What is cloud storage?
Cloud storage means storing your digital files online, rather than on your physical computer. It’s a way to both backup your files and share them with other people.
Why would I want it?
Have you ever had your computer crash and lost some important work? If so, you understand the importance of backing up your work—making regular copies of it somewhere else, like another computer or USB drive.
The cloud is similar. But instead of saving your work to a physical computer, it’s kept safe on the internet itself.
Because it’s already online, it’s also very easy to share your work with other people. This makes cloud storage particularly useful for businesses, who need lots of people at different desks to collaborate on the same documents.
What are the most popular cloud storage providers?
There are dozens, if not hundreds of cloud storage solutions out there, offered by some of the biggest companies in the world to new startups. Here are some of the most popular.
- Microsoft OneNote
- Google Drive
- Dropbox Business
- Egnyte Business
How does it work?
The idea of the ‘cloud’ can feel like magic, but in reality, it’s simple. What we think of as the internet is really just servers—other people’s computers.
When you upload your files to somewhere like Google Drive, they live on Google’s servers. The big advantage is that companies like Google have millions of dollars invested in making sure their servers don’t ever crash.
How do you use cloud storage?
Every system is different, but they all use the same basic idea: you take files on your physical computers and use your internet connection to upload them to the cloud.
This might be done through a web page, where you choose the specific files to upload. Another common method is to install a piece of software that creates a special folder on your computer and automatically uploads every file you put in there.
In turn, the software will also download any files someone else puts onto your cloud account, meaning that you’ll have a perfectly-synced copy at all times.
What are some potential pitfalls of cloud storage?
Cloud storage is a useful tool for storing data and letting people around the world access it. But like any piece of technology, it’s not perfect. Here are some things to watch out for.
Keep your old backups
The cloud is secure, but it’s not bulletproof. You can never have too many backups, so it makes sense to keep copies of your important data in as many places as possible, including offline.
Be careful with private data
Businesses regularly have to handle sensitive information, like people’s names, addresses and passwords. While cloud storage providers routinely provide encryption, you’re still putting things online.
Always double-check your privacy settings to make sure your files aren’t open to anyone someone on your team accidentally sends the link to.
In addition, if you have to follow GDPR guidelines, check if the service provider is also based in the EU. You don’t want to accidentally store user data in a country that doesn’t comply with your data policies.
Plan how to integrate it first
How you store your data isn’t something to rush into. Cloud storage is exciting, but make sure it’s the right fit for your company before you pull the trigger.
- Do you use any specialised software that might not work well with the cloud?
- Will you have support, either in-house or from the provider, when things go wrong?
- Can your employees figure out how to use it, or will they need additional training?
How do I decide what cloud storage to get?
There’s a lot of ways to compare the different features offered by each cloud storage provider. They all compete on some aspects, like pricing and file-limits, but some also offer unique features. Let’s examine these metrics.
Every provider competes on price. While many services offer free options, especially ones targeted at individuals, servers are expensive to run, prices for business plans can range from a few dollars a month to thousands per year.
Companies usually offer multiple plans at different price points, which in turn offer different benefits. These include how much space you’re allowed—which we’ll go into more detail on shortly—but can include other features.
Google Drive, for example, offers integrated analytics for its business plan, which can be a useful advantage for a company looking to expand its marketing.
You could also get access to things like additional tech support from the provider when things go wrong, or detailed logs of who uploaded or edited files and when.
In many ways, this is the most important thing about any cloud storage provider.
Your provider will only ever let you put so many files online. Once you hit their cap, you will either have to delete some of your old work or pay for a more expensive plan.
In reality, many providers offer caps that are so high that it’s hard to imagine ever hitting them. Microsoft’s OneDrive, for example, has a standard plan for one terabyte, which is equivalent to around five hundred hours of movie-grade video.
That means that if you know you’re never going to use more than a few gigabytes—likely the case if you’re working with text documents—there’s little point in paying for more space than you’ll need.
Ultimately, cloud storage is only ever as reliable as your internet connection. If that goes down, you lose access to your files—simple as.
But beyond that, you want to choose a host that’s rock-solid and never goes down, because if they do, it’ll be when you need to get to your work most.
Another remember that if the company hosting your data goes under, there’s no guarantee you’ll get your files back. Depending on how important your documents are, it might make sense to go with a company that you know won’t go bankrupt any time soon, like Google or Microsoft.
If you’ve ever emailed Microsoft Word documents around the office, you know how annoying it is to get people collaborating properly on digital documents.
Thankfully, files hosted online can be accessed by multiple people at once with very little stress. Some companies, like Google, even integrate their cloud storage into online office software like Google Docs, which makes working on files together incredibly easy.
Not all cloud storage providers offer these kinds of tools, however. Some are more like bank vaults, where you either put things in or take them out, and while they’re in the vault, nobody can touch them.
If online collaboration is important for your business, make sure the provider offers tools to that end, and that it least works well with your company’s existing workflow.
Almost all providers have some cap on how much data you can transfer in a certain amount of time, usually a day. These limits are usually quite large—in the realm of several hundred gigabytes—but it’s good to know that they’re there.
If multiple users are all downloading one large file, for instance, like a video file, you might find yourself hitting a low limit.
Some providers, like Amazon S3, sidestep this by having no rate limits at all. Instead, they use a pay-as-you-go model where you’re only charged for the data you actually use.
It’s worth considering how much traffic your online files will be getting. If you only expect to be working with text documents, for instance, you can save yourself a fair bit of money by going with a provider with low daily limits.
How secure is cloud storage?
Security is always more important than you think. As such, if you’re putting confidential business files online, you should expect guarantees that they won’t fall into the wrong hands.
Thankfully, cloud storage providers all take this very seriously. Encryption, which prevents hackers from viewing your files, is essentially universal. That said, some companies go further than others.
If you’re extra-concerned about security, look for solutions that offer ‘two-factor authentication’, also called 2FA. This is an extra layer of security which means you have to use a physical token—usually your smartphone—to access the online files. It’s a bit of extra hassle, but it makes your account essentially unhackable.
It should also be noted that cloud storage companies take physical security very seriously, too. The physical servers which hold your data are kept in secure warehouses which require special access to get into.
How expensive is cloud storage overall?
Even though you have to pay an upfront fee to use cloud storage, it’s often cheaper in the long run. In-house storage means buying and maintaining your own servers, which, depending on the amount of data you’re storing, can range into thousands of dollars.
In addition, it also means you have to plan risk assessments for data loss or corruption, which is much less likely when storing data in the cloud.
How hard is it to switch to cloud storage?
It depends on how your business is currently set up.
If most of your work is done using physical paper, then moving everything into the cloud is a big operation that will take a lot of time to adjust to.
But if your team already does most of their work on computers, it’s not a big difference at all to save their work to the cloud rather than a hard-drive. As such, a good course of action for most companies is to transition gradually into cloud storage, rather than all at once.