How to: Use Cloud Storage

By Gerry Blackwell

September 18, 2009

Storing your data online, also called "cloud storage," makes particularly good sense for highly mobile employees.

Online storage--uploading your data over the Internet to a service provider’s data center--makes such perfect sense that the market is now glutted with vendors all hoping for a share of the anticipated revenue. And that is both a good thing and a bad thing.

Storing your data online, also called "cloud storage" however, makes particularly good sense for small businesses, and especially for highly mobile employees. Here’s why.

Online services save you the trouble and expense of setting up and managing backup and archival storage systems. You typically pay the service provider for as much capacity as you need, or sometimes for unlimited storage--and you don’t pay very much for it.

Because the data is stored remotely at a secure data center rather than on your own premises, it’s in some ways safer. If your office burns down, you can restore data over the Internet, from anywhere.

And if you need to restore data or access archived or shared files while traveling, you can do it without having to rely on potentially insecure and hard to set up virtual private network (VPN) connections to your office. Plus, again, you can access files from any Net-connected computer.

An overheated market

Competition is generally a good thing--it keeps prices low and spurs innovation--but you can also have too much of a good thing.

A glutted market, especially in this case where vendors are still experimenting with pricing and business models, means that choosing one to serve your needs and provide reliable, secure service over time can be a confusing crapshoot.

You might think that buying from an established vendor would protect you from uncertainty, but Hewlett-Packard recently closed down its two-year-old online storage service, HP Upline. Others have also disappeared, including highly rated sites.

Still, there are reasonably well-established providers. And many of these services are so inexpensive, it’s feasible to use more than one to provide redundancy.

Sorting through the options

Online storage services fall into two main groups. Some, such as Google Docs (part of Google Apps), focus mainly on file sharing, providing storage so that you can post documents to a server on the Net and let other people see and even edit them. Microsoft’s Office Live, a file sharing and collaboration-type service, includes Office Live Workspace, which provides up to 5GB of free storage.

Other vendors, such as Mozy, focus mainly or exclusively on backup. Some companies, such as Box and Egnyte, combine both functions. We’ll focus on the backup-type services.

Most companies provide a time-limited free trial of their service. Don’t buy any service without trying it first. And many offer some storage for free, hoping you’ll eventually sign up for more. The online backup providers typically offer 2GB, which may be enough for many small businesses to back up their most vital data.

One other way to differentiate online storage services: some provide downloadable client software to manage your online storage, while others, including most of the file-sharing type, are browser-based.

A browser-based service has the benefit of allowing you to access files from virtually any computer. But client software usually makes managing files easier and faster.

Backup: Mozy and Fabrik

The best backup services we know come from Mozy Inc. and Fabrik Inc. I’m lumping them together because they use the same client software, and offer the same basic features.

Mozy provides consumer (Mozy Home) and business (Mozy Pro) services. Fabrik Ultimate Backup is similar to the Mozy Home service. They’re cheap, secure and easy to use.

Both companies offer 2GB of free storage along with free downloadable client software. Mozy Home and Fabrik Ultimate Backup cost $5 a month for unlimited storage for one computer--less if you pay for a year or two years at a time. Mozy Pro is priced per desktop ($3.95) or server ($6.95) and per gigabyte ($0.50) per month.

As with other backup services, the Mozy and Fabrik client applications--virtually identical except for branding--let you choose which files and folders, and also file types, to back up. After initial backup, they only copy files that have changed so subsequent backups are relatively fast.

Both perform backups either when the computer is not in use or according to a schedule you set. And both can backup open or in-use files such as Outlook database files. Mozy Pro will automatically backup files as they change, and it keeps multiple versions. Fabrik Ultimate Backup detects changed files and backs them up every two hours.

Strong security

Security is as good as most small businesses require. Mozy and Fabrik both protect your data with 128-bit SSL encryption during backup--the same technology banks use for online transactions.

They store data with 448-bit Blowfish encryption to ensure it’s safe from hackers. Mozy Pro subscribers have the option of 256-bit military-grade encryption with user-set keys.

Mozy looks like it should last. It was originally launched in 2006 by an entrepreneurial firm, but was later acquired by EMC Corp., a multi-billion-dollar diversified IT company.

EMC has always been focused on areas related to storage and backup, so it may be more likely than most to survive the inevitable consolidation in this market.

Fabrik launched in 2005. In 2007, it purchased the consumer business of SimpleTech Inc., then the third-largest provider of add-on storage products. And last month, Hitachi Global Storage Technologies purchased Fabrik outright. So it too has a storage pedigree and strong backing from investors.

Proof in the pudding

The real test of any online backup service is restoring files in an emergency. Your correspondent can confirm that Mozy and Fabrik work.

My laptop recently died, thousands of miles from home. Luckily I had a second machine with me and had backed up important data using free Mozy and Fabrik accounts.

Both offer a few ways to restore files. You can do it using the client software, but you can also do it from within Windows Explorer or by logging in to your account at the Mozy Web site.

Since my computer was dead and the client software inaccessible, I had to restore from the Web. It took more than two hours to download my 1.5GB Outlook file to the backup machine, but just having it, under the circumstances, was a blessing.

Backup: other options abound

There are lots of other providers, including many that offer similar features.

iStorage from Iomega Corp., another multi-billion-dollar storage products vendor, promises strong security--128-bit SSL or 256-bit AES--but costs a little more, with prices for iStorage Home ranging from $5.99 a month for 1GB of capacity to $50 a month for 15GB.

Intronis, which started out targeting Fortune 500 companies, launched its eSureIT online backup service in 2003, making it a pioneer. It also boasts strong security--256 AES encryption during backup and archiving. Intronis offers 2GB of free storage, but charges per gigabyte per month ($2.99) for additional--and you have to provide billing information to get the free capacity.

Back Up My Info is more expensive again, but differentiates itself by offering highly personalized service. Its employees check to ensure subscribers’ backups are completed regularly.

Other options include MyOtherDrive (which includes sharing features as well as backup), Storage Guardian (another pioneer that has been in operation for ten years) and iDrive.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s. Article courtesy of SmallBusinessComputing.com.



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