Most business owners need a safe place to store and easily access vital data, and many also need to share documents ‑ or collaborate on their creations ‑ with remote colleagues, customers or suppliers. If that's true for you, the solution could be in the cloud.
Thats cloud, singular geek lingo for the part of a network that youre connected to and that provides essential services, but isnt directly under your control. Web 2.0-style cloud services or SaaS, including online backup and collaboration, may be the solution to any number of storage challenges small businesses face.
Companies such as Hewlett-Packard's Upline, Egnyte Inc. and Box.net offer very inexpensive and easy-to-use pay-by-the-month (or year) solutions that combine data storage, document collaboration and, in the case of Upline and Egnyte, automated online backup. In effect, they give you a virtual online file server.
For as little as five dollars a month for unlimited storage capacity (Upline), you can use Web-based software that lets you securely upload files to the service providers computers and then make them available to other people over the Web. No more e-mailing documents back and forth. No more transporting backup tapes to a safe offsite location.
With some services, collaborators with the right permissions can edit documents and re-store them on the online file server. Some keep track of and automatically preserve earlier versions and even notify you of changes as theyre made.
Your files are always available, from anywhere you or authorized collaborators have access to the Internet, anytime of the day. If your office is flooded, burns down, you can't get to the office because of snow, or if your computer crashes and dies and you have to replace it, your data is still available.
Consultant John Sloan, a senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group, a firm that focuses on small and medium-size business IT issues, urges small companies to exercise due diligence if theyre considering such services, but he believes they can deliver real benefits.
Right now, Sloan said, I see a definite value proposition in services like this for small businesses, especially ones that dont have the size yet to invest in their own [computer and network] infrastructure, and dont have an IT department.
Even if a small business is big enough to have an IT department and its own network infrastructure, these services are a lot less expensive, according to Egnyte co-founder Vineet Jain. He estimates the annual cost of an onsite file server that employees could access over the Internet at $7,000. For a five-person company, the cost per year for Egnyte is $900.
This kind of service may become much more prevalent, Sloan believes. For now it makes particularly good sense for very small businesses, but he sees a trend toward what he calls virtualization that may make such services attractive to companies of just about any size.
As virtualization becomes more commonplace both on the side of storage and [computer] processing, I think we will see the IT-less IT dept become feasible, he said. So as these services become more mature and as people get more comfortable with the idea, I can see them potentially moving up the food chain.
While all the services we looked at tout their ease of use and security data is encrypted during upload to the server or download back to a users computer each offers a slightly different value proposition.
HPs Upline, the price leader, offers plans for individual home or home office users, and multi-license plans for families and small businesses. They all provide unlimited storage capacity and the same set of services: automated online backup, sharing of files with individuals or groups and publishing files to the Web.
The lowest-price, single-license plan provides unlimited storage for five dollars a month thats a pretty good deal. The professional version, which includes three licenses, expandable to 100, costs about $300 a year.
The backup service is generally good, with one significant flaw Upline wont back up Microsoft Outlook PST (database) files.
You start by telling it which folders to back up and indicating which types of files you want to include or exclude. After it has completed a first backup, Upline watches the folders youve selected and uploads any file that changes. You can set it to backup at intervals starting from as little as 15 minutes.
The sharing features are rudimentary compared to some other services. You can e-mail a link to people that allows them to download a file. If you change that file, Upline automatically e-mails previous recipients a link to the new version.