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Still bullish about cloud despite Sidekick mishap

I’ve been a big fan of “cloud computing,” but the public’s acceptance of storing vital data on remote servers may take a hit because of media reports about T-Mobile Sidekick users losing personal data.

I remain bullish because I can’t think of any other situation where people have lost data stored by a reputable and well-funded company like Microsoft, Google or Yahoo. All these services have experienced outages but, as far as I know, no data loss.

Obviously, it can happen. But the odds of a company with redundant data centers losing data strikes me as a lot lower than the odds of you or me losing our phone or laptop or having a computer’s hard drive or a phone’s memory fail.

Early this month, some Sidekick users discovered that their address books, photographs and other personal data on their device were no longer accessible. That’s because the data is stored on servers operated by Microsoft and not on the device itself.

That’s what is meant by “cloud computing.” Data is in the “cloud” (actually, in servers connected via the Internet) rather than on the device.

Last year, Microsoft bought Palo Alto-based Danger, which makes the Sidekick smart-phone, which is sold exclusively through T-Mobile.

It’s my understanding that the Sidekick offers some local caching or temporary data storage, but permanent storage is handled by the network. For the most part, that works well because the device connects to the network frequently, accessing the latest data.

Because of a technical glitch, Microsoft’s servers lost customer data. Early reports indicated that customers were unlikely to ever get their data back. But in a statement posted on its Web site on Monday, T-Mobile said recovering some lost content “may now be possible.” The company is offering all customers a free month of data service and promises a $100 “customer appreciation card” for “certain customers (who) have experienced a significant and permanent loss of personal content.”

As it turns out, the Sidekick is not one of the more popular smart-phones, so the number of people affected by this outage is relatively small. But the problem does raise questions about other cloud computing services operated by Google, Microsoft and other companies.

Google, for example, has long promoted Web services where data is stored by Google and accessible to users via the Internet. All messages and contact information used by millions of Gmail users, for example, are stored “in the cloud.” The same is true with Yahoo Mail and Microsoft’s Hotmail. And it’s not just addresses and e-mail. Google and Yahoo both store calendars, and the Google Docs service allows you to go online to create and edit word processing documents, spreadsheets and presentations stored on Google servers rather than your own device.

In an e-mail, a Google spokesperson said, “We actually go further than backup.” In the case of Gmail, “we provide live replication of data “… and keep multiple copies of data in separate locations for near-instant disaster recovery.”

Google also said that for its Android phones, such as the T-Mobile G1 or myTouch, “Gmail, calendar and contacts data is stored locally on the device and is mirrored in the cloud. So whether you lose your phone or the cloud goes down, your data will remain accessible.”

Although the BlackBerry and iPhone have plenty of local storage for address books and other data, they, too, could be affected by data stored in the cloud if you wind up synching bad data over good data.

For example, I synchronize my BlackBerry with my Google account to make sure I have the most recent addresses and calendar items. A few months ago, I had accidentally erased some of the contacts in my Google address book (it was my fault, not Google’s) and when my BlackBerry did an automatic sync, the data was overwritten there as well. Fortunately, I had a third copy of the data stored in my Microsoft Outlook file on my PC, so I was able to restore the data to Google and then to the BlackBerry.

The Palm Pre relies primarily on address data from Gmail or Microsoft Exchange. But it does keep a copy of that data in its memory so, as long as you don’t sync bad data over good, you should be OK in the event of a data center outage. Palm also backs up addresses you enter on the device to its own remote storage system.

And, while I realize this seems almost 19th-century, there is no harm in having an old-fashioned hard copy of critical data printed out on paper. It’s not very convenient to re-enter it back to a computer, but it’s better to have it on paper than not at all.

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