For information to be useful in the business world, it needs to be accessible, traceable, secure, and support the workflow of your organization. That’s a tall order, but there are several cloud storage applications that have risen to the challenge. But, before you make a final buying decision and take the trouble to migrate your data to someone else’s cloud, there are several important points to consider.
Storage and Sharing
In terms of storage capacity, raw storage space is becoming more and more affordable every year. As multiple terabytes (TB) per user become commonplace, competition has shifted more to service features rather than overall bucket size. Today, 1 TB of space is typical as a starting place, with more storage readily available and very affordable. What you’re really looking at are the other features provided by the service.
Some providers have their own data centers while others actually outsource their storage to another third-party cloud, often Amazon Web Services (AWS) or a similar Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) player. That’s an important point to consider: Are you signing a service-level agreement (SLA) with someone who’s directly responsible for the infrastructure or are they beholden to someone else? If it’s a third party, make sure to investigate that firm and see what their track record has been. Then, look at the levels of service they offer. For example, while all of the major offerings have some level of uptime guarantee, it is worth noting that location is an important factor. How many data centers does the third party have? And is your data distributed among them for better reliability or does that come at an additional cost?
In terms of sharing data, at a minimum, this should take the form of a sync client, meaning software that resides on each registered client and which takes care of making sure data in the cloud is synced with any local replicas. But it can also have other points of access. For instance, Microsoft OneDrive for Business syncs with the Team sites that are part of the popular Microsoft SharePoint collaboration platform, while Box for Business offers a fully functional web client with drag-and-drop support. Shared data can be stored in folders originated by individuals or in team folders that are created by team leads or administrators (and are accessible to anyone on the team). Some version of team folders should be considered a necessary component of any business-grade cloud storage app. By creating central points of collaboration that don’t originate from any one user, it becomes easier to grant and revoke access as well as pass on ownership when an individual leaves the organization or changes divisions.
Several solutions go above and beyond the call of duty and incorporate tight integration with popular office products such as Microsoft Office 365. Users can, in many cases, view and edit the same document at the same time. While there isn’t a perfect solution yet, situations where the last user always wins may go away in the near future.
Keeping data safe is a bigger challenge today than it’s ever been. What were once considered “advanced” data safety features, such as enterprise-grade identity management, redundant storage layers, and encryption both at rest and in transit, are no longer optional. These are now basic requirements for you to even consider spending money on a service. Fortunately, cloud storage providers seem to agree, which is evidenced by commonly available features and the fact that most IT professionals trust cloud security as much or more than what’s available on-premises (64 percent according to a 2015 survey by the Cloud Security Alliance). The logic is fairly simple. Most IT professionals simply don’t have the budget to research, deploy, and manage the advanced security capabilities that cloud service vendors can provide because it’s key to their primary business. That’s upped security in the cloud significantly over the past couple of years, which has had the pleasant side effect of letting many cloud services successfully comply with standards such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) and ISO 27001.
Ensuring that information is auditable is paramount to meeting corporate obligations. Losing mission-critical files due to mistakes or misconduct can often cost hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars in reparations or lost capital. Document retention is often a requirement in legal matters as well. In heavily regulated industries, having the right information on hand can often mean the difference between being in or out of compliance with federal or industry-specific regulations. All of this means that, before you purchase any cloud service, you need to sit down with your IT staff and your compliance expert, and then map out exactly where data and apps need to be located in order to pass the compliance regulations that are important to your business.
Personal mobile devices, especially when used in Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) scenarios, add new challenges to controlling the flow of sensitive documents and information. Capabilities such as remote wipe or digital rights management can go a long way in limiting how far information can spread outside of the organization, especially when these devices are lost or compromised. Some products offer these features out of the box, while others utilize third-party offerings to close this gap, such as Microsoft Windows Intune.
Controlling permissions varies from product to product. Some solutions offer a highly granular hierarchy of permissions. In addition to the ability to define job roles and assign access based on that, multiple nested groups can be established. Adding or removing permissions is an easy affair once they’re properly defined. Other products opt for a more simplified approach.
It’s a daunting task for a user to keep up with the litany of passwords required across all apps without reducing security in some way. Single Sign-On (SSO) solves some of this by having one secure password, such as the one used for a Windows Azure Active Directory or Google account. Some solutions offer this capability as a first-class citizen while others utilize partnerships with third-party products. Either way, from a small business perspective, this is an important feature since password management is often given low priority when compared against getting business done.
Locking data away doesn’t end with just passwords, either. In addition to having something you know, it’s better to pair it with something you have. Two-factor or even multifactor authentication (MFA) is becoming a more commonplace option, and cloud storage companies are getting onboard. Mobile phones, or specially prepared USB fobs, are typically the default option as the secondary authentication source. But other forms of tokens exist, including smartcards and biometrics.
Almost as important as keeping information safe is making information accessible across the diverse landscape of devices that users bring to the mix. The primary candidates are the typical: Microsoft Windows, Linux, and a variety of Android flavors, as well as Apple’s iOS and OS X. For any platform to be effective in today’s business landscape, web access is a must. In some cases, an authorized device is not always available. Being able to grab a quick document for a meeting or push a business-critical document from a remote computer can be a lifesaver for an ever-increasing distributed workforce—a lifesaver that users expect to be available to them.
Mobile compatibility has gained a place in the ecosystem of business. This especially applies to road warriors who frequently work in planes, cars, and subways. Space is often at a premium, and the ability to prepare for a meeting or analyze a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet on the go is a necessity. Having a cloud storage solution that can provide these capabilities to users via a software client optimized for their particular operating system (OS), be it Android, iOS, even Windows Phone, is a feature you should look for in a competitive service offering.
Integration and APIs
One of the primary benefits of having information in the cloud is that it can be part of a larger ecosystem of connected apps. This capability lets businesses create custom workflows and business processes, often without having to hire contract programmers. For example, it’s not unusual or difficult to configure your employees’ note-taking apps to automatically drive input to task-tracking apps. That way, decisions made in meetings are automatically reflected in your project management toolkit. Those apps might, in turn, drive a need to store reference material. Integration-oriented application programming interfaces (APIs) help reduce the barrier to making apps work together, especially when your IT staff has some development talent. While many the most popular cloud storage solutions, such as Dropbox Business and Box, offer a rich set of integration options, some others, such as Jungle Disk, opt to primarily focus on the storage aspect. So, before buying, consider exactly how you want these solutions to fit into your business and what it will take to make that happen.
Choosing a cloud storage product for your organization can seem like a daunting task when you first consider all of the variables involved. Striking a balance between usability, security, and customization ultimately needs to be driven by business requirements, but understanding exactly what those requirements are is a serious task that will require real work; it’s not something you want to come to with a snap decision. Planning is the key. So sit down with business leads, IT managers, and even a rep from the cloud provider under consideration. Make sure that all parties are getting what they need. Only after going through that step should you pull the trigger on a provider and start the migration process.