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How to choose a cloud storage and backup provider

cloud storage
(Image credit: Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash)

More and more businesses are turning to cloud storage and backup providers to facilitate collaboration on shared files, cheaply scale storage needs, and protect against data loss. Finding the right provider for your business will mean taking stock of your needs and comparing the features and plans of available solutions. While each company is different, you can make an informed decision by asking a few key questions, which we explore below. 

While reading this guide, keep in mind exactly what logistical and technical problems you’re hoping to solve with a cloud storage or backup provider, what changes your business would have to make to adopt it, and what alternative solutions may exist.

Cloud storage or backup

Though there’s significant overlap, cloud storage and cloud backup aren’t exactly synonymous. While both involve securely storing your data on off-site servers, the purposes—and thus services offered by providers—are different. 

Cloud storage is for the ongoing storage and retrieval of everyday files that your business needs quick access to without having to manage a fleet of IT technicians and stacks of harddrives. Instead, specialized providers manage the technical and logistical demands of storing your business’s data and making it accessible to employees for easy collaboration from anywhere. 

Cloud storage is a good solution for businesses with growing data storage needs and rising operations costs, or whose team members increasingly work remotely or need access to company files for easy collaboration and document sharing. If your business’s growth means these will one day be a necessity, there can be great value in adapting your infrastructure and policies early on. 

Backup providers, on the other hand, allow you to recover your files in the event of harddisk or server failure. They usually support continuous or discrete backups, file change history, watched folders, and even drive images for complete system backups. Furthermore, securely storing your most important data off-site is the only way to safeguard against the physical destruction of your servers and workstations in the event of a fire, flood, or other disaster. 

Whether used to protect sensitive data whose loss would be catastrophic to your operations, to easily manage multiple file histories across devices, or simply to give you peace of mind, cloud backup providers can help save your company from some real headaches down the road.

Consider the fit

Security

Arguably one of the most important aspects of a cloud provider is how securely your data is stored and transmitted. At the very least, you’ll want to see AES encryption for data storage and TLS encryption for transmission to ensure your data cannot be read by anyone who intercepts it, including the provider. If you require more robust security, look for a service with end-to-end encryption, the ability to manage your own keys, and more than one encryption method. 

Compliance

Regardless of your sector, there are probably rigorous industry regulations and compliance rules to which you’ll need to adhere. This is one of the big advantages of signing up with a major cloud provider, as many of them will have done the legwork to ensure your company and clients’ data is stored and transmitted correctly. If your business operates in a tightly regulated sector like finance or healthcare, your best bet is to find a specialized provider. 

Access

Who do you want to be able to access your data, from where and at what times? A good provider should allow you to set restrictions on who can and cannot access different drives, folders, or files. Furthermore, you’ll want to be sure everybody who needs access has it: is it accessible from the web? On iOS/iPadOS or Android? Are all your company devices supported? 

Setup

Depending on the size of your business, your setup needs may vary greatly. Smaller companies with only a few workstations can manage lengthier and more detailed installations, and if you don’t have your own IT support, you’ll want to go for the easiest and most straightforward setup process possible. On the other hand, larger companies may require mass deployment solutions, like silent install on multiple devices. 

Furthermore, employees, collaborators and even clients may need to be trained in using any new software, unless it can be discreetly integrated into existing solutions. In most cases, you’ll also need to restrict file access to certain users or apply company- or department-wide changes to permissions. Depending on the size of your business, it may be worth paying a little extra for advanced user management with grouping and batch permissions editing. 

Finally, it’s necessary to consider how you want your cloud storage or backup organized: will all of your files be stored online, or only some of them? Do you need snapshots of entire systems, or just a watched folder whose contents are securely backed up? These are important logistical questions that merit early consideration, as they can be difficult to change later.

Ease of Transition

You’ll need to think about how you plan on transitioning your data to your new cloud solution. If you need to back up or store many terabytes of data, you may want to opt for a provider that allows offline data transition by sending physical harddrives. Otherwise, if most of your data is perishable (i.e. rapidly becomes obsolete or is frequently overwritten), you can ignore this step, and simply upload new data to the cloud. 

Support

Prompt, knowledgeable, friendly user support is a must, both while you’re making the change to cloud-based storage or backup and throughout your professional relationship with your provider. There are a couple of different ways that providers can offer assistance. The most basic support—although often quick and useful—is access to a rich knowledge base and FAQ center, preferably with step-by-step tutorials and video guides for common operations.

But in many cases, what you really need is to speak to another human being who understands the product and is familiar with your business or has access to your information. For this, email support is a bare minimum and, considering how urgently you may need a response, we’d be hesitant to invest in any service that doesn’t support either online chat or telephone support.

If you suddenly can’t access your files or retrieve an important backup, you’ll want quick solutions, so consider carefully the nature of your data and what delays might mean for your operations. 

Consider the cost

We said before that finding the right provider for your needs will mean balancing cost and function, and it bears restating: you don’t want to splurge on unnecessary bells and whistles, but you also shouldn’t compromise on basic functionality. You’ll also want to compare the price of prospective providers to that of managing your own storage or backup facilities, including electricity, cooling systems, and technical support.

Both storage and backup providers tend to follow one of two models: pay per user or pay per volume. Per-user providers will guarantee each licensed team member a certain amount of storage, but you may end up paying for lots of extra storage just to get enough licenses for your team. Per-volume providers may allow for easier access from multiple users or workstations but will typically be a little more expensive per giga- or terabyte of storage. 

Other costs may come into play depending on how quickly you need to access your data (i.e., bandwidth requirements), or how frequently (so-called “hot” vs. “cold” storage). Finally, you’ll need to take into account the costs of migrating your current data, which can include both time and money.

Consider the benefits

We highly recommend taking the time to carefully consider your needs and the advantages that a cloud-based storage or backup provider can offer. These will differ from company to company, but below are some of the more salient ones.

Cloud Storage

You’ve probably already invested in a certain amount of infrastructure for things like collaboration, file organization, scheduling, etc. Look for providers that can integrate into your current solutions, for example, with Office 365 or Google Docs. Do you often need to share files with users outside the company? If so, can this be done easily and securely, by sharing a URL, for example? 

If your cloud storage is mainly for collaborative purposes, you’ll most likely want a service with file versions. Is your company spread out over multiple regions? If so, you may want to go for a larger provider with multiple servers in different locations to ensure rapid access from all your offices. 

Cloud Backup

You’ll want to know how frequently backups occur, whether they’re discrete or continuous, automatic or manual, and whether the provider supports file versioning. Is there any limit to how long files can be stored, and what happens when you reach your storage limit? 

Furthermore, how can you access your backups? Are you able to restore individual folders, files, or versions as needed? Finally, what guarantee do you have of your data’s safety? That is, does the provider keep multiple backups of your data? Unlike cloud storage, even if you have only one location, you may want to opt for multi-regional backup to safeguard against physical destruction of the provider’s servers. 

Commit to adoption

Hopefully you’ve found this guide instructive and now have a clearer picture of what features are most important to you. However, making the change from on-site to cloud storage or backup can be time-consuming and labour-intensive. If you’ve done your homework, then you should know whether the pros outweigh the cons. Assuming they do, you’ll want to consider what changes need to be made in your company as you implement your new cloud storage. 

Remember that your new cloud services don’t function in isolation, and several aspects of your company will require adaptation. For example, any software that you use will either need to be made to work with your cloud storage or be replaced. Furthermore, team members and employees will need to adopt new policies and practices: training will require evaluation, instruction, support, and enforcement. 

Cloud storage and cloud backup providers have a lot to offer, and these can be a practical solution for any business that has or will encounter any of the scenarios mentioned above. However, they typically represent an important investment in time and money, and will require your careful consideration. Use this guide as you research and compare services, and you’ll be sure not to miss any key considerations.