iCloud Sync May Not Be as Dependable as You'd Like

Backups are your friend

Key Takeaways

  • Apple’s CloudKit sync is broken, and getting worse. 
  • CloudKit is not the same as iCloud Drive, which is working fine.
  • Back everything up, or you will lose your precious data.
A waterway with a partly cloudy sky above it.

Lifewire / Charlie Sorrel

Apple's iCloud sync is getting so flaky that developers are pulling sync features from their apps. 

For a few months now, CloudKit sync has been acting up. Syncs don't complete, data may be out of date, and some users are even seeing the cryptic error message: "Request failed with http status code 503." The problem has gotten so bad that developers have had to inform their users or switch off sync altogether. So, is your data safe? Should you stop using iCloud completely? What if you rely on sync for your work?

"While sync isn't a business-critical feature for a calculator like PCalc, it's definitely good to have the same layouts and custom functions available on multiple devices," veteran iOS and Mac app developer James Thomson told Lifewire via direct message. 

"For other apps, it's going to have much more of an impact, for sure. Different people are running into different problems with it. For me, I'm just seeing very long sync times."

From a developer perspective, the main advantage of using iCloud is that it's built-in and almost everybody has it set up, plus it's free for developers to use.

CloudKit vs iCloud Drive

CloudKit is Apple's set of tools that let developers easily add sync to their apps. This is what allows your video-watching app to sync your playback positions between your Mac and your iPhone and your bookmarking app to make sure everything is up to date on your iPhone and iPad. It's a lot easier for developers than building their own sync engine, and it's better for users because you never have to trust your data to a third-party cloud service—it's all in iCloud. 

"From a developer perspective, the main advantage of using iCloud is that it's built-in and almost everybody has it set up, plus it's free for developers to use," says Thomson. "I'm not sure I would build my own system or use a third-party one where I don't know how secure it is. And, it might not be economical to do that as an ongoing service in a non-subscription app like PCalc."

iCloud Drive is Apple's Dropbox clone, a cloud storage space where you can add your own files and folders, and they're available on all your devices. To confuse matters slightly, some apps maintain a folder in iCloud Drive for your app data. This is distinct from CloudKit syncing, which is used more for syncing data and preferences internal to the app. In short, if it's a file stored in a folder that you can access yourself, it's in iCloud Drive. And iCloud Drive is not experiencing any of these ongoing glitches. Your data is as safe as it has ever been. 

Cloud Consequences

For developers, this outage means frustration, loss of possibly major app features, a flood of support requests, and bad App Store reviews. The developer of the GoodNotes, a PDF and notes app, has posted a support document to explain what’s happening, and James Thomson has removed preference sync from his calculator app PCalc. And it’s getting worse. 

A screenshot from iCloud

“iCloud errors seem to have really increased over the last couple of days,” Paul Haddad, the developer behind TweetBot, wrote on Twitter

Should you be worried?

How to Keep Your Cloud Data Safe

There’s not much you can do about these sync issues, and the possibility of data loss is a real worry. The best way to protect yourself is to make backups. 

For many iOS users, a backup means an iCloud backup. Those are working fine right now (you can check Apple’s iCloud System Status page at any time to see what’s working—or not), but maybe you want something a little more under your control. 

You can either switch to local iOS device backups through iTunes or the Finder, or use the iMazing app for more backup control.

For Mac users, it’s a lot easier. You can use the built-in Time Machine app to back everything up to an external drive or run the excellent Carbon Copy Cloner to do the same. If you do this, remember to check the box in your Photos app that downloads all the originals from your iCloud Photo Library to your Mac. 

Regular backups are essential no matter what, so if you’re not already making them, you might take this as an opportunity to start—and keep on going, even after Apple fixes everything up.

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