is my online data safe for ever?
Filefront.com held data from hundreds of thousands of gamers - highlighting the pitfalls of cloud computing
No - just ask the users of one of the web's biggest gaming sites. In the 10 years since Filefront.com launched, it had grown to become a major destination for gaming material and notable for hosting everything from videos and screenshots to downloadable demos and software patches. It was a treasure trove for gaming geeks, and hundreds of thousands of them had uploaded their own files to the site's servers to share with fellow fans.
Then, last week, the site's owners announced the unthinkable: they were closing down the site. What first looked like a cruel April Fool's joke became real when the management slipped in the crucial details: "If you have uploaded files, images or posted blogs, or if you would like to download some of your favourite files, please take this opportunity to download them before March 30th when the site will be suspended."
The announcement presented users with a huge challenge - they had just five days to grab an enormous 48 terabytes of information stored on the site.
Almost immediately, plans swung into action. Overseen largely by a group of former Filefront staff members, who realised that hundreds of thousands of users would probably not succeed in simultaneously backing up all that data, copies of the site's vast archives were painstakingly made.
Although initial progress seemed slow, within a few days the team said they had successfully copied most of the information and were getting ready to shift it elsewhere. "We're good," said one Australia-based user, before another said that "Filefront is dead".
But while Filefront's story is a great example of how an online community was able to save itself from destruction, it is also a lesson in the potential dangers of storing lots of valuable information online.
Cloud computing has become one of the great online trends: just look at the virtually unlimited storage offered by Gmail and Yahoo Mail, for example.
But while many of us opt for the convenience of using cloud services and storing information on the internet, we remain largely oblivious to the problems that could be caused if that data becomes unavailable. Just six weeks ago, Gmail users around the world gnashed their teeth when the service went down for a few hours, but few quit or chose to back up their emails instead.
Ceding responsibility to the cloud is a problem that was highlighted last year by the free software advocate Richard Stallman, who stirred up controversy when he told the Guardian that cloud computing was a dangerous trap that took away users' control of their data.
Cloud advocates may scoff. After all, companies such as Google and Yahoo are unlikely to fold, aren't they? Just ask Filefront's owner - the 82-year-old media conglomerate Ziff Davis … the lights can go out any time.
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