Is your file server on its last legs? Are you avoiding the hassle and expense of finding a server to replace it?
These days, storing files in your business is possible without a server at all. Online storage (or cloud storage) services are increasingly common and are used by multinational companies as well as shoestring startups.
However, online storage is not suitable for every business. And even when it is a good choice, the number of options can be overwhelming.
Here’s a short guide to helping you decide whether online storage is right for your business, and which service would fit best.
How Does Online Storage Work?
Online storage has dropped dramatically in price in the past 18 months, which is great news. Businesses must already adjust to paying more for storing files online because it is an ongoing subscription cost rather than a one-off purchase of a disk drive.
The advantages of easier sharing, easier backups, better collaboration and remote access plus the potential to eliminate the cost of servers makes online storage a much more attractive option.
Now that we have a cheap source of online storage the biggest problem is moving the file from your computer or server online. Where exactly is “online”?
Online storage services rely on networks of enormous data centres around the world. When you save a file from your computer to Dropbox, your computer sends the file over the internet to a Dropbox data centre. You can then view the file through your browser from any computer and share, download or delete the file as you wish.
The online storage service can sync files stored online to your desktop or server so that you can access them offline while travelling. Changes made to offline files are updated to the online versions, although this can sometimes cause syncing problems when two people make changes while offline to the same file.
Can your business use online storage? The short answer to this is that almost all businesses can use online storage to some degree. The bigger question is can you replace your file server entirely. This depends on two factors.
File Size vs Upload Speed
Many office-based businesses shuffle around Word documents, Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations. In this case the majority of the files you work with will be under 50MB (most will be less than a quarter of that size).
If this is your business then you can skip right ahead to choosing the right online storage service. You’re unlikely to run into any problems on even a cheap broadband connection.
If your business includes large numbers of videos or hi-resolution images, the file sizes are likely to run into one to several gigabytes in size. This can cause problems if you are using a consumer-grade broadband connection with low upload speeds.
Although online storage services can certainly store terabytes (thousands of gigabytes) of files, if your internet connection has an upload speed under 2Mb per second then it will take a very long time to upload 10GB of files. It will eventually work but you won’t be able to drag and drop files on and off your online storage like you can when moving files between your server and computer.
Before you read any further, take these two steps.
- Look up the upload speed on your broadband connection plan
- Review the number of large (1GB and over) files in your business.
I Have Big Files – What Should I Do?
If upgrading to a super-fast upload connection is impractical then you’re back to relying on a server for storing and sharing your gigabytes of files. Small teams can go with low-cost network-attached storage servers, called NASes.
A good NAS will store files quickly and have the option of backing up its contents online. It might be worthwhile to use online storage for all your office documents and use a NAS as a media library for images and videos too large for online.
This strategy gives your business the advantages of working in the cloud without the frustration of waiting forever for a file to load online.
Which Online Storage Service is Right for My Business?
There are dozens of online storage services and they fall into three categories. Services attached to productivity suites, general-purpose storage and speciality storage. There are advantages to each category and selecting the right service will depend on business requirements and personal preference.
These are obvious choices if you already have a subscription to one of these two suites. The storage is usually included in the price of the suite subscription so it’s effectively free (higher subscriptions give users unlimited storage).
A major benefit is that the interface is part of the same suite. Staff only need to familiarise themselves with the one cloud suite and not figure out how a second application works just for document management.
The integration also means that you can access storage features from your email screen, and email links to all your contacts from the storage screen.
These in-built storage services tend to excel at sharing files internally but are less adept at sharing files to people outside your business. They lack the more powerful features of dedicated storage services such as detailed records of who has viewed or downloaded each file. That said, they are more than capable of sharing documents with customers and suppliers in most cases.
If you’re planning on moving to Microsoft or Google’s cloud suite in the next couple of months, test out the complementary storage service and decide whether it will suffice. Simple solutions are almost always the better choice.
This category is epitomised by Dropbox, the world’s most popular online storage service which has moved from consumer to the business market. Dropbox wins out for ease of use – accessing shared files by external people is often simpler than Google Drive, say – and many employees are likely to have already used it at home.
Dropbox is a good option for small businesses wanting a quick and easy way to share files internally or with customers.
Box represents a step up in security and enterprise features. Users have much more control over who can view a file, how long someone can access it and includes an audit trail of who downloaded it.
This is by far the largest category. It includes many small players to hard drive manufacturers diversifying into online storage.
However, make sure you check whether these smaller brands are as easy to use as their better-known competition. Recent price drops by Box and Dropbox, as well as Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive, make them more robust, more widely accepted and better featured alternatives at the same or even lower cost.
Services in this category usually have a single selling point that makes them stand out from the general-purpose services. The most common feature is privacy, best demonstrated by SpiderOak.
If you’re concerned about government agencies trawling through your documents, SpiderOak and similar services encrypt your files before they upload them. Even if your files are leaked or subpoenaed, no-one will be able to read them unless you give them the key.
Given that every business will eventually transition from desktop productivity suites to the cloud, Google and Microsoft are likely to become the default choices for online storage.
There are very good reasons to choose general-purpose if your business requires better document management than just storage.
And if you’re concerned about the Feds, an encrypted service will give you control of access to set your fears at rest.