The cloud services landscape can be very overwhelming, even to technologists. It seems that there is another provider entering the arena every day with something slightly unique to offer.
When it comes to storage, backup and file sharing, the cloud market is extremely confusing. Many of the products have their own unique features, yet there is significant overlap.
I am sure you have seen recent news surrounding the valuations of Dropbox and Box.net and are likely familiar with Carbonite, MozyPro, Backblaze, SugarSync and others cloud storage providers. But it may not be clear how these products are different and where you might use one or more for your needs.
So how did we get here with so many choices? The driving forces have been virtualization and cloud service management technologies that have created new economies of scale for cloud providers, allowing them to efficiently manage massive arrays of replicated hard drives.
With increasing performance and decreasing cost of bandwidth, cloud storage has become a viable alternative to running your own storage area network (SAN) or having to create a server for a RAID file share. Other benefits for cloud storage are that you can simply pay for what you use and avoid high up-front capital expense. You can also easily grow your storage as your needs change.
With that said, let's walk through the categories of cloud storage, to help you define the type(s) you need and look at some of the costs you are likely to see for these services. This will help you choose the solutions that best meet your business needs and your budget.
File sharing and collaboration are the most primitive form of cloud storage. They are very similar, but have some subtle differences. Originally, file sharing was achieved by FTP or Web servers purposed for file distribution. These tools were effective at simply getting a file from point A to point B, when the file is too big to email or the system receiving the file did not have email enabled.
The challenges for these tools are establishing login credentials, supporting various clients, and security. For internal networks, file shares on a server were an effective way to distribute files. However, you needed to be on the private network and have credentials in order to access the share folder.
Distributed workforces and collaboration outside of the company have created a need for users to share files in a way that is easy, secure, and affordable. Your IT and security departments will want a solution that they can still monitor and control access, so that permissions can be turned on and off easily as projects are completed or people and roles change. Table 1 summarizes the key attributes and highlights the differences of these two cloud storage service types.
Table 1: File Sharing and Collaboration Attributes
Backup should be one of the key services that your business has in place. Backup is like insurance; you can never have enough and you hope you never have to use it. Traditionally, backups in business are only performed on the most critical systems, i.e. email servers, databases, application servers and file shares.
However, today's mobile devices—smart phones, tablets, and laptops—can generate and hold lots of valuable business data. While the reliability of storage on these devices has increased, so has our reliance on the data. They need to be backed up as much as your computers and servers.
A cloud backup provider commonly provides free software that monitors your computer (or mobile device), detects changes in files, and uploads those changes to its data center. Pricing varies quite a bit and depends on the amount of storage and additional features and services that are provided.
Here are some must-have features that your backup provider should have:
- Encryption of files before they are transmitted
- Encrypted transmission of files (commonly this is done over SSL)
- Encryption of files on the provider's storage system
- Versioning of files, allowing you to recover a file that was backed up 1, 2, or 4 days old
- The ability to specify backups by, Folder, File Type, Size, Date/Time modified
- The ability to set a schedule of times to backup
And some nice-to-have features:
- Mobile access: the ability to pull a file from your mobile device
- User-controlled amount of CPU or bandwidth to use while a backup is being performed
- The ability to "seed" the backup using a local device, like a USB drive, and shipping it to the provider. This significantly saves time for the initial backup
- The ability for the user to generate and manage his/her own personal key. With this option, no one but the person that generated and holds the key can decrypt the data.
- In the case of a failure and need for a rapid recovery, the provider could send you a USB drive of your latest backup overnight
- Multi-factor authentication
- Files compressed before being transmitted to increase performance
A less common, but still useful, cloud storage service is file synchronization. This service has some features of both backup and collaboration. Synchronization services install an agent on your computer that creates a folder that is mirrored to a cloud storage provider.
While this seems like an effective backup solution, it is uncommon to have your files encrypted, so it is not as secure as a backup solution. Also, the cost for synchronization services tends to be higher than backup, since backup is stored in larger and more predictable volumes for the provider, and synchronization has many more user configurable features.
Common features of Synchronization:
- Local folder on your computer for offline access, and automatic upload and download of changes from the cloud provider
- Change files through your folder or a web interface
- Smartphone and tablet applications for access
- Version control
- Folders that allow access control to be granted to other users (read or edit) for collaboration or sharing
- Change history log
- Version history log and ability to revert to a previous version
The last, and least common type of cloud storage is archiving. Sometimes, you may have data that does not change but still needs to be persisted. Tape archiving or storage on CDs or DVDs have historically been effective and affordable options. The problem with these archiving solutions is the capital cost to implement such a solution, and the ability to find a file from archive when you need it.
Cloud archive providers are able to address this by combining tape storage with disk storage that holds the metadata, or information about the files. An index of the files and content can be built on this metadata, so that when you need to find a file, you are searching the metadata, which then knows how to pull the information from tape.
Because this is such a new area and demand is not very high, there are not a lot of solutions in the market today. But since the operating costs of these solutions is low and they are able to handle large volumes, you can get an affordable archive option for 10 TB of backup that is a fraction of the cost of cloud backup or cloud file sharing.
Next time in Part 2, I will categorize some of the more popular services into these feature areas and help you pick the best option for your business.
Disclosure - Russell Wurth is Vice President of Product Management at Verecloud, a reseller of MozyPro, SoftLayer, and Microsoft Sharepoint.