Cloud Storage: Is the Gain in Space Worth the Pain?

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Whether you’re a PC user with a smartphone or two on hand, or an IT manager with a data center at your command, you might now be thinking about storing information in the cloud, if you aren’t doing so already. Consumer services like Live Mesh and SugarSync — and enterprise offerings from providers such as RackSpace — can substantially cut down on your hardware costs. On the other hand, though, it could be that you’ve been scared off by cloud glitches at places like Dropbox and Sony’s PlayStation Network (PSN) for gamers — and before that, on Microsoft’s old Danger service for Sidekick users. Are the gains you’ll get from all that extra space really worth the potential pain?

The answer is a qualified “yes,” some industry analysts suggest. “Cloud storage is very convenient. Yet consumers need to realize that complete and total reliance on the cloud isn’t a good idea. This is something that businesses already know,” said Avi Greengart, research director for consumer devices at Current Analysis, in an interview with DesktopReview.com.

Once upon a time, storage of office documents and other data was largely limited to computers and dedicated storage devices inside homes and the workplace.

Over the years, though, more and more of this data has moved to cloud-based online servers for storage, backup, photo and multimedia file swapping among users, and a range of other services.

At the same time, a small spate of cloud failures has spawned problems for users such as missing data, loss of password protection and exposure of personal information like addresses and birth dates.

Funneling into this ongoing cloud storage explosion is the increasing miniaturization of mobile gadgets. For many music lovers and video buffs, the onboard storage of the iPhone or a high-end Android OS phone just isn’t enough.

Meanwhile, the rise of computer-based multimedia is also contributing to greater storage demands across PCs, Macs, servers, and other platforms. According to analyst group IDC, “unstructured data” — meaning videos, e-mails, and just about anything else that doesn’t live in a traditional relational database — is now growing at the astonishing rate of 60 percent yearly in corporations.

As consumers and businesses struggle to keep up with this onslaught of data, cloud storage can greatly reduce the need to continuously invest in new hardware — whether that would amount to a a bigger back-up drive for the home office, or new RAID (redundant array of independent disks) arrays or NAS (network-attached storage) boxes on business premises.

Users can lose data, password protection, and privacy

Some of the troubles with cloud services have been spurred by network outages. In one case that’s since become infamous, Danger — a cloud service then owned and operated by Microsoft after an acquisition — lost photos, music files, and other data uploaded by Sidekick users when its network crashed in 2009.

The customers’ data was hosted in Microsoft’s data centers at the time. Since Microsoft didn’t have an active backup of the data, information had to be restored from a month-old copy of the server data stored in offsite backup tapes. Restoration took more than two months.

Then, in a major incident earlier this year on Sony’s PSN, interlopers grabbed the names, addresses, birth dates, usernames and passwords of more than 75 million PlayStation gamers — and possibly some credit card information, too.

According to some reports, hackers launched the attack after setting up a legitimate account on Amazon‘s EC2 cloudPlaystation Network network using fake company information.

Ironically, the attack on PSN in April happened only about six weeks after Sony started offering free online games storage to users of its premium PlayStation Plus service, although it’s unclear whether these two events were related. It’s also uncertain whether Sony had started to use EC2 for some of its PSN services.

It seems quite likely,, though, that faulty security at Sony came into play in a big way. At a Congressional hearing earlier this year, Gene Spafford, executive director of Purdue University’s Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security, testified that Sony’s PSN network had been “running on very old versions of Apache software that were unpatched and had no firewall installed.”

Cloud failures are flukes

Cloud service failures, however, are actually relatively few and far between, according to some analysts. “I think it’s fair to look at incidents like these as flukes,” observed Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, in another interview.

“There have been some hiccups,” acknowledged Current Analysis’ Greengart. “But the very fact that we notice them means that these services are important.”

Yet if consumers and businesses shouldn’t be wholly dissuaded by a smattering of flops, it still makes all the sense in the world to take reasonable precautions.

“Doing your homework about cloud storage services is the major thing,” according to Pund-IT’s King.

Storage services for consumers and SMBs

Even at the consumer and SMB levels, cloud storage services vary across lots of different lines, including levels of security, pricing, features, and supported devices.

While some cloud services provide user-scheduled backup, and others offer automated continuous backup, services like Crawler Storage take a “hybrid” approach that lets you choose between the two.

Services for consumers and SMBs also tend to offer at least some amount of free storage, ranging from 2GB for SpiderOak, to 5GB for Live Mesh, to 25GB for Microsoft Skydrive, for instance.

Another service, Wuala, gives out only 1GB of space per user for free, but allows users to gain more space either by “trading idle HDD (hard disk drive) space,” or by inviting other users.

“But some of these services don’t have a lot of redundancy wrapped around them,” observed Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, also in an interview.

Other services, such as Dropbox and SugarSync, add the ability to share videos and other files, with syncing across multiple computers. Some support both mobile and PC platforms. SugarSync is especially ambitious in this regard, supplying support for Microsoft Windows and Apple MacOS PCs, plus iPhone, Android, RIM Blackberry, and Windows Mobile phones.

All told, there are literally dozens of cloud storage alternatives available to consumers and SMBs, for example. including Dmailer, LiveMesh, SparkleShare, Box.net, LiveDrive, Tonido, Syncplicity, and DriveHQ. By the way, Drive HQ replaces a local file server with a cloud file server, for sharing folders to different people with different levels of access rights.

Is encryption enough?

Services like Dropify and Mozy use encryption as part of their efforts to safeguard users and their data.

Encryption isn’t an all inclusive security solution, though. For about four hours in June, for example, Dropbox inadvertently allowed absolutely any password to be used for signing into accounts. Soon after, the company pinned the blame for the authentication mishap on a programming error.
 
Enterprise-level storage services, on the other hand, bring sophisticated data protection technologies. For example, for redundancy, data can be replicated across multiple geographically dispersed servers, in the event that a disaster like a hurricane or a war strikes in one region of the world.

On top of that, enterprise services are typically accompanied by service level agreements (SLAs), which spell out guaranteed levels of service. As you’d only expect, though, pricing is a whole lot heftier. Major players in the enterprise category include Amazon S3, Rackspace, AT&T, i365, and IBM, to name a few.

“If you’re an enteprise, you’d better make sure that you’re getting enterprise-grade storage services,” Enderle emphasized.

Weighing the benefits and risks
Although cloud storage can come in very handy, consumers and businesses also need to factor the risks into the equation, analysts agree.

“Cloud backup services can be extremely valuable to consumers and SMBs. You can even use cloud storage services as disaster recovery sites. You can go up there and retrieve your data if devices get lost or stolen. But the cloud should never be used for primary storage, because that could be dangerous,” according to King.

“You should always maintain an [offline] copy of your data. Web sites have been compromised, and stuff has been lost,” Enderle concurred.

Still, with many corporations keeping their most sensitive data entirely off the cloud, consumers and SMBs might be well advised to do the same with their most private information.

“It all depends on the nature of the information,” pointed out Enderle. “You might want to place some of your data into what amounts to a ‘safety deposit box.’ But you might decide that other other things are okay to loan to a friend, or even to put out into your ‘front yard,'” the analyst illustrated.


Whether you’re a gamer, photographer, busy professional or just on the go, be sure to check out the rest of our summer storage special report. Demystify the digital clutter in your life!

 

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