One foot on the ground and one in the clouds

The days of all local or all cloud data storage are numbered.

The early adopter "cloud crowd" makes the most headlines, but they're only the tip of the small business iceberg. Looking at various data storage vendor customer numbers has convinced me 90% of small businesses are still mostly land (or LAN) based. Some people don't yet trust Internet data storage, and some like to wear data storage suspenders with their data storage belts. The good news for both? Options for combo cloud and local storage hybrids continue to grow.

What do you need to do with your files? Create them, share them, change them, back them up, and archive them in regulated industries. You can do all these things locally or online. Some early adopter small companies do everything online, but most small businesses still do everything locally. Smart business now requires a mixture of local and online data storage to add offsite backup in case of a disaster, and easy data sharing with remote coworkers and business partners.

The best local and online combination I've seen, for the last three years, is FileEngine, a small company in Indianapolis. Custom hardware, in fire engine red (the owner jokes it's “file engine” red) provides local user file storage much like a Windows Server without the Web and e-mail server cost and complexity. Local users store their files on the FileEngine rather than on their own computers, which reduces file loss risk (remember you can't trust users to protect their files). The FileEngine saves two weeks of file changes locally on the server, like a network “undelete” key for your files. Thirteen months of data files, sent automatically every night, are stored on the big FileEngine in the sky (their dedicated backup servers).

Many small business owners still prefer data storage they can touch, and they can touch the FileEngine. They rarely need to, because FileEngine handles management remotely, but it makes people feel better that their files are local for faster restore. And it makes them feel better again that more than a year of file changes are safely backed up online. All this hardware, software, and service starts at $1 per hour, or $8 per day.

I'm amazed FileEngine's great idea hasn't been copied for a couple of years, but one new company is coming from the cloud down to local rather than from local up to the cloud. Egnyte offers an “on demand file server” that's strictly cloud based. You treat the Egnyte service like a local file server, but it's all online.

While Egnyte wrongly calls itself the first hybrid cloud/on-premise file server solution (FileEngine beat them by three years), it may be the first online storage service to provide a way to tie local hardware to your online backup files. Rather than provide the hardware as does FileEngine, Egnyte provides software to coordinate online files with your own off the shelf storage device (Maxtor, Simpletech, Western Digital, Toshiba, etc). You can also use your local computer hard drive.

Think of this as a local copy of your online backup files, so you can access them if you can't reach the Internet. People want that, as evidenced by all the trouble Google has gone to so some users can keep many of their Google Mail files on their own hard disk.

While we're still talking backup, another new company has joined the local appliance connected to hosted online backup lineup. Axcient offers local hardware that pulls data from personal computers and servers without needing to load software on them. Then the files are organized and sent to Axcient's data storage facilities for online backup. You get local backup and remote backup. The hardware/software service starts at about $100 per month.

SonicWall brought out something similar a couple of years ago with their SonicWall CDP Appliance Series. CDP stands for Continuous Data Protection, and SonicWall (or LassoLogic, the company they acquired) puts software on each client computer so they can grab every change to every file almost as soon as it happens. The software agent watches for changes to the file system, then sends just the changes to the appliance, which forwards the changes up to safe online storage. You have to add software to every client, but you save every file change immediately, rather than waiting for a scheduled backup sweep of changed files.

Finally, you can now synchronize files between multiple computers and back them up at the same time. BeInSync, now owned by Phoenix Technologies, added online backup to their successful folder synchronization service. I don't accept folder synchronization as a backup method, because if you delete a file by accident, you also delete it in the synchronized folder. Oops. Backup means an accidental deletion of a file can be restored from a safe copy elsewhere.

That said, when BeInSync added their online backup component, you got the best of both worlds. Folder synchronization works great for many reasons, especially for scattered teams that must keep all documents current. You can choose which folders are shared, and which are also backed up. Remote sales teams can always have the latest product information, contracts, and reports. Committees no longer have to e-mail versions of amended documents back and forth. Your important files are all synchronized, and better than that, they're automatically backed up. Win win.

These local and online hybrid products and services erase the boundaries so many people have come to expect, but that's good. You no longer have the “local vs. online” argument complicating your data storage plans. Working together always beats confrontation, and now your local file storage fanatics and your online file storage fanatics can both be happy.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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