Storing your data in their cloud

Online file storage can help many small businesses.

Although it may seem like your computing life is all e-mail and browsing, computer users still create files, documents, spreadsheets, boring presentations and all manner of other stored information. Which brings me to the question: Where do you store your data? And are you ready to store your data online in a service hosted by a third party provider?

Individuals and very small companies leave their critical files on individual computer hard drives. But hard drives still fail, even though it seems like they'll run forever. Add in the fact that the majority of computers sold the last few years have been laptops rather than desktops, and your still-running laptop hard drive may be left behind in a cab in Cleveland. Such are the problems of storing your files only on your personal computer.

Local file servers appeared not long after the first personal computers, and they have gotten bigger and cheaper (many terabytes of disk space for $1,300-$2,000). Novell's NetWare created the local file server market, then it bungled its market lead and let Microsoft take over. Local file storage does a great job for a great price, but the world has changed.

The biggest change for small companies? They no longer have all their employees in the same place. Only about 25% of small businesses have a single location, and even those employees still need access to files when working out of the office, such as at a customer site. Inexpensive local file storage devices that work great in the office don't make it easy to access files over the Internet.

Enter various companies that offer online file storage for individuals and companies. Egnyte, which calls itself a “cloud-based file server”, offers M/Drive (for Mobile Drive) for your desktop and laptop, and is even offering to connect to your iPhone. Egnyte has client software for Windows, Macintosh and Linux personal computers.

The technology isn't new, given FTP was one of the earliest Internet protocols developed. But the technology has gotten much easier to use and the broadband services in the U.S. have gotten reliable enough to, well, be relied on for critical business file access.

Egnyte gets kudos for proudly stating “I'm a file server,” although many have broken this ground previously. Box.net is a popular online site that allows you to store, manage and share your files. Xdrive came earlier, and though owner AOL said it would close that site, it is still out there offering service.

Other companies include plenty of file storage goodies in their collaboration services. HyperOffice, a service I've used for several years, includes all sorts of online collaboration tools like shared and private contacts, calendars, task lists and document storage. It even includes Document Version Control for larger companies serious about audit trails, locked documents, and multiple versions. The company’s HyperDrive feature links your Windows computer to HyperOffice's public and private file storage folders.

Another service, iPrismGlobal, offers similar features but is heavier on the virtual workplace look and feel. Collaboration, not merely file storage, is the primary feature of both these services and many others in this space.

Small file transfers from an online server don't take much longer than from local storage hardware, but larger files will take noticeably longer. Of course, any time you access things over the Internet rather than a local network performance drags. But accessing a hosted service is just as fast or faster than connecting through VPN links back to your office server, and you don't have to pay for hardware.

Since small business owners remain the most price sensitive buyers in technology, let's talk about money. Egnyte priced its service at $15 per user per month, which seems a bit high. That price includes 20GB of storage by default and unlimited storage when you sign up three or more users. This compares well enough to some other multi-gigabyte storage hosts, and Egnyte says its pricing is one eighth the price of a hardware-based system.

However, collaboration services like HyperOffice offer online file storage and many more teamwork features for less money per user per month (less than $10 per user for a handful of users). It doesn't offer unlimited storage at that price, but few users creating standard office documents need gigabytes of disk space. Other services offering heavy sales or project management modules will charge more.

If you have a ton of music files, look to a specialized music storage service like MP3Tunes. It works on a “musical storage locker” model so you can stream your own music files to any connected device. All in the cloud, always available.

There are three big advantages for online folder and file storage. First, you don't have to spend any cash upfront for file storage hardware. Service providers heavily promote that fact, but realistically you can lease your server hardware and software and cut the monthly amount down to manageable size. So there's a bit of advantage to the service, but a known budget amount can be had either way.

Second, someone else (the host provider) worries about maintaining your file server security and updates. Servers can be leased and you can plan your budget, but you can't plan for security updates, mistakes and hardware failure. People who do nothing but manage storage stay up to date as a job condition.

Finally, sharing files with remote employees, customers and partners can be a giant pain with a physical server in your business. Each online service, whether you go with a server-only approach like Egnyte or a collaboration service like HyperOffice, makes it easy to control who sees files. Controls allow you to share files with only the people you specify, whether those people are employees or outsiders. You control who sees what, but you don't have to give outsiders access to your company network.

Some folks aren't ready to trust “the cloud” yet, even if others trust services like Google more than their own IT resellers (Can your business run completely online?, and All Google All The Time). If you trust Microsoft more than Google, keep an eye on Windows Live SkyDrive. Even the largest vendor of local file server software now offers server functions as an Internet-based hosted service.

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