ALTOM: Do your company data files belong in the 'cloud'?

March 27, 2010

It’s no longer an insult to say a colleague has his head in the cloud. Maybe yours should be, too. Mine is, although I’m not entirely committed to it.

The “cloud” is a relatively recent word to describe the Internet, but it has a rather specific connotation. It refers to the Internet’s ability to take individual objects and break them into pieces so they can be stored and retrieved without your knowing exactly where they’ve been. You just send your files into the cloud, and it gives them back, and what goes on in between is not your business.

Parking files in the cloud has several advantages. One of the biggest is that you can share them effortlessly. You don’t need to attach them to e-mails or open up your own computer to snoopers. Just let your colleagues know where they are and give them permission to look. Another advantage is, you can share massive files that won’t go as e-mail attachments. Yet another is that it’s a convenient backup system, so if your own computer goes to Silicon heaven, you won’t be tempted to wish it eternity in an alternative afterlife.

Google has some of the most popular cloud software, in Google Docs and Google Calendar. I use Google Calendar to coordinate family activities. No matter where we are, we can update our calendar so everyone can see it. Google Docs, the stripped-down, shareable competitor to Microsoft’s Office, started out slowly, but its uptake is rising among businessfolk. In a recent survey, around 20 percent of businesses said they were using the cloud software. The numbers are going up fast enough that Microsoft has its own cloud version of Office in testing right now.

One concern that everyone has, of course, is security. It’s one thing to have the time and date of your kid’s birthday party recorded in the cloud, but maybe quite another to store proprietary company documents out there. Once upon a time, it made businessfolk nervous enough to keep cloud computing on the sidelines, but as the generations turn, it appears the tide is turning, too. Google is now so well-established that it’s become a safer bet for many of us. And to be honest, most documents businesses produce aren’t all that sensitive, anyway.

A step beyond Google Docs and Calendar is the online file-storage system, sometimes called a “filelocker.” This is a huge server farm that stores your files and allows others to get access to them with appropriate permissions. One of the better-known ones at the moment is Sugar Sync (www.sugarsync.com). Not only can you upload and share files, but Sugar Sync specializes in doing regular backups for you, too. That’s the “sync” part of the name, because the service synchronizes the files on your hard drive with the files stored in their server.

You can upload those files via e-mail attachment, and view them on your mobile device. Five old versions of documents are kept automatically. There are both business and personal accounts. The business accounts add features like user management. Individual accounts run $5 to $25 a month, depending on how much storage you need.

Sugar Sync has plenty of competitors. Check out Box.Net (www. Box.net), ElephantDrive (www.elephantdrive.com) and Carbonite (www.carbonite.com), among several others.

As usual, where there’s a front side, there’s a back side, too. Ever tried to upload big files anywhere on the Net? Most broadband vendors feature much faster downloading times than uploading ones. Mine, for example, is 5.13 megabits per second coming down, but 0.61 megabits going up. Quite a difference. It means 100 megabytes of data going from my home office to Sugar Sync would take roughly 15 minutes. Slower connections out in the field might take twice that long. 100 megabytes isn’t all that big in today’s world, and I’m as impatient as anyone.

As I noted earlier, there’s also security to worry about. Sugar Sync, as does many competitors, encrypts your data on its way in, then encrypts it again for storage. Your files are then backed up regularly into other server farms, so a catastrophe at one site won’t wipe them out entirely. Encryption means that even hacker attacks won’t necessarily imperil your secrecy. But of course there’s little you can do to keep the proper recipients from leaving downloaded files lying around. Most data loss isn’t due to hackers, but to careless employees.

My big worry, and one that’s not addressed by many vendors, is what happens if the company itself goes belly-up? That data should be yours, but if the storage company goes dark, how would you get to it? It seems silly to have to back up my backups. Longevity is no guarantee of future stability in Web territory. So evaluate your own risk tolerance, and decide if you want to do business in the cloud.•


Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.


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