Imagine, if you will, huddling over your computer early one morning, plowing through your overstuffed inbox. In a distracted state, you reach for your hot, steaming mug of coffee. Without looking, you bring it to your lips.

For just a split second, your fingers loosen their grip. As if in slow motion, the mug jerks sideways and a wave of muddy brown liquid sloshes all over your computer. After frantically trying to sop up the mess, you hear a strained clicking sound from the guts of the machine and watch helplessly as a once-bright light fades to black.

Assuming the physical computer is covered by insurance, the real issue here is the critical importance of backing up your data. The chances of data loss due to computer or hard-drive failure are quite high. In fact, the average life expectancy of a hard drive is only three to five years. If you do not have a backup system in place, it is only a matter of time until you lose all of your data, photos, movies, important documents and music.

There are two approaches to backing up your data: storing information "in the cloud" and on an external drive. We take a look at the pros and cons of each approach.

In 'the cloud'

As this approach implies, rather than backing up files on your computer or on a hard drive that you own, you store them virtually via a paid online service. Here are three excellent, fairly priced data-storage services: This simple service enables busy people to back up data without thinking much about it. It works whether you use a PC, a Mac or a Linux machine. There are also versions for mobile devices. The service is free for the first 2 GB. There are paid plans for 50GB ($9.99/month) and 100GB ($19.99/month). Bonus: You can access files from any computer (or smartphone), anywhere.

--Windows SkyDrive. If you are using Hotmail, Windows Messenger or Xbox Live, you already have access to Windows SkyDrive. This online file-hosting service allows users 25GB of free space to upload their files to a cloud storage that can be accessed from any computer. Similar to the other two options, this file-hosting service enables users to manage documents, media and other online content virtually. But unlike the other two options, this service is specifically geared to business users. You can get a personal account for free (5GB of storage), but the premium-service levels offered are: businesses ($15/user/month) and Enterprise (custom pricing).

On external devices

Both PCs and Macs have sophisticated backup software that is built into the computer's operating system. Unlike the services that store your data in the cloud, these programs have the ability to back up your entire system image, which is an exact copy of what's on your drive (including system settings and programs, not just files). If you ever need to restore a computer, this makes the process much easier.

--PC Users --" Backup and Restore. If you have Windows, you already have Backup and Restore. Windows Backup and Restore allows you to make copies of data files for everyone who uses the computer. You can let Windows choose what to back up, or you can select the individual folders, libraries and drives you want.

--Mac Users -- Time Machine. Time Machine is basically the Mac users' equivalent to Backup and Restore. It allows you to automatically back up your system, and keeps an updated copy of everything on your Mac, including application programs, files, photos, music, movies, emails, calendars and contacts.

The writers are co-founders of Buttoned Up, a company dedicated to helping stressed women get organized. Send ideas and questions to your For more columns, go to