Cloud storage and backup: Is it safe?

Summary:SMBs should carefully consider the viability of cloud storage and backup services -- or they could lose important company data.

Heather Clancy

Heather Clancy

It's Safe

or

Not So Fast!

David Gewirtz

David Gewirtz

Best Argument: Not So Fast!

The moderator has delivered a final verdict.

Opening Statements

Safer than the status quo

Heather Clancy: Many SMBs have been playing Russian roulette with their data, opting for the most rudimentary storage and archiving procedures. Or none at all.

Cloud storage services are rewriting the status quo, with some research firms predicting a 26 percent growth in adoption over the next several years among the SMB set.

Cloud storage services are safer than the naysayers suggest, if managed properly. In fact, cloud storage services are helping many SMBs craft meaningful business continuity plans for the very first time. In many cases, these services are far more cost-effective than on-site solutions.

Cloud storage services also allow teams to get to important files from virtually anywhere, using a Web browser, smartphone, media tablet or desktop application. That is a big plus when it comes to mobility, business process innovation and the need to collaborate.

Is it safe for SMBs to use cloud services? Here’s the real question: Is it safe for them not to use them?

More from Heather Clancy:

Practice local backup

David Gewirtz: Cloud storage and cloud-based backups can be wonderful resources for individuals and small businesses. I use them myself.


The issue, though, is whether you should rely on them. Put another way, should you bet your business or your livelihood (or even your family's most cherished memories) solely -- solely -- on cloud-based storage and backup?

The answer to that is a resounding "NO!"

If you rely solely on a cloud service provider, you're putting all your eggs in one basket. Many cloud providers are still in early-stage funding. Many have changeable policies. Many charge so little, they're completely unresponsive to customers in trouble. Some simply just go out of business.

So my message to you is to consider cloud backup providers, but make them just one part of your strategy. Make sure you practice local backup as well.

Otherwise, you may be stuck in a cloud with no silver lining.

More from David Gewirtz:

The Rebuttal

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Stay tuned!

    Thanks for joining the live rebuttal portion of this week's Great Debate. Stay tuned throughout the week for closing statements and our final decision on the winner.

    Posted by Josh Gingold

    Thanks for dropping by!

    Thanks David for some great arguments and to Josh for keeping us on topic! Be sure to cast your vote. And remember, the cloud will rewrite the rules!

    Heather Clancy

    I am for It's Safe

    Nice job, everyone

    Don't forget: vote early and vote often!

    David Gewirtz

    I am for Not So Fast!

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Last question!

    Are there any cases in which so-called consumer cloud storage and backup services are okay for small business?

    Posted by Josh Gingold

    Test the waters

    Perhaps to get started or as a test of the concept. But I would be leery of using a service that doesn't have the needs of business customers in mind. There are encryption and bandwidth considerations that probably make a business-focused service a better option. But certainly as a test.

    Heather Clancy

    I am for It's Safe

    Yes

    Sure. I use some consumer cloud services and I have a small business. I just don't rely on them totally. They're some of the many resources I call on to keep my business successful and online. One neat trick for small businesses is to find consumer-level services and use the heck out of them, saving a tremendous amount of money. The gotcha is you need to be diligent because you might push one or another service or product "over the edge", and you'll need to have a recovery plan. Once again, here too I recommend the tiered approach. All eggs. One basket. Bad.

    David Gewirtz

    I am for Not So Fast!

  • Great Debate Moderator

    What about expertise?

    Does any sort of cloud solutions, especially a tiered approach, require the expertise of a David Gewirtz or Heather Clancy?

    Posted by Josh Gingold

    Strategy, not technical expertise

    I can't emphasize this enough: a great backup strategy hinges on the policies and procedures that a business puts in place to safeguard and manage data effectively. That is a given, whether the SMB chooses to handle that strategy with a cloud solution or a local solution or some combination thereof. That means, yes, SMBs need to understand all the different privacy, compliance and regulatory considerations that might dictate what they should or should not save. I think that most companies probably save too much data, which can be just as dangerous as not saving enough. Do you really need those 15-year-old documents? Why are you keeping email records that have bounced the last 10 times you have sent a message? This means you might need to consult someone with business consulting experience around data management strategy, but I don't think you need technical expertise. That's what makes cloud backup so compelling. But you need that strategy insight, regardless.

    Heather Clancy

    I am for It's Safe

    No, I don't think so

    That goes to a bigger issue of how much expertise does it require to use a computer or go online? Vendors are doing their best to make it much easier. Backup services like Time Machine and even Windows Backup are pretty straightforward once you understand what a file and a folder is (many computer users don't, which is why they gravitate to the iPad). The issue, though, isn't about computer technology expertise. Nothing I run here for my backup system is heavily techie nor is it really home grown. The issue is the ability to think strategically and responsibly. If you care about your business, you'll do smart things to protect yourself. Backing up your data is one of those smart things. And if you think strategically, you'll realize that putting all your eggs in one basket is never a wise idea. So, no, you don't need to be me or Heather to be safe. But it wouldn't hurt to listen to us, because we've got the hard knocks that gives us good experience and we're willing to share with you that experience.

    David Gewirtz

    I am for Not So Fast!

  • Great Debate Moderator

    What to expect

    Is it possible that cloud storage and backup, or at least some part of it, will one day be standard for businesses of all types and sizes?

    Posted by Josh Gingold

    The cloud is the model, not the standard

    This is a public versus private debate, and also a question that really depends on the size of the company. Very small businesses -- those with fewer than 10 employees, perhaps -- will find that the cloud offers them a vehicle for becoming far more vigilant and prescriptive about their data management strategy. Because these services are easy to use, managers can make business decisions about what is vital and act accordingly. There will be a "standard" protocol for what to expect and look for in these services. But because larger business have different backup needs and expectations, I can't see there becoming a standard. Maybe on an industry-by-industry basis, but just because storage is becoming a commodity, data management should not be treated that way. And that is what the cloud is enabling, far more diligent data management strategy within SMBs.

    Heather Clancy

    I am for It's Safe

    That's up to each of you out there

    There's standard and there's standard. For example, you could make the case that with 92% penetration, Windows is standard. But there are a whole lot of Mac and Linux users out there, plus all those tablet and smartphone users. To them, Windows is neither standard nor inevitable. The same is true of the cloud. A lot of lazy and naive business people will rely solely on the cloud, and some of them will get hurt. Badly hurt. Others will take a more mixed approach and even then, some of them will get hurt as well. The best case is to try to maximize your protection, cover all your bases, be smart, and don't trust too much. The cloud (in the sense of buying a service from a provider) is not new. Some vendors are great, some are terrible, and some were once great and are now terrible. As Sarge from Hill Street Blues once said, "Let's all be safe out there."

    David Gewirtz

    I am for Not So Fast!

  • Great Debate Moderator

    The inevitability of it all

    Is cloud storage and backup simply inevitable and necessary as a result of so many other services moving to the cloud?

    Posted by Josh Gingold

    Yes, it is inevitable

    Even if SMBs choose not to commit their entire backup strategy to the cloud, it will be part of the mix they should be using for their overall disaster recovery or business continuity plan. This is especially true in an SMB is using applications delivered via the cloud. At the very least, the company needs to understand how that data is being safeguarded and WHERE it is being safeguarded. Is the cloud provider running regularly backups of that data? Is it replicated? WHERE is it? For this reason, SMBs should examine the backup strategies of their SaaS and cloud infrastructure service providers just as carefully as they do their security safeguards. Demand disclosure.

    Heather Clancy

    I am for It's Safe

    It's the future, but not the only future

    Well, this is an interesting question. Microsoft and Apple are both pushing forward major cloud storage initiatives and I know, for example, that many ZDNeters use the cloud a lot for their basic document management. If we go with thin clients (clients that are essentially a window pane on a cloud-based service), then much of our data will be stored in the cloud. I think this is exciting, but also potentially dangerous. I've used a great many service providers during my business career and I've been shocked at how shoddy much of the service has been, whether from small companies or major brands. I've learned that I'm completely unwilling to rely entirely on some other company to keep me safe. As such, I've architected my computing environment to make sure that (a) I have control enough to be sure I can recover if something goes wrong, and (b) I use outside services in case I make a mistake and can't recover. I've run a small company now for 25 years and this multi-tier, trust-but-verify strategy has worked for me all this time, across a wide variety of computing architectures. Don't share my pain, learn from it.

    David Gewirtz

    I am for Not So Fast!

  • Great Debate Moderator

    For all us other worrywarts

    How do businesses ensure that they are receiving the service they expect?

    Posted by Josh Gingold

    Test things regularly

    No backup plan is static. The best way to ensure that your business is receiving the service it expects is to run regular and frequent tests of its backup files when there isn't an emergency. That way, when a true crisis happens it will know how to act quickly and decisively.

    Heather Clancy

    I am for It's Safe

    Walk softly, but carry a big stick?

    My favorite Ronald Reagan quote is "Trust, but verify". Don't just assume it'll all work out. Test the backups and do so regularly. Set a tickler in your calendar for a once-monthly (or, at least, once quarterly) test run to see if things are working. And, if they're not, switch. After all, how important is your data? Are you willing to bet your company or your livelihood without any verification, testing or discipline? I would hope not.

    David Gewirtz

    I am for Not So Fast!

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Speaking of "sucks"

    What is the possibility of paying for a service that fails to deliver what was promised or becomes problematic?

    Posted by Josh Gingold

    Read the fine print

    Seriously, you stand the same chance of being unhappy with your cloud storage or backup plan as you do with an on-site solution. The difference is that you haven???t made an expensive capital investment. The reason that SMBs haven't been complaining about onsite solutions is because they haven't been using them. If your business is careful about understanding the terms of your cloud subscription or contract, it should be able to make a switch if it is unhappy or the service is harder to use than anticipated. It's about making a smart business decision.

    Heather Clancy

    I am for It's Safe

    Shockingly, shockingly high

    If you're asking what's the probability of a service not delivering on its promises, from readers' letters to me, the answer is shockingly high. Shockingly high. From my own personal experience, I've worked with a number of cloud backup providers. The one I'm using now is pretty reliable, the others were pretty bad. One (a very famous one) just didn't backup all the files it said it did. It'd report backups, but when I'd go and check to restore the files, more than half the files were just not there. Another would backup pretty reliably (although its agent program slowed down the computers a lot), but when it came time to restore, you'd have to wait almost 10 hours for the file list to build. According to that company, I just had a lot of files and most of their users didn't. So, I'm telling you this based on experience and testing. I have the scars to prove it. Update: I disagree with Heather. You do not stand the same chance of being unhappy with cloud as with your own. If your own solution fails, it's your own fault. But many of these cloud failures are breaches of trust, lack of taking responsibility, and very poor business practices. If you configure something wrong or your drive fails, you made a mistake, but if your vendor screws you, you're a victim. Don't be a victim.

    David Gewirtz

    I am for Not So Fast!

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Good, bad, and ugly

    What separates the good from the bad cloud storage and backup providers?

    Posted by Josh Gingold

    Here is what to seek in a good cloud provider

    You need to do the same due diligence you would do if you???re evaluating an on-site solution. Good cloud providers are the ones that have great, well-documented backup and disaster recovery plans in place for their data centers. You should absolutely check out the provider???s encryption strategy and security infrastructure. Familiarize yourself with the cloud provider's privacy policies, so there are no surprises. REALLY IMPORTANT: Make sure the provider has strong financial backing, so that you won???t lose data if it goes belly-up. You also need to examine your company's data migration options, should your organization decide to switch providers down the road for technical or business reasons.

    Heather Clancy

    I am for It's Safe

    Customer service

    Heather makes some good points. I'd add to that customer service and funding. I'd go so far as to recommend you avoid any cloud backup providers currently running on venture funding and not on their own profits. As I mentioned earlier, the horror stories and anger I've heard from people who use some of the best known cloud backup providers will curl your hair. These companies are scaling rapidly, often don't have enough money to get everything done right, over-promise, and then don't have the infrastructure, personnel, and even will to properly support customers. Here's a quick tip. Go to Google and type in the name of the cloud backup provider you're thinking of using, followed by the word "sucks". It'll be enormously illuminating.

    David Gewirtz

    I am for Not So Fast!

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Worst case scenario

    What is the worst case scenario with any sort of cloud storage and backup solution?

    Posted by Josh Gingold

    Don't put price before performance

    The worst case scenario is that your business decides to put price before performance, security and the cloud provider???s business credentials and credibility. Don't be lured by promises of "free." Understand what your business is getting for that price -- actually understand what you are not getting. The technology behind cloud storage and backup is safe, but your business definitely needs to be careful about which provider it chooses ??? especially since so many of them are popping up all over the place. David makes some great points about how to research the providers you are considering. If you have questions or doubts, trust your instincts and stay away from a service provider or service offering that seems too good to be true. Because it probably is.

    Heather Clancy

    I am for It's Safe

    To some degree, not getting your data back

    Well, most people would say that the worst case scenario is not being able to get your data back once you've had a failure. One step beyond that would be to find your data scattered all over the Internet because the backup provider didn't have enough security. There are some bigger issues here. For example, if you're subject to HIPAA or HITECH laws, you may have a disclosure issue, depending on where you send patient data. Our own Zack Whittaker of London Calling has written about the cross-border implications and possible trouble when it comes to which nation owns your data when it's stored in the cloud. In a one-on-one interview, I once asked the CEO of one such cloud backup provider what happens to the drives storing backups if he went out of business? Would they be sold at auction with the data still on them? Would they be destroyed or zeroed? Would they just be dumped in landfill? His answer (and this is a quote): "David: You're a real worrywart. Any type of backup carries some risk."

    David Gewirtz

    I am for Not So Fast!

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Individual decisions

    At this point, if you're still not sure or have concerns about your specific circumstances, is it fair to say that cloud backup probably isn't the right thing for your particular business?

    Posted by Josh Gingold

    Nope

    I just don???t buy this argument. It is pretty simple: the longer it takes for a business to get its systems back up and running after a disruption ??? whether it is a natural disaster or a systems crash ??? the more likely it is to suffer revenue losses. Most small companies ignore the need for a backup plan until someone gets burned. It is simply short-sighted not to consider the benefits that cloud storage and cloud backup offer.

    Heather Clancy

    I am for It's Safe

    Nope

    No, I disagree. Cloud backup is a perfectly fine layer in your backup layer cake. It's just that it must not be the only layer.

    David Gewirtz

    I am for Not So Fast!

  • Great Debate Moderator

    100% reliability?

    Why bother with cloud-based anything if you can't rely on it 100% of the time under all types of circumstances? Isn't that the point of all IT services?

    Posted by Josh Gingold

    More reliable than local

    The point of backup is to have a record in time of your organization???s most important files and system data. The ???safest??? form of backup ensures that data and information are stored in an alternate location so that if an outage is caused by a flood or electricity outage or server crash, it can be recovered at the closest point in time to the incident. As long as you have a notebook computer with some sort of secure connection, you should have access to your cloud backup. I would argue that a small business has more reliable, consistent access to backups than if it decided to do handle this task locally. In traditional onsite solutions, backup files are stored in a different physical location (they SHOULD be for safety reasons) ??? one that your team might not be able to access immediately.

    Heather Clancy

    I am for It's Safe

    Ain't nothin' 100%

    Nope. You can't rely on any form of backup 100% of the time. That's the tiered backup approach I mentioned above. Basically, you want to have a backup plan for your backups, because not everything works out the way you expect. After all, if everything just worked, you wouldn't need backups, would you? But it doesn't just work. That's the way of life. Given that reality, using multiple backups to cover different circumstances is the way to go.

    David Gewirtz

    I am for Not So Fast!

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Best use case

    Practically speaking, is the cloud better for data storage, access, and sharing or is it really about backing up and protecting data against the unexpected?

    Posted by Josh Gingold

    Perfect for both

    Practically speaking, I think the cloud gives SMBs more flexibility and an unprecedented ability to protect and share their intellectual property. Cloud storage, for example, is a great way for teams to collaborate on shared filed. Many services offers revision tracking and safeguards for management purposes. As for backup, let???s be real, many small businesses have never had an adequate technology backup plan in place. The natural disasters of the past year along with the availability of very simple-to-use cloud offerings has convinced them to change their posture on this. Smaller companies are starting by managing files in the cloud; once they are comfortable, they are moving to backup. It just makes sense.

    Heather Clancy

    I am for It's Safe

    Different services for different needs

    That depends on the service. I use Dropbox constantly to deliver documents to team members, but I don't use it as a backup service (although it's nice knowing that some of my important documents are also on Dropbox). Other services are more traditional backup services, allowing you to specify folders or directories on your computer to backup, patterns to ignore, and so forth. I would not advise using a cloud backup service as a file sharing service, and I would not advise using a file sharing service as a backup service. There is one exception to this: the very casual user. I have a neighbor with all of about 200MB of documents on her PC, total (seriously, just a few Word files and a few text files). I mapped Dropbox to her My Documents and although she also burns a backup disk from time to time, anything she drops in My Documents is mirrored up to Dropbox. But that's not practical for those with terabytes of data.

    David Gewirtz

    I am for Not So Fast!

  • Great Debate Moderator

    The real savings

    Cloud-based storage and backups certainly are not worry free and must be managed by somebody. How does it really save money versus traditional on-premise backup solutions that also must be managed?

    Posted by Josh Gingold

    Cloud doesn't negate need for management

    No one ever said the cloud absolved SMBs of the need to manage technology strategy. If anything, the cloud requires even closer management, making technology a more strategic part of each business process. As far as the cost equation, cloud storage and backup services save SMBs from investing in hard drives and storage media that they really don???t need. The cloud also lets them pool that investment, so that the on-site capacity is used for more strategic purposes and by the people who really need it.

    Heather Clancy

    I am for It's Safe

    Beware surprises down the road

    There are so many different cloud offerings that this is hard to answer. If you rely on the ultra-cheap consumer offerings, you're probably in for a disturbing surprise down the road. I've written about these products before and I can't tell you how many gut-wrenching stories I've heard from readers who couldn't restore from their cloud backups -- and how completely unresponsive and insensitive the cloud service providers were to their plight. It also depends on whether you use mini enterprise-class backup services or pretty much build your own with hard drives you install and manage. Neither is necessarily more cost effective (and, remember, I advocate using BOTH), but likewise, neither needs to be particularly over-the-top expensive either. Here's the best tip I can give you: regularly try restoring your data. You may be pleasantly surprised or horrified. Either way, you'll learn something.

    David Gewirtz

    I am for Not So Fast!

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Getting started

    What about businesses that don't currently have any sort of legitimate backup strategy whatsoever, are cloud-based backups really the best way to begin?

    Posted by Josh Gingold

    Forces SMBs to get organized

    First, I think we need to distinguish between cloud storage and cloud backup. Cloud storage services are good for clearing big files off local hard drives to free up space for more current or recent items. They also provide businesses with a way to share documents, to collaborate in a rather rudimentary way. Cloud backup gives SMBs an opportunity to really get a grip on their archiving and disaster strategy. Moving to the cloud will force SMBs to decide which data should be saved, which should be purged or eliminated regularly, and which is absolutely critical to protect.

    Heather Clancy

    I am for It's Safe

    It's one way to begin, but not the only or the best

    They are certain one way to begin, and if you've been lax enough to not have any backup strategy whatsoever, I guess something is sort of better than nothing. There are a few practical issues here. First, if you've never backed anything up, start now. Second, backing up to the cloud (especially if you have a lot of data) will take weeks or more, and in that time you will be unprotected. As a start, run (do not walk) to your local office supply store, consumer electronics store, or even WalMart and get a few external USB hard drives, use your OS's own native backup program, and BACK UP! At least get one copy of all your data secured. Okay, so let's now talk about doing this right. You should, properly, have a tiered backup strategy. It's good to backup daily to a local network share. This will be helpful in the case of a machine crash, but won't help if your building burns down or act of nature. Next, make backups to drives that you deposit in a local safe deposit box. This will safeguard you from the building-burning-down scenario, but still won't help if your area is hit by a hurricane. Once you've secured quality local backups, go ahead and also backup to the cloud. Having an additional secure copy is a good idea, but like each of the other tiers, don't make the assumption that just because you backed it up, that you'll later be able to restore.

    David Gewirtz

    I am for Not So Fast!

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Greetings from San Francisco!

    Debaters, are you ready?

    Posted by Josh Gingold

    Ready, sir!

    Standing by.

    Heather Clancy

    I am for It's Safe

    Greetings back at you from the Space Coast

    Hiya Josh! Hi Heather! And welcome everyone. Let's do this thing!

    David Gewirtz

    I am for Not So Fast!

Closing Statements

It just makes sense

Heather Clancy

There is no evidence to suggest cloud storage and backup services are less safe than local alternatives. That is especially true when you consider for many SMBs, the alternative has been a limited data management and archiving plan – due to the complexity and expense of many on-premise solutions.

Like another other technology investment -- whether it is on-premise or in the cloud -- a truly safe cloud backup plan must be backed up by a real business strategy and commitment.

Small businesses must do their diligence when selecting a cloud storage and backup provider. Look for real security (including encryption) and serious bandwidth support. Make sure the cloud provider has its own backup and disaster recovery plan for its servers – the servers on which your data will be housed. And check out the financial backing of the provider to make sure it has a long-term future.

But here is the crux of the matter: The cloud allows small businesses to get a grip on the value of their data and take steps to safeguard it and share it like never before.

The cloud is not safe

David Gewirtz

Heather is one of the IT authorities I respect most at ZDNet. I regularly read her columns, discover new and important things, and learn to think with a more informed perspective.

That said, and with all due respect to a favorite colleague, I have to tell you that not only is she wrong in this regard, she's dangerously wrong.

The cloud is not safe. First, the cloud isn't just one cloud. The cloud is made up of many different companies, with different infrastructures, agendas, skill sets, levels of funding, and degrees of dedication. Some cloud providers are very good, and some, quite frankly, are terrible.

It's not that you should avoid the cloud, it's that you shouldn't rely only on the cloud. Think about how important your company and your livelihood is, how important the livelihood and trust of all your employees is, and then take the small extra effort necessary to split your backups among different methodologies, mediums, and vendors.

A tiered backup strategy that divides your eggs among a number of baskets is the only truly responsible backup strategy.

Proceed with caution!

Josh Gingold

This is a difficult debate to score because the primary question, whether cloud storage and backup is safe, is perhaps a bit more complicated than it implies.  In reality -- and I'm not copping out here -- cloud storage and backup may or may not be safe depending on your business and the inherent interdependencies that must always be considered.

At a basic level, yes, many cloud providers now offer more security and other measures than many if not most businesses are able to provide on-premise.  In addition to security there are the issues of access, redundancy, scalability, and perhaps most of all, expertise.  Cloud storage and backup solutions are purpose-built and providers expend a lot of resources making sure it's safe so they can win more customers.

For the most part, at least in my experience, the cloud is really very safe and actually a very good idea for storage and backup.  However, the cloud also requires a certain degree of caution and therefore may be best as a "safeguard," as Heather says, as opposed to the only solution.  For this reason, I must say "Not So Fast!" and agree with David Gewirtz.  Now is not the time, as David says, "to bet your business or your livelihood...solely on cloud-based storage and backup."

So, at the very least, please proceed with caution. 

Topics: Great Debate

About

Josh Gingold is the Managing Editor of Business and Technology Research Libraries for CBS Interactive with primary responsibility for the presentation of key research and commentary through a combination of blogs, white papers, and Webcasts. Josh's past experiences include a variety of editorial and production assignments for CNBC, CNET... Full Bio

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