What is cloud backup? Nice for customers, a pain for techies

Opinion Steve Cassidy Feb 26, 2013

Services like Dropbox and iCloud are attracting consumer interest but they're not the best products for business

It is about time that someone was honest about cloud backup. It's a horrendous term, pandering to the kind of consumer who thinks that "the cloud" is a uniform monolithic, perfectly operated, perfectly secure whole: And let's be honest, that's a group which has been making a lot of high-impact, low-research decisions lately. The truth is, as ever, rather different from the common perception, and it's up to people like me (speaking as both a consultant in the real world and an editorial fellow to a range of publications) to develop a script for explaining the difference between the consumer products handled by home users, and the enterprise monsters commonly referred to by hardened IT professionals. 

The first thing I say to get people on the right footing is, expect a lot of confusion and double-think. The business of backup is almost as varied as the business of cloud: it can be onsite, offsite, differential, one-button, staged and so on. I don’t want to invite you to stare into the abyss of a technical deep dive into the subject so I will just point out one example of the total madness surrounding the simple (ha-ha) matter of tape-based backup.

The business of backup is almost as varied as the business of cloud

Let’s go back a few years when Microsoft actively removed its tape-based backup support from Windows Server. This decision meant exactly nothing to the tape hardware makers, who have been responding to the explosion in data by continuing to develop and sell ever faster, ever larger tape drives. There you go: two basic pillars of the marketplace, with wildly divergent opinions and that’s before we touch on the mess that is cloud backup.  When it comes to storage and backup, get used to dichotomies like that. 

In the consumer world, customers tend to base their appraisals on what's reachable, over what's best. So they will look for the best free backup software, or just type "Dropbox alternatives" into Google. This approach frequently produces apparently unbreachable gulfs between users and IT professionals.  

Personally I view the creeping encroachment of Dropbox into the corporate world with some horror, since, in common with cloud consumer products, it reserves the right to extend features you didn't sign up for when you chose it, and then as a quid-pro-quo for being free of charge to join, it takes no responsibility for your data.

This approach may be defensible for Gmail or Flickr, where you may be expected to take your own local copies as a precaution - but one of the most notable Dropbox feature creep tricks is that deletions of a file held on the service will propagate seamlessly to the machines subscribing to that central service. This in the eyes of an enterprise storage person, changes Dropbox from being a backup utility, to being a service one takes backups to defend against. See what I mean about confusion? 

The basic lesson is: amount of storage, and the way backups are used, radically changes the suitability of one cloud backup product over another. What fits Dropbox (or icloud or Box or other similar services) doesn't automatically suit something that's a hundred or a thousand times larger and pricing very often indicates depth of experience and service longevity: Which in some cases, is also going to be the longevity of your data. 

Steve Cassidy

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Steve is a networks expert and a contributing editor to PC Pro for more years than he cares to remember. He mixes network technologies, particularly wide-area communications and thin-client computing, with human resources consultancy.

Email: steve_cassidy@cloudpro.co.uk