Cloud Nation's Tips for Choosing the Right Cloud Storage Provider

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Cloud computing experts from SMB Nation's Cloud Nation community share 10 questions every SMB and IT professional should ask before adopting a cloud backup and disaster recovery solution.

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Choosing a cloud storage solution based only on cost is a recipe for disaster.

Cloud Nation's Tips for Choosing the Right Cloud Storage Provider

It's no secret that cloud computing is hot. While enterprises led the way into the cloud with their adoption of virtualization technology, nowadays even the ma-and-pop store down the street is looking into cloud storage. Millions of consumers and businesses already store their email on the cloud (think Gmail, Hotmail, and Office 365) and millions more use services like Dropbox, Google Music, or iCloud.

Unfortunately, the average computer user has little understanding of the nuances of cloud storage and, absent any expert advice, is likely to choose the data backup and storage solution that's either the cheapest or offers the "most gigabytes." Depending on the user's specific situation, that could be a road to disaster.

When choosing a cloud storage provider, consumers should either consult an expert or seek the answers themselves to following questions:

10 Questions to Ask Cloud Storage Providers:

1) What files need to be stored in the cloud? Virtually any cloud storage solution can handle Word documents, pictures, music, and other static files. But the situation becomes far more complex with active databases, like QuickBooks company files or Outlook PST files. For customers who need real-time backup of database files they rarely close, they need a storage solution that offers Volume Shadow Copy Service (or VSS) aware snapshot support. Companies that provide such functionality include StorageCraft and Jungle Disk.

2) Manual, scheduled or real-time backup? Some cloud services, such as Dropbox or SkyDrive, are like hard drives in the sky. When users create a new file, they have to manually save it to the cloud. Other services, such as Mozy or Carbonite, allow users to schedule automated backups. The most advanced backup and file sync solutions offer real-time data syncing, meaning files are saved to the cloud as soon as they are modified.

3) Differential or incremental file sync and backup? Differential file backup and sync means that any file modified since the last data sync is saved in full to the cloud. This works fine for small files, such as Word documents, but can cause major headaches with multi-gigabyte database files. Incremental file sync only uploads the individual pieces of a file that have been modified. For example, if a 6GB Outlook PST file only has 50MB of changes since it was last synced, then solutions that provide incremental file sync will only upload 50MB worth of data.

4) Does the company offer data compression? Data compression refers to packaging files in a way that reduces their size. Services that offer data compression are more likely to deliver faster data download and upload speeds; they can also save users money if storage fees are charged on a per-gigabyte basis.

5) Are only files needed, or OS and programs too? Most cloud storage and backup solutions only save individual files. That means if a computer crashes, its documents and other user-created data are safe—but the user will still have to reinstall the computer's operating system and all of its programs. Users who need their entire operating system backed up should look for software that performs "disk image backup." Asigra and StorageCraft offer full disk image backup services.

6) What level of data durability? Most reputable cloud storage providers can provide "data durability" statistics when asked. Data durability refers to the likelihood that any particular object (or file) will become corrupted while stored on the company's servers. Companies like Amazon provide upward of 99.999999999% durability, meaning 1 in every 100 billion objects stored with Amazon has a likelihood of becoming irrevocably corrupted.

7) Georedundancy of user data? Data centers are much more secure and better constructed than most places of business, but they're not immune to natural disasters or other catastrophes. Users looking to store mission critical data in the cloud should choose a service provider that offers georedundancy; in other words, every user's data is stored in at least two geographically diverse locations.

8) Does the company offer true data encryption? Most (though certainly not all) cloud storage providers encrypt users' data while it is traveling through cyberspace, but many service providers do not encrypt data that resides on its servers—or, if they do encrypt it, they encrypt it with a key they have access to, which means potentially that data center employees have access to users' data. The most secure cloud storage providers support encrypting data before it ever leaves a user's computer, ensuring complete end-to-end privacy and security.

9) Does the company offer a “bare metal” service? “Bare metal” or “data shuttle” services refer to hard copy backups—i.e., a service that allows for the shipping of an actual hard drive, either to seed an initial backup or to provide expedited data restoration in an emergency situation.

10) Total cost of service? While many cloud storage providers charge simple, straightforward fees—e.g. $0.20/GB per month—others have more complicated cost structures. Amazon S3, for example, charges per gigabyte of storage but also charges additional data transfer fees in many situations. Other companies may market plans that read "$15/month for 100GB, only $0.15/GB" but charge for the full 100GB, even if the customer uses far less than 100GB.

Choosing a cloud storage service can be tedious, but consumers should remember not all cloud storage services are created equal. It bears remembering that cloud backup and disaster recovery service providers are the companies both consumers and businesses trust with valuable, often irreplaceable data.


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Joseph Walker
SMB Nation
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