What Is Cloud Storage?

It’s hard to run a business these days without hearing about cloud services. You can do your books in the cloud, find employees in the cloud, sell your services in the cloud, and store your files in the cloud.

Cloud storage has boomed over the last decade, and now almost three-quarters of all businesses either use cloud storage or plan to migrate to it soon. Cloud storage seems to be everywhere, but what is it?

With the popularity of cloud storage, it might shock you to learn that few people really understand what it means. Even more shocking, cloud storage was born as an accidental byproduct and not as some brilliant business idea somewhere in a Silicon Valley garage.

An unlikely start

To understand cloud storage, it’s important to know a little bit about what the internet is. Don’t worry, we’re not going to bore you with all the gory details — in fact, we promise that there won’t be a single flowchart or technical diagram in this piece.

The internet is just a lot of computers that are linked together. Many of these computers are personal devices — laptops, phones, desktops, even smart thermostats and the like. But many more of these computers are servers — devices in the background that store websites, control internet traffic, and power all of the cool apps that make life (and business) easier.

These servers were put in place by companies like Google, Microsoft, and Amazon while they were busy taking over the internet. But they found that they had more space than they needed. A lot more. Rather than let this unused capacity just sit, these companies decided to rent this space to customers and other companies very cheaply, giving birth to the cloud-storage industry.

Your files everywhere

Knowing how the cloud-storage industry started is interesting, but it still doesn’t tell us exactly what cloud storage is. For cloud-storage users, it might seem to be no different than the hard drive inside your computer. More advanced users might think it’s similar to a backup server you could use in your business for archived documents. Both of those are good ways to think about cloud storage, but they don’t tell the whole story.

The most important difference between cloud storage and a regular hard drive, or even a backup server, is how the files are stored. Instead of your documents residing on a single hard drive, your files are stored across a lot of different servers. The reason for this is simple: Companies with a lot of servers had a lot of extra space, but it was spread out in small blocks across thousands of computers.

Think about it like filing cabinets: If you have a thousand cabinets each with enough space for 10 pages, you have 10,000 pages worth of space, but you couldn’t stick a 10,000-page file into a single cabinet. You’d have to spread it out across all of your cabinets. That’s exactly what cloud-storage providers do.

One of the benefits of this approach is that it makes your files incredibly safe. If a single computer dies, you don’t lose your documents. Another benefit is the ability to access your documents from anywhere through the internet. This makes cloud storage incredibly powerful and useful for companies and individuals alike.

In this guide, we’ll help you navigate the complex world of cloud storage and figure out if cloud storage may be right for your business. We’ll give you a more in-depth explanation of how cloud storage works in Chapter 1, give you an overview of must-have cloud-storage features in Chapter 2, identify the different types of cloud storage in Chapter 3, teach you how to use cloud storage in Chapter 4, and guide you through the differences between personal and enterprise cloud storage in Chapters 5 and 6.

How does cloud storage work?

In the last section, we talked about how cloud storage came to be. In this section, we’ll go a little more in depth into how cloud storage works. We’ll also cover the benefits of cloud storage, some advantages compared to traditional storage options, and an overview of the biggest cloud-storage providers.

How cloud storage really works

We mentioned in the last section that cloud storage was born when large internet companies had more server space than they needed. We also talked a little bit about how the available space was broken down into small chunks rather than large blocks.

That’s all most people need to know about cloud storage to start using it for their business. For anyone who is curious about how the whole thing works, however, we’re going to explain it in greater detail here.

Imagine for a second that you have a large library in your home. It’s mostly full, but you have a couple of open spaces on multiple shelves. You want to add a new book, but there’s a problem — the book is too big to fit in any single available space.

For a personal library, the solution is pretty obvious: Just move some books over and rearrange things until one of the spots is big enough to hold the new book. For cloud storage, however, things aren’t as simple.

A lot of the “books” (the files already on servers managing important apps) can’t be easily moved. Sometimes important services rely on certain files to be in a certain place at a certain time. Other times, the files are simply too big to be rearranged. And moving important pieces of something like Google Search or Amazon Shop can cause problems for people using those services.

Long story short, rearranging is usually not an option. So how do cloud-storage providers find room for your files?

Since there’s not enough space on your imaginary bookshelves for a whole book, what you could do is break the book into pieces — maybe by chapter — and put each chapter on a shelf separately. This is exactly how cloud-storage providers find space for the file you’re trying to store.

To make finding these “chapters” easier, each file piece is labeled with the name of the file it belongs to. Finally, a record is created that points to where all of these chapters are stored so they can all be put back together when you need to access a file. Best of all, this is done completely in the background with absolutely no action required from users. For you and other businesses, cloud storage just seems to work like any other hard drive.

The benefits of cloud storage

Even though cloud storage seems to work like any other storage solution, it definitely has benefits that make it stand out from traditional options. These benefits can largely be broken down into three categories: ease of use, compliance, and archiving.

Ease of use

Ease of use is, not surprisingly, how easy a system is for everyday users. Ease of use can cover a couple different things. It can be very literal and only deal with how easy it is to use the interface. This definition answers the following questions:

  • Does this solution require a lot of training? 
  • Do things work the way you expect them to in this solution? 
  • Can someone sit down and figure out what they need to do just from looking at the interface?

Ease of use can also refer to a more high-level idea — how easy is it to fit the solution into your workflow? This definition answers these questions:

  • Does this solution make it easier to accomplish my tasks?
  • Is this solution faster/easier/more convenient than what I’m currently doing?
  • Will this solution require effort to implement, or will people want to use it?

Thankfully, cloud storage ticks off both of these boxes. The interfaces and integrations for most cloud-storage services are very simple and intuitive. Because these services are all very similar in what they offer, they all try to stand out from the crowd by making things as easy as possible. In many ways, they are almost easier to learn and use than the folders on a standard computer.

They also offer a lot of ease of use in your workflow. Being able to access your files from anywhere and on any device using only an internet connection means you can get more done quicker.

A lot of cloud-storage providers offer integrations with popular apps and programs to make working with them even easier. Most cloud-storage providers also make it easy to share files, allowing you to collaborate with people anywhere in the world with the click of a mouse.

Compliance

Compliance simply means following applicable laws and security best practices. You are, in short, compliant with all relevant rules. Compliance may seem like it only matters to highly regulated industries, like healthcare or finance, but it should be an important consideration for just about any business. That’s because being compliant helps keep your documents secure.

Lately, it may seem like there’s a new story every week about how a popular internet service was hacked and its user information exposed to thieves. Despite all of this seeming doom and gloom, you might be surprised to learn that there hasn’t been a single large hack on a cloud-storage provider. That kind of security is invaluable to individuals and businesses and makes a strong case for using cloud storage.

On the other side of the compliance definition, many popular cloud-storage platforms go out of their way to get certified for specific industries. There are cloud-storage providers that meet all requirements for many industries, from law to healthcare to finance, and have the certifications to prove it. Getting certified can be a lengthy and expensive process, so letting someone else do it on your behalf is a major selling point.

Archiving

When you archive a file, you don’t have to worry about its location or whether it will still be there in a month or a year or a decade. When we talk about archiving, what we’re really talking about is the safety and integrity of documents.

Archiving and data integrity are some of the biggest benefits of cloud storage. Cloud-storage providers do several things that traditional storage options can’t when it comes to the integrity of your files.

One obvious example is the fact that cloud-storage solutions store your files in a different location than the one where you’re located. This keeps your files safe from physical damage — things like fires, natural disasters, or electrical issues that might affect your home or office. This functionality makes cloud storage especially useful for people living in disaster-prone areas.

Another advantage is that files are kept on multiple computers, often with several backups of each file piece. Even if the cloud-storage provider has a catastrophic failure, your file is backed up across enough servers that your files are unlikely to suffer damage or get lost.

Advantages of cloud storage

If the benefits of cloud storage are ease of use, compliance, and archiving, how does cloud storage compare to other storage options? What are the pros and cons of cloud storage?

Ease of use

Local storage is obviously the easiest option for users to learn. Most people have used a computer and understand how files and folders work. Even networked storage has become relatively commonplace in offices, and most people have some idea of how the N: drive (or Z:, or F:, or whatever letter your IT department has settled on) works. Cloud storage can often be set up to work just like a local drive, drive letter and all, but takes a bit of work to set up.

Where cloud storage wins by a mile is the ease with which large files can be shared and the ability to access files from anywhere on any device. Local storage is only available from the computer it’s attached to.

Network storage can be set up for outside access, but getting to it is much harder than just typing in a web address. And opening up the network to the outside reveals potentially huge security holes. Also, you can’t really share files with anyone outside of your organization.

Compliance

Network and local storage can be compliant, but you have to bear the cost and complexity of setting up these systems to be compliant. Likewise with security, it’s possible to make your local or network storage very secure, but it’s up to you to do so.

If you use cloud storage, on the other hand, compliance and security are the responsibility of the cloud-storage provider. If you’re using a well-known, reputable provider, this should be no problem. For smaller or lesser-known providers, you may need to do some research to make sure they’re certified and able to meet your needs.

One con for cloud storage is that bigger companies make bigger targets than smaller companies, so there is some chance of your data being caught up in a large attack on the provider. However, there haven’t been any records of an attack like this happening yet.

Archiving

Local storage is limited by the size of your hard drive. If you want to store more files, you have to remove your old hard drive and install a new one — a potentially complicated procedure. For cloud storage, all you have to do is buy more space. In fact, most providers will automatically increase your available space so you never run out.

Cloud storage also has the advantage of redundancy and an off-site location. As we mentioned earlier, if something happens to your office or home, your files may be lost. Even network storage is limited to being in a single place and only existing as one copy. Cloud storage creates multiple copies of your files and stores them across multiple computers in different locations, so even natural disasters don’t affect your documents.

Overview of cloud-storage providers

It would be impossible to list every single cloud-storage provider available, especially the niche ones that cater to specific industries. Instead, this section will briefly cover some of the biggest and most well-known cloud-storage providers.

  • Google Drive. Google started providing storage not too long after they started providing email. Since their start, they have added additional services like a cloud office suite and business services. Best of all, they offer free cloud storage (with limited space) on personal accounts.
  • Dropbox. One of the most well-known and popular services, Dropbox was an early web 2.0 success story and technology darling. They also offer an incredibly simple-to-use and very popular service.
  • Amazon Drive. Even though Amazon is one of the best known companies in the world, few people are familiar with their cloud-storage offering, Amazon Drive. Some storage is available free with Prime membership.
  • Box. Box has been around for a very long time, and has changed their services to fit the latest technology and customer needs. They are well regarded, and free trials of their services are often bundled with new laptops.
  • OneDrive. The cloud-storage offering from Microsoft comes packaged with Windows 10 and seamlessly integrates with most Microsoft programs like Office. Its ease of use and integration makes it ideal for Office-heavy use cases.
  • Apple iCloud. Like OneDrive, Apple provides cloud storage that is seamlessly built into all of their apps. In fact, if you use an iPhone or other Apple mobile device, chances are you’re already using iCloud.

Now that you know what cloud storage is and the benefits it offers, it’s time to start looking for a cloud-storage provider. In the next section, we’ll review what you should look for in a cloud-service provider and how to pick the best one for your business or personal needs.

Must-have cloud-storage features

There are hundreds of cloud-storage providers, ranging from massive world-famous companies to small niche providers that only work with certain industries. With so many choices, it can be difficult to pick a cloud-storage provider that’s right for you. In this section, we’ll look at the features cloud-service providers offer and help you navigate the jargon to find what you really need.

In previous sections, we broke down the benefits of cloud storage into three categories: ease of use, compliance, and archiving. To make things easier, we’ll continue using these categories and group features into one of them. So what are the must-have features of cloud storage?

Ease of use

Ease of use covers things like how easy it is to use the cloud-storage provider and how easy it is to integrate the cloud-storage provider into your workflow. It also covers how easy it is to get to your files.

Interface

It seems like it should go without saying that a good cloud-storage provider should have an easy-to-use interface. Unfortunately, some companies still use designs that are difficult to use and make finding and storing your files more cumbersome than it has to be.

Desktop integrations

One of the biggest ease-of-use features a cloud-storage service may provide is a desktop integration. This allows you to store files in the cloud the same way you would store a file on your computer, using the same folder structure you currently use.

File sharing

One of the biggest benefits of cloud storage is the ability to easily share your files. You should make sure that whatever cloud-storage provider you choose can share files both with people who use that provider and with guests or people outside of your plan. Additionally, some cloud-storage providers set limits on the size of the files that can be shared, so you should verify that your large documents won’t get stuck.

Web access

Does the cloud-storage provider allow you to access your files from any device through a web connection? Do you have to install specialized software? Does the service only function on a  supported connection? Being able to get to your documents with just a browser will make a cloud-storage provider a lot more useful and easier to use.

Bandwidth

Bandwidth refers to the amount of information you can send to or receive from a cloud-storage provider, and how much of that information can be sent at once. Most cloud-storage providers don’t have data transfer limits, but it’s still important to check. It’s just as important to check that the provider will be able to handle all of your transfer needs without significant slowdown.

Compliance

As you may recall, compliance is how well a cloud-storage provider handles applicable laws, regulations, and best practices. This covers things like being HIPAA compliant if you handle patient information, for example. It also covers security features, validations, and certifications.

Regulatory compliance

Working in a regulated industry like healthcare, law, or finance means that the systems you use typically have to meet or exceed some legal standards. Regulatory compliance ensures that you aren’t opening yourself up to liability by storing your files in the cloud.

Different industries have different compliance needs, so it’s important to make sure that the cloud-service provider you’re looking at has the compliance features you need. This may be easier for some industries than others. For example, most modern cloud-service providers meet basic compliance requirements for the medical industry.

Smaller, more niche industries will have to either turn to specialized providers that have the cloud-storage features they need or do a little more homework on the features offered by large providers. It’s also important to note that most cloud-storage providers will offer compliance certification only on their paid business plans.

Security

Security can be a very broad category of cloud-service features, so we’ll try to break it down as much as possible. There are two main components to security: user account security and data security. Both are equally important to keeping your documents safe. Secure cloud storage is critical, so don’t hesitate to take some extra time to evaluate these features.

User account security

User account security deals with the security of how you interact with the cloud-storage provider. Secure cloud-storage providers will make sure that

  • Your password is long and complex enough to be secure, often requiring special characters, lower- and uppercase letters, and numerals
  • All of their pages are encrypted with the latest standard and transmitted over “https” rather than “http,” including the pages you visit before you sign in
  • User account information is securely stored in an encrypted format
  • User account information isn’t shared with anyone, especially anyone outside of the cloud-storage provider

Data security

Data security deals with the security of how your files are stored and who has access to them. A secure cloud-storage provider should ensure that

  • You have the ability to set permissions and access levels for anyone who has access to your storage space, so you can control who has access to what files
  • All pages are properly encrypted using the latest SSL/TLS protocol, and all pages are served over “https,” not “http”
  • Your private files aren’t accessible by employees or other third parties, whether affiliated with the cloud-storage provider or not
  • Files are shared securely, and file sharing doesn’t allow either the shared file or other files to be accessed by anyone except the people you give permission. This includes things like making sure that shared files don’t have to be made public to be shared with people outside of your account.

Archiving

Cloud-storage archiving features focus on the ability to safely store all of your documents in the cloud for a long time. The biggest features to look for are cloud-storage capacity and cloud-storage redundancy.

Capacity

Cloud-storage capacity simply means how much space is available to store documents. The good news is that this is much less of a concern than it once was. Storage space has gotten incredibly cheap, and most cloud-storage providers offer a lot of it for free.

Dropbox, for example, offers two gigabytes for free. Microsoft OneDrive offers five gigabytes. Google Drive does even better with 15 free gigabytes. For most users, space is rarely an issue.

For those who need more cloud-storage capacity, however, most cloud-storage providers offer significantly more storage capacity with their paid plans. In most cases, increasing capacity is seamless, and you can do it on the fly as you fill up your existing storage.

Backup and restore

Some cloud-storage providers offer backup and restore features, allowing you to access an earlier version of a file. This is particularly useful if you edit your cloud files often. Sometimes a mistake can be easily undone by simply restoring a file to an earlier point. Most cloud-storage providers offer some restore and backup features, but the length of time ranges from a few hours to a month or more.

Redundancy and uptime

The last cloud-storage features you should check are redundancy and uptime. Redundancy covers how well the cloud-storage provider copies your files to make sure you always have access to your documents.

Most cloud-storage providers will make backups of your files across multiple servers in different locations, ensuring that they’re always safe and accessible even if one server is damaged or goes offline.

Uptime is a measure of how available your file is. Most cloud-storage providers don’t make any promises of uptime for their free plans, but business plans typically offer 99.9 percent uptime in their service level agreements (SLA). That means that your cloud storage will be available 99.9 percent of the time. To put it another way, your files will be unavailable for no more than 43 minutes per month.

Knowing which features are important to you and your business can help you narrow down your search for a cloud-service provider. Most providers will be very similar but will offer enough differences to either move them up the list or rule them out. Knowing the different types of cloud storage available can help narrow down that list even further, and that’s the next section of our guide.

Types of cloud storage

When we explained how cloud storage works in Chapter 1, we gave a very high-level overview that glossed over an important fact: There are different types of cloud storage, and they don’t all act exactly the same.

Don’t worry; if you aren’t interested in the nitty-gritty details about how cloud storage works or the types of cloud storage, our original explanation is good enough. But if you’re considering more advanced use of cloud storage, then the different types of cloud storage become important.

There are three main types of cloud storage, and they all function a little differently. This makes some cloud-storage types better for some applications than others. 

  • Cloud object storage stores your data as objects composed of a unique identifier, the data itself, and metadata, or data that describes the object. The data is unstructured and has a flat hierarchy.
  • Cloud file storage stores your data as files inside a standard file structure. This type of storage is the most similar in appearance to the way personal computers store files, and it’s often found on networked file servers.
  • Cloud block storage keeps files in specific places on the storage server in small chunks, or blocks. This is most similar in operation to a traditional computer hard drive, and is often considered identical to direct-attached storage (DAS) systems.

Cloud object storage

Cloud object storage is the most modern of the three types of cloud storage, and in general offers the most benefits. Instead of building a structured file system, object file storage makes all files the same. Each object that’s uploaded is assigned a unique file ID and is made up of three parts — the file ID, the data itself, and some metadata about the file.

The file ID is simply a way for the cloud object storage system to keep track of every file. The IDs are stored in a directory in a centralized location (or, more often, in several directories for redundancy) for easy file location.

The data stored in the object is whatever data you actually upload. This could be a document, a movie, a picture, or some other information. Because cloud object storage is unstructured, it can easily store any kind of data without any modifications.

Finally, the metadata is a set of labels or descriptions of the data being stored. Typically, this will include things like the name of the file, the type of file or file extension, and often the date the file was uploaded. The metadata is also unstructured, so there are almost no limits to what it can contain. Many cloud object storage providers use metadata to keep track of who uploaded a file, when it was accessed and by whom, the version of the file, and more.

Files in cloud object storage are stored in a flat hierarchy. This means that there is no real “file structure” the way there is on your hard drive — there are no folders or levels of files. Every file in a cloud object storage system is on the same level. This seems like it would make finding files difficult. However, thanks to a combination of the file ID, the file directory, and the file metadata, clever cloud-storage providers can actually build the appearance of a hierarchy without having to rely on a prebuilt system. This in turn makes it easy to customize user interfaces.

The big advantage of cloud object storage is the freedom that it offers both users and developers. Objects can be stored on any server, in any format, containing any kind of data. This makes it very easy to build systems that can scale — grow to be as big as or shrink to be as small as users need them to be. They are also incredibly robust, because it’s easy to duplicate and back up files. Most modern consumer cloud-storage solutions use cloud object storage.

The biggest disadvantage is that because the files are unstructured and scattered, it can take longer to find them and retrieve them. It also requires more work to organize files since they aren’t organized by default.

Cloud file storage

Cloud file storage is most similar in use to a standard personal computer hard drive. In fact, many cloud file storage systems have been in use since long before people started using the term “cloud.”

Most workplace file servers are built on the same technology as cloud file storage. Often, this type of cloud storage is referred to as network attached storage, because it is in essence just a storage device attached to your computer via network instead of plugged in inside your computer.

Cloud file storage is hierarchical and structured. That means files are stored in a predetermined file structure, with a specified set of descriptors. Just like files on your computer, files in this type of cloud-storage system have a file name, file size, file type, and other labels.

Unlike cloud object storage, this version of metadata is limited to whatever fields were programmed in from the beginning. Cloud file storage users and developers can’t add metadata unless it fits one of the predetermined fields.

Cloud file storage also typically has a very basic operating system or interface incorporated into it to allow it to operate as an independent file system without relying on users’ computers to provide an interface.

Besides being used for document and file storage, cloud file storage is often used in another common application: web pages. Because the files exist in a specific structure, it’s easy to find and reach them through a standard browser. This makes cloud storage invaluable for storing web pages, which are just special files written in HTML and accessed through web browsers.

The advantages of a cloud file storage system are ease of use and integration. Often, once a server is attached to a network, it’s immediately ready to use. It also looks familiar to many users.

The structured nature of the storage makes it useful for applications where specific files need to be accessed using a file address through a web browser. This makes it ideal for web pages, content management systems, and similar applications.

The biggest disadvantage is that it combines the flaws of cloud object storage with some unique problems. It isn’t the fastest way to access files stored in the cloud and therefore isn’t suitable for applications that require a lot of speed.

It’s also a lot more rigid than an object-based cloud-storage system, making it difficult to modify, customize, and extend. And finally, it’s a lot less flexible and robust because the files typically have to be located on the same server or server cluster to work well.

Cloud block storage

Cloud block storage is actually the most similar in the way it works to a traditional hard drive. In fact, a “block” in a cloud block system is little more than a virtual hard drive with a set size. These blocks are considered “raw” storage space because they don’t have any kind of interface or even a rudimentary operating system and rely entirely on users’ computers to provide a human-to-machine interface.

In cloud block storage, data is broken down into sequential blocks of equal size and stored in a set order. If a specific file is larger than the predetermined block, it might be split across multiple blocks. Alternatively, the block sizes might need to be adjusted to fit files, depending on the setup used. Sometimes this adjustment can be made automatically, but sometimes it must be made manually.

In addition, each block acts as its own hard drive that has to be “attached” to a user’s system independently. This creates some limitations — for example, in a cloud-block storage system, multiple users can’t use the same block at the same time.

This can also create problems if you’re trying to access files on different blocks at the same time, since you’ll have to attach one block, get the files you need, unattach it, and attach a second block (or multiple blocks as multiple drives simultaneously), etc. Since these blocks are formatted as traditional file systems with no interface, they may not work with all computers if they use a file system your computer can’t read.

Where cloud block storage shines is in the speed that it can deliver to users. Because each block is essentially an independent hard drive that is “mounted,” or attached, just like a regular hard drive, reading and writing files is much faster than the other two types of cloud-storage systems.

This benefit makes it incredibly useful for applications where reading and writing large data sets is important. Cloud block storage is often implemented in large enterprise database systems, in which the system knows where certain kinds of data is located.

Some of the biggest disadvantages include the lack of sharing resources and multiple access, as mentioned earlier. Another big disadvantage for smaller businesses is the inefficient use of space. Since all of the blocks have to be the same size, some blocks may be almost full while others may be mostly empty. And since resizing the blocks can be difficult, companies might need to purchase more space than they need today in anticipation of future use.

Each type of cloud-storage system has advantages and disadvantages, and none works for every kind of business. Selecting the right kind of system, for advanced users, requires understanding how it’s going to be used and matching the advantages of the system to those needs.

Hopefully you now have the tools you need to evaluate cloud-storage providers. In the next section, we’ll put some of this theory into practice by explaining how to use cloud storage, and we’ll move closer to helping you identify the best cloud-storage provider for your business.

How to use cloud storage

There are probably as many different ways to use cloud storage as there are people using cloud storage. Still, most of the basic use cases fall into a couple of major categories:

  • Cloud file sharing 
  • Cloud hosting
  • Cloud backup
  • Cloud data storage 
  • Cloud photo storage

In this section, we’ll dig a little deeper into these categories and show you how to use cloud storage for your business or personal needs. 

How is cloud storage used for file hosting?

One of the most common ways to use cloud storage is for sharing large files with friends, clients, and coworkers. Cloud file sharing was one of the main reasons cloud storage managed to grow so quickly in popularity.

For security reasons, many email clients severely limit the size of attachments that users can send. So even though inboxes keep growing, the size of files you can transfer has stayed consistently small, limiting users’ ability to quickly distribute important documents — whether they be large sales presentations or home movies of your nephew’s first birthday.

Cloud file sharing became a way to work around these limits. With a cloud file sharing solution, instead of trying to send a too-large file, users could upload the file and then simply send a link. As common as cloud file sharing is now, it’s hard to understand just how revolutionary the ability to easily send large files was even a decade ago.

Cloud file sharing has a lot of advantages going for it. It’s incredibly simple to use, both for sharers and the people they’re sharing with. It’s much faster than mailing flash drives or other traditional ways of sending large files. Cloud file sharing also offers the ability to restrict who you share files with or to share them with anyone who wants access and has a link to your file.

Of special note to businesses in regulated industries, many cloud file sharing services offer compliance options to help track and manage who has access to a shared file, as well as any changes they may have made to that file. These kinds of audit trails and privacy controls are essential for companies working in health care, law, and several other fields.

How is cloud storage used for file hosting?

File hosting can mean different things depending on the specific business need being addressed. The simplest form is using a cloud hosting server to make files available from any location to a select group of people. However, cloud hosting can also be used to host public files and even whole websites.

Cloud file hosting gives companies the ability to store many kinds of files on a server that’s accessible through the internet. Along with the ability to share files, cloud file hosting gives businesses a way for multiple employees in remote locations to access the same pool of documents and work together collaboratively. It also allows team members who are traveling to access document repositories, which is especially useful for sales teams that have a lot of materials or other employees who are on the road a lot.

For more advanced users, cloud file hosting can be used to host publicly available files. This can mean hosting your entire website in the cloud or just the files you need to share outside of your company, like marketing collateral or public presentations.

How is cloud storage used for photo hosting?

Speaking of marketing collateral, this is a good time to talk about cloud photo storage. Most people with a cell phone are already familiar with cloud photo storage. iCloud and Google Photos are two of the most common cloud photo storage options and come baked into almost every modern cell phone.

These consumer-grade cloud photo hosting options help users free up storage on their phones and make their photos available to friends and family members. Companies can also take advantage of these technologies to share photos and other media with employees, clients, and prospective clients.

Of course, using cloud photo storage for business requires more sophisticated tools than consumer-grade software like iCloud or Google Photos. Fortunately, all of the business-grade cloud-storage tools we mentioned earlier can easily handle photo storage.

It’s also important to remember that photo cloud storage doesn’t have to end with photos ― it can include any media. Photos, movies, audio, and the like can be stored in the cloud. Cloud storage can give your business a powerful platform to share, distribute, or simply store all of your media files.

How is cloud storage used for data storage?

It’s possible to store more than photos, movies, and work files in the cloud. Many companies find that they generate a lot of data in the typical course of operations. From customer databases to manufacturing data to account files ― this data can also be stored in the cloud. In fact, moving databases to the cloud is one of the most popular business uses of the technology among more tech-savvy users.

The advantages of moving data to the cloud are similar to the advantages of using cloud storage for more traditional files. The biggest ones are safety, redundancy, and access. Data stored in the cloud can be backed up multiple times automatically and can be backed up to multiple servers so that an outage in one place doesn’t interrupt your business.

Cloud data storage also allows you to access and work with your data from anywhere, often simultaneously from multiple locations. Moving business data to the cloud allows you to decentralize your company’s work.

Instead of requiring information to be stored on the same server, it can be safely located in a large server offsite while multiple machines use it from anywhere on earth. As work becomes increasingly remote, this ability to spread your work globally is incredibly powerful.

How is cloud storage used for backup?

Finally, cloud storage is a great option for storage and backup of your files and data. Companies like Carbonite, Backblaze, and iDrive allow you to easily create automatic backups of your files to the cloud. This, in turn, leaves you far less vulnerable to data loss and outages.

Data security researchers have a saying: “If your file doesn’t exist in three places, it doesn’t exist.” That might be a bit of an overstatement, but it has more than a grain of truth. It’s incredibly easy to lose data.

Almost everyone has experienced some form of data loss at one point or another ― maybe a laptop hard drive crashed, or they damaged their phone beyond repair. Businesses have suffered similar problems, including flooding, fires, and other disasters.

Cloud storage gives you a way to back up data to a second location. Better yet, many cloud backup services let you back up your data to multiple locations, spreading it out for increased security.

You can also store multiple backups, which gives you options of where to revert in a worst-case scenario. This is becoming important as a way to protect your company against increasingly common attacks from hackers, especially “cryptolocker” style attacks that hijack your data and hold it hostage until you pay a ransom ― something that recently happened to a city in Florida. Had the city made use of offsite backups, they could have simply reverted their systems to an earlier backup point.

Cloud storage offers a tremendous number of possibilities and use cases. The ability to safely and securely store your files on a remote server gives companies and individuals freedom like never before.

However, with so much power comes responsibility: Cloud-storage users need to make sure that the solution they choose is right for their specific application. This can include checking for features, as we mentioned earlier. It can also mean verifying that whatever solution you pick has been validated and certified as compliant with the laws that govern your industry.

In the next two chapters, we’ll help you identify the best solutions both for your personal use and for enterprise use.

What is personal cloud storage?

One option for cloud storage we’ve briefly mentioned is personal cloud storage. This might sound like cloud storage for individuals rather than businesses, and some people do refer to individual cloud-storage solutions as “personal,” but that isn’t what we mean here.

Instead, personal cloud storage refers to running and maintaining your own local cloud-storage server. In addition to “personal cloud storage,” this kind of configuration is also sometimes referred to as home or private cloud storage.

Besides purchasing space from a large-scale, public cloud-storage provider, some companies choose to run their own cloud-storage servers so they can keep full control over their information. Running your own personal cloud keeps everything inside your organization, giving you many of the benefits of a traditional public cloud while avoiding some of the concerns.

Personal cloud storage usually takes the form of a hard drive or hard drives with a server built in, though it can also be software that you set up on your own server hardware.

Getting started with personal cloud storage requires connecting the device to your network and setting it up to function the way you want it to. This could be as simple as plugging in a box and setting a password or as complicated as doing intense configuration for both hardware and software, depending on your needs and your provider.

Like a traditional cloud-storage provider, personal cloud storage allows you to store and share files over the internet. Unlike a traditional cloud-storage solution, personal cloud storage doesn’t upload your files to servers controlled by a third party. Home cloud storage has a few major advantages:

  • The personal cloud-storage service doesn’t store your files on public servers. You maintain full control of how and where your files are stored. They aren’t placed on servers outside your control.
  • The personal cloud-storage service gives you full control. You get to decide where the server is located, who has physical and network access to it, how it’s configured, and what kind of server is used.

Of course, no solution is perfect, and personal cloud storage is no exception — otherwise there would be no reason for companies to use the public cloud. There are a couple of potential pitfalls that companies need to be aware of before jumping into managing their own home cloud-storage network:

  • The personal cloud-storage service isn’t really the cloud. Unlike traditional/public cloud storage, home cloud storage doesn’t move your files to an external server.
  • The personal cloud-storage service doesn’t have the same redundancy. Instead of storing your files across multiple redundant servers, they are instead stored in one single location, removing some of the security of a public cloud.
  • The personal cloud-storage service isn’t responsible for certification and validation. You are responsible for making sure that your personal cloud storage meets all the certifications your business requires.
  • The personal cloud-storage service can open you up to network vulnerabilities. Being able to access your personal cloud-storage solution from anywhere opens up your network to the world. Unfortunately, it can be tricky to make sure only authorized users can walk through that door.

For businesses that need more control over their files, a personal cloud-storage device can be the perfect solution. It puts a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of users, but it also offers those users a tremendous amount of control.

Common personal cloud-storage devices

Personal cloud-storage devices have been around for many years now, and the industry is mature enough that it’s difficult to find truly bad options. However, some companies and devices stand head and shoulders above the pack. These are our recommendations for the best devices for personal cloud storage in 2019.

  • QNAP TS-451. The QNAP TS-451 is one of the more complicated offerings on the market, but it also includes a lot of configuration options. It has four front-mounted hard drive bays, meaning it can store up to 48 Terabytes (TB) of data — more than most midsize offices will ever need, and the drives can be swapped out quickly and easily for backup or to upgrade the system.

 It also comes with options for upgrading the amount of RAM (random access memory) used, from 1 Gigabyte (GB) all the way up to 8 GB if you need more powerful hardware. The system starts at about $400 but doesn’t include hard drives.

  • Synology DS1618+. The Synology DS218+ is a more powerful storage solution that features six hard drive bays for up to 72 TB of data. Like the QNAP system, they can be swapped out for backup or for upgrades. It also comes with a suite of helpful apps, data-protection options, and the ability to easily stream media. As for RAM, it comes with 4 GB but is expandable up to 32 GB. 

The system starts at around $750, but there are both less and more powerful models available depending on your needs and budget. For example, the DS2415+ variant provides 12 hard drive bays for up to 144 TB of storage, for around $1,400.

  • WD My Cloud EX4. The WD My Cloud EX4, as its name suggests, includes four swappable hard drive bays for up to 8, 12, or 16 TB of data storage. Like most WD (Western Design) products, the hardware and software are user-friendly, easy to plug and play, and come with several convenient options. For example, this model features two power ports in the back, which protects you if one plug is pulled out accidentally. 

There are also USB 3.0 ports and two Ethernet ports for extra storage capacity and protection against disconnections. The model without internal hard drive storage goes for about $400.

  • WD My Cloud PR4100. The WD DL4100 comes with four swappable hard drive bays for up to 8, 16, and 24 TB of data storage. There’s also the standard model without built-in hard drives. What makes this device stand out is its ease of use, small form factor, portability, and a web-based dashboard where you can customize permissions, set users, enable sharing, and manage backups. 

Like the other WD device on this list, it provides multiple power and Ethernet ports so you can ensure redundancy. You can also set up text and SMS alerts in case there any system failures. The version without any hard drives starts at $450.

  • Buffalo LinkStation LS220D. The Buffalo LinkStation LS220D is a cloud-storage solution with two hard drive bays. By far the most affordable device on this list, it comes in 2, 4, and 8 TB configurations for about $180, $250, and $350 respectively. There is also a version without hard drives for around $100. 

As you can imagine, this is a no-frills device. But it’s easy to set up, simple to manage via desktop and mobile apps, and offers speedy file backups and transfers over the internet, which is really the main point of devices like this. If you need a simple, inexpensive cloud-storage device, consider this one.

Enterprise cloud storage solutions

There are virtually no companies that couldn’t benefit from some form of cloud storage. Whether you need to store data securely offsite, share files over the internet, or transfer data between multiple servers, there’s a business cloud-storage use case that fits just about any situation.

One important business cloud-storage advantage we haven’t discussed yet is the ability to extend functionality with apps, plugins, and integrations. As versatile as business cloud storage is out of the box, many companies get even more out of it by connecting it to third-party services that allow them to improve their workflows and do more with less.

Business cloud-storage integrations

Cloud-storage integrations are apps that work together with your enterprise cloud-storage solution to do more than just store, share, and archive files. Integrations come in many flavors. Some are built by cloud-storage providers themselves, while others are third-party apps. Some work with all major cloud-storage providers, while others may work only with a single specific service. Some are extensions for your browser, some are desktop apps, and some live in the cloud themselves.

The range of functionality offered by integrations is equally broad. Some allow data to be automatically backed up or shared, while others can notify you of file changes, automatically email file shortcuts, or even change file names dynamically to better fit a naming structure. In short, whatever you need, there’s a good chance someone has thought of it and built a business cloud-storage integration to accomplish it. Some of our favorite business cloud-storage integrations include the following.

JotForm

We built JotForm to be one of the best cloud-storage integrations out there. Using JotForm’s cloud integrations, business owners can quickly and easily build forms into their cloud workflow. You can seamlessly send data to any number of cloud-storage providers, and our compliance certification means that you can do so without violating HIPAA or disclosing protected health information (PHI) and personally identifiable information (PII).

Zapier

Zapier is a workflow automation tool that helps companies connect different apps, services, and integrations. For example, if someone fills out a JotForm intake form that’s uploaded to your company’s Google Drive, Zapier can parse the results, add the information to your company’s CRM, and send notification emails to the right member of your sales team based on one of the fields, such as region or industry.

Slack

Slack has become the quintessential business messaging platform. If you aren’t familiar with it, Slack allows you to keep in contact with your team by setting up chat rooms for individual teams, projects, functions, and whatever else you can imagine. It also allows you to share and manage files directly from a chat interface.

Integrating Slack with cloud storage gives you a quick way to update project teams and share task-related documents. For some cloud-storage providers, it also allows you to manage permissions and access, track changes, and monitor and notify users of updates.

Asana

Asana is a project management tool for people who don’t like project management. It allows you to create tracked tasks in the form of a to-do list, then combine those lists into projects. Because of its lightweight design, it makes managing projects much simpler than using a more robust tool. It also allows you to link cloud-storage files to specific projects and tasks, giving you the ability to easily manage who does what with which document.

These integrations are just a small sample of the hundreds of apps available for use with enterprise cloud-storage solutions. It’s no exaggeration to say that there’s probably a business cloud-storage integration available to fit any need you can come up with. Most large, well-known cloud-storage providers have integrations with dozens of apps and tools, and most well-known integrations tend to work with almost all business cloud-storage providers.

All of this leaves us with just one question, and it’s a big one: Which cloud-storage solution is right for your business? We can’t answer that question for you, but hopefully we’ve given you the tools you need to decide for yourself.

Not all cloud-storage providers are right for every business, so we’ve provided a couple of suggestions below. They’re broken down into small business cloud providers and enterprise cloud providers. While most well-known providers will work for either application, some are easier to use for large companies and others for small ones. Combined with everything you’ve learned so far, this should get you well on your way to selecting and using a business cloud-storage provider that’s perfect for you.

Small business cloud-storage providers

Dropbox Business

For small to midsize businesses, Dropbox Business should be an adequate file-storage solution. It’s easy to use, provides unlimited storage space (with some plans), and offers a plethora of options, including unlimited file recovery and versioning, the ability to set user files and permissions, password-protected links for sharing, and integrations with multiple third-party apps like Microsoft Office 365. It starts at $15 per month.

Google Drive for Work

Besides file storage, Google Drive works extremely well as a platform for collaborating with coworkers on documents and other important files. It allows users to edit, comment, and make suggestions in the same document, makes backups and keeps histories of different versions of files, and send email notifications when documents are changed. It also lets users edit documents offline and upload them to the cloud.

For business users, Google Drive provides unlimited storage space, and it integrates well with other Google products and services, such as Calendar, Gmail, and Google Hangouts. It starts at $12 per user per month. 

Microsoft OneDrive for Business

Like Google Drive for Work, Microsoft OneDrive for Business offers a collaboration platform where coworkers can comment, edit, and work together on the same documents — and some plans provide unlimited storage space.

If you already use Microsoft products, like Word, integration is incredibly easy thanks to built-in features that allow you to upload files to your OneDrive account. It even lets you access files from your Xbox. OneDrive for Business starts at $5 per user per month.

Enterprise cloud-storage solutions

Box

Box provides many essential features for enterprise companies, including the ability to set users and permissions, project management tools, and workflow automation. Most notable, however, are its security and compliance bonafides, which should cover many industry regulations.

Box offers 256-bit AES encryption, which means files will be very difficult to crack. And it meets numerous regulatory requirements, including ISO 27001 and ISO 27018; plus it’s HIPAA compliant. Box starts at $15 per user per month for business customers.

Egnyte

Egnyte offers similar options as Box, including 256-bit AES encryption for files in transit and at rest, and ISO 27001 and HIPAA compliance. It also provides a key management service, which means business owners have greater control over who gets access to their data.

Egnyte has numerous third-party integrations with apps like Microsoft Office 365, Salesforce, and Slack. Egnyte starts at $20 per user per month for business customers. 

Amazon S3

Like Box and Egnyte, Amazon’s cloud-storage solution provides top-of-the-line encryption and meets ISO 27001 and HIPAA-compliance standards. Interestingly, you can choose where in the world your files are stored in Amazon’s Web Services (AWS) cloud, which is great in case you need to meet (or avoid) region-specific regulations.

You also get integrations with multiple third-party apps. However, due to its high degree of flexibility, Amazon S3 can be very confusing to use unless you have skilled IT professionals on board to set up and manage day-to-day operations. The pricing structure is also confusing — there’s a pricing calculator, but S3 is free to start so you can decide whether it’s right for your business or not.

Business cloud storage is a mature field, with a lot of fantastic options for any kind of business and any kind of need. In fact, as long as you choose a well-known and well-established provider, it’s hard to make a bad decision. If you’ve followed this guide all the way through, you should know how to select the right provider. Remember to look for the right kind of cloud storage, the right compliance and validation, and the right integrations.

After that, the best option is to try out a few business cloud-storage providers and see which ones you and your team prefer. Remember that the best system in the world doesn’t help much if no one likes using it! And if you find yourself stuck, look back through our cloud-storage guide to find inspiration for making the best selection.

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