Cloud storage services are a terrific tool for small business. They address 90% of your backup needs, make collaboration easy, and are pretty cheap.
Using one goes basically like this: create and pay for your account, install their software on your computer, choose which folders on your hard disk to sync, and then the program begins silently copying your files to their servers. If you make a change to a document on your computer, the system automatically pulls the newer version into the cloud.
Your files can also be pushed down from the cloud into a second computer. This makes the two-computer lifestyle a whole lot easier, and nearly eliminates the need for USB flash drives.
Even if you're at a public computer, you can still access all your documents, by logging in to your account online. Each of these services also has apps for smartphones and tablets, and using them is typically a lot faster than opening your laptop.
Our three favorite cloud storage services are Dropbox, Sugarsync and Box.com.
Each are about $15/user/month, and each makes sense for a certain type of situation. Let's review the critical differences.
- Very simple setup and operation. Best choice for your parent's computer.
- Cheap. They have a free usage tier and charge for extra storage.
- Most likely to stick around. Dropbox raised $250MM in late 2011, and they are winning the "hearts and minds" battle.
On the downside, the service was built for individual users, and the corporate sharing features do not compare well with Sugarsync or Box.com.
- The best sharing and permissioning tools. You can give someone different permissions for different folders, and allow them to upload-only or read-only etc.
- Pleasing web interface for user and file administration.
However, their sync software for Macs is fluky and occasionally needs a restart to trigger a sync. Box has promised an April 2012 fix.
At this writing, Sugarsync is the service which gives you the most control over where to keep your synced files. Dropbox and Box.com both make you bless a single special folder on your computer. There are two reasons for that. It is intuitively easier to understand: "Look, this folder is the one that gets synced." Second, most people in the Windows and Mac worlds will use the default "Documents" folder for their files.
But this single-blessed-folder approach breaks down if you don't use the default "Documents" folder, or have a second hard disk with shareable material. Perhaps you don't want to sync everything in your "Documents" folder. This single-blessed-folder approach also leads to having two copies of a file on your computer, which means sharing an important spreadsheet requires an extra step.
Sugarsync lets you choose which folders get synced. It means a more complicated setup, but one better suited to the power user or someone picky about where they put their files.
No Bad Choices
I don't think you can go wrong with any of these services. Perhaps the best thing about cloud storage services is that the switching costs are so low: you can just uninstall one service and install another. In a multi-user company, that will require some individual handholding, but there is no need to change file formats and no risk of losing data.
Final word: The elephant in the next room is Google. Today there was another leak about Google Drive, which will probably compete directly with Dropbox, Sugarsync and Box.com. I wonder how well the first iteration of Drive will integrate with the Google Apps platform. UPDATE 17APR2012: Yep, here it comes.