photo stream, that is old and useless) all the photos on the phone should upload to her iCloud account and appear on the other phone over time. Note this requires Wi-Fi to be on.

          This isn’t really the place for tech support and I’m not Apple, so good luck, but maybe if you have further issues contact Apple in your country for assistance.

          • Becki

            we will try that thank you. I know its not the tech forum but apple doesn’t seem to have a clue? thx again. Will keep you posted as to any fix we can/may hopefully find

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  • karl

    I have similar story with Dropbox. I connected a new device to Dropbox, and started syncing. My important financial folder was deleted. No problem I thought, I logged into Dropbox and it was not present in the bin, nor in the folder. I am no sure what happened – during the syncing it has been removed. Anyway, I have an excellent back-up strategy so I was able to restore the missing folder.

    • You’re absolutely right. Sync services simply the process of sharing files *and* mistakes between devices.