According to news reports, as many as 150,000 users of Google's free e-mail service GMail discovered on Sunday that their accounts had been wiped clean. One of the benefits that made GMail so attractive to begin with was that its generous storage capacity -- later matched by competitors such as Yahoo! and Hotmail -- allowed you to keep all of your mail, hiding it using an "archive" button, and then search through it any time you wanted.
But for those affected by Sunday's outage, which was still underway for some users on Monday, all of their mail, past and present, was gone.
It's a scary thought; so much of our the information that makes up our lives is now in electronic form, whether photos, or e-mail messages, or documents. Few of us are as diligent as we need to be in backing up such materials.
Many experts recommend a combination of local backup (for example, on an external hard drive, which are becoming more and more affordable) and off-site backup (such as through a service like Mozy or Carbonite). If we're talking about an asset located in the Internet "cloud," such as GMail, backing it up means making a local copy of it to use in case of downtime.
Considering GMail's huge volume of messages and users, the company claims that it actually has an excellent uptime record, 99.984 percent last year, according to a Google statement quoted by the CNN/Fortune magazine web site. Sunday's outage affected only eight one-hundredths of a percent of the total GMail user base. But percentages don't matter if you're the one who lost your data.
Several sites I found recommend the software GMail Backup, available from www.gmail-backup.com, for making a local copy of all your GMail messages. The web site from which you can get the software was down when I checked it on Monday; no doubt that's because so many people, frightened by the GMail outage, are reviewing their options.
I also found a listing for GMail Keeper, at gmailkeeper.com, another GMail backup program.
There are similar backup programs available for Hotmail, such as the one at www.handybackup.net/hotmail-backup.shtml.
Another option is to use a traditional e-mail client like Thunderbird to read your e-mail, through what's called POP access. You can tweak your settings to leave copies of your messages on the GMail server while at the same time downloading them to your home computer. The downside to working with both locally-stored and network-stored messages from the same account is that sometimes you can get confused about which messages have been read and responded to.
Google expects to restore all of the lost e-mail to its GMail users, although the affected users were cut off from using GMail while that recovery process was underway. It's the type of scary story that hopefully prompts all of us to be more careful with our data.
--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is lakeneuron.com.