Over the weekend, some Facebook users began to experience issues with their photos. Some photos weren't displaying at all while others only displayed a "question mark" graphic when you tried to view them. As it turns out, the issue was caused by a failure on the drive on which these photos were stored. The outage affected 10 to 15 percent of photos, which, given the site's current status as the top social network worldwide, is a hefty number. However, a recent post on the Facebook blog assured users that their photos were safe, backed up in several locations, and would be restored soon.

Where Are Your Facebook Photos?

According to the company, during a routine upgrade on Friday night, they ran into some problems with photo storage. The issue appears to have stemmed from several drives failing at once. Because simultaneous hardware failure such as this is rare, Facebook says they're still trying to figure out what happened.

In the meantime, though, the photos are being copied to new drives - a process that can take some time due to the large amount of data that was affected. The company asked users not to worry because they store photos in a way that maintains multiple copies of the data in case of hardware failures such as this. By early this week, everything should be back to normal.

The Cloud is Not Perfect

This recent issue with Facebook photos is just one of many cloud-based outages and issues we've seen recently - a trend that moved some to question the level of trust we should have for these online services. Over the past few weeks, we've seen the social bookmarking site Ma.gnolia completely fry and lose all their customers' data when the service's database crashed and took with it a half a terabyte of information. Unfortunately, no reliable backups were to be had.

But while Ma.gnolia may have represented the dangers of trusting a small startup with your data, Google has proved that even companies as large as themselves are not immune from problems. A recent four-hour Gmail outage from routine maintenance "gone wrong," caused a cascading failure in Google's European data centers.

And on the heels of the Gmail outage, Google Groups also went down for some time. All groups were affected for a short while.

These incidents led Google to follow in the footsteps of other cloud storage companies like SalesForce.com and Amazon in the launch of a Google Apps status dashboard so they could better communicate with customers whether their online applications were up and running.

In Google's case, repairs were made and customers were credited as necessary, but even so many businesses and individuals were affected in ways that can't necessarily be quantified so easily. Although some quickly rallied to Google's defense, reminding that Gmail's uptime is often much better than on-site hosted email systems, the point many folks are missing is that unlike in "the old days," not everyone keeps copies of their data on their computers anymore - so when the cloud shuts down, that data is just gone, albeit only temporarily in most cases.

Be Safe, Use More than One Service!

Still, even if you've switched over to cloud services for storing and accessing the majority of your data, you can prevent outages from affecting you. The trick is to store your data in more than one online service or use a hybrid cloud/desktop solution. For example, if your email is mission critical, use an IMAP-enabled desktop or mobile client. Those doing so during Gmail's outage were able to access their inbox to retrieve old emails - they just couldn't send and receive.

For photos, like the ones that recently went missing from Facebook, there are a number of online services where they could have been stored. Today, there's really no reason to only keep your photos in one spot. An easy way to upload photos to multiple sites is to use a tool like Pixelpipe which shoots photos, videos, and audio files to over 60 social networks, photo/video sites, and blogs.

Even documents can be stored in more than one location. Google Docs and Zoho may be the best known of the web office services, but you could also keep critical files saved to your computer then backed up using another third party backup service like Mozy. Or you could upload files to storage sites like Google's own Google Sites or Microsoft's "Sharepoint Lite" Office Live.

No matter what you do, there's always a chance of losing data, even if you only save files on your computer, completely eschewing the cloud altogether. But that's probably not as safe as keeping files in multiple online services. With the number of services available, an outage shouldn't mean we have to lose access to our files. Use hybrid solutions or spread your data across multiple services instead and you'll almost always be okay, outage or not.