Storage technology can be a daunting and complex subject, especially for very small businesses with the basic need to safely store and backup files. Hard drives and backup gear can be expensive. Storage Area Networks (SANs) can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Simple storage servers can cost a few thousand. And backup software can quickly mount up if you license it for a few people.
But there are much simpler options available that can greatly reduce or even eliminate the cost of basic storage and backup functions. A caveat here: these services are most applicable to very small businesses. Companies with more than 25 people however, should probably avoid them due to security concerns. For such firms, it's better to deploy one system that addresses the storage needs of the entire business rather than have a dozen different backup and storage tools utilized randomly, each with varying levels of security.
Another caution: watch out for free storage really isn't. Type in "free storage" or "free backup" in any search engine, and you will find plenty of sites that only offer 30-day trials. The companies listed below are either completely free or available for next to nothing.
Many people have sampled Amazon.com for books, music and DVDs but storage? Amazon has cast its eyes on that market with the launch of Amazon S3. It is designed primarily to make Web-scale computing easier for developers, but some small businesses may be able to take advantage of it. It provides an interface you can use to store and retrieve any amount of data, at any time, from anywhere on the Web. It is also surprisingly fast.
"Amazon S3 is based on the idea that quality Internet-based storage should be taken for granted," said Andy Jassy, vice president of Amazon Web Services. "It helps free developers from worrying about where they are going to store data, whether it will be safe and secure, if it will be available when they need it, the costs associated with server maintenance, or whether they have enough storage available."
S3 is not quite free, however. It uses a pay-as-you-go pricing model. But at only $0.15 per gigabyte of storage per month and $0.20 per gigabyte of data transferred, it is about as cheap as you are going to get anywhere on the planet.
Who uses this service? A small business out of Espinola, New Mexico named CastingWords is a podcast transcription service (podcast is a compound word made up from "iPod" and "broadcast") that translates audio files into text at a rate of $0.42 per minute of audio. They use S3 to store and retrieve the original audio files and the transcribed texts.
"Amazon S3 provides us with easy-to-use, reliable storage that let's us concentrate on building our business and not worry about storage," says Nathan McFarland, founder of CastingWords. "It is simple to use, and it works so well that it eliminated one of the many things we have to think about, which is huge when starting a small business."
Does free backup sound good? Then mosey on down to mozy.com. Available from a Salt Lake City startup known as Berkeley Data Systems, it is the brainchild of a whiz kid named Josh Coates. He established Scale Eight in 2000 where he built the largest online storage systems in the world at that time with more than 200 Terabytes of space for its clients.
Now he has turned his attention to the consumer/small business market by creating an alternative solution to older, complex and expensive remote backup products that cost more than $200 per year and difficult to configure. They don't offer much storage for the dollar and offer limited security.
Mozy provides two gigabytes of backup capacity and the software is a piece of cake to install and configure, plus it contains no adware or spyware. Even better: the data is also encrypted.
"We've handled almost one million backups during our beta testing period and the largest set of files we backup are Microsoft Outlook files," says Coates. "These Outlook .PST files not only contain e-mail, but also file attachments and contacts.
While you get 2GB for free, Mozy charges a fee for more capacity. 5GB costs $19 per year, $29.95 for 10GB and $39.95 for 20GB a year. That's really cheap compared to other options. The downside? Part of the deal includes a sponsored weekly newsletter, as well as a limited amount of advertising.
Google and Other Options
Of course, there are many other inexpensive options available. A UK firm named Mamut has introduced an online backup service aimed at smaller businesses. It offers the first 500MB of data backup free of charge indefinitely. Additional space costs 0.79 British pounds (about $1.43) per month for 1GB.
Mamut Online Backup is an encrypted service that updates continuously while your computer's connected to the Internet. It runs automatically in the background and creates a backup copies whenever a file is updated or changed. Customers have their own encryption key, which only they can access. "The increasing reliance on technology by smaller businesses puts important data at risk if we do not take measures to protect it," says Alan Moody, managing director at Mamut.
Another useful possibility is Xdrive of Santa Monica, Calif., an AOL subsidiary. Xdrive offers free storage that is really only a 15-day trial. After that, though, it's still pretty cheap it costs 5GB for $10 per month or10 GB for $20.
And then there's Google's free Gmail e-mail service, which currently offers 2717 MB nearly 3GB of free online storage. Each message is grouped with all its replies and displayed as a conversation, and it comes with built-in Google search technology. Further, there are no pop-ups (though you may get a few of what the company calls targeted small text ads), and the spam/antivirus protection is wonderful. There is one problem, however: you have to be invited to be a Gmail member by someone else who is already using Gmail though it is also available via certain mobile phone services.
Meanwhile, keep an eye on Google as it could shake up the world of free/cheap online storage in the very near future. A Google executive recently made the error of posting a confidential PowerPoint that outlined the company's plans to get into the online storage business. The proposed "Gdrive' service intends to become the repository of choice for just about anyone: you store everything there and nothing on your own computer.
All these services go to great pains to convince potential customers that their data is safe, encrypted and will not be made available to others. But analysts are concerned about the security side of the equation. Some feel that online services may not be the safest. Others worry that companies like Google are obliged to pass data onto government agencies and policing bodies in response to information requests.
"Despite the risks, online unlimited storage such as Google Gdrive is very attractive for individuals and companies in the low-end of the SMB market," says Mike Karp, an analyst with Enterprise Management Associates.
Drew Robb is a Los Angeles-based freelancer specializing in technology and engineering. Originally from Scotland, he graduated with a degree in geology from Glasgow's Strathclyde University. In recent years he has authored hundreds of articles as well as the book, Server Disk Management by CRC Press.
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