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Cloud storage providers: What should you look for?

With so many cloud storage options on the market, it's hard to choose the right one. To start, determine whether you need a business service or if a consumer cloud will suffice.

In the old days of computing, data was stored locally on users' computers. If the device broke down and users didn't...

have a backup, all their work was lost. Cloud storage has helped solve this problem, and it's widely available today, but which cloud storage provider should you choose?

Comparing cloud storage providers isn't easy. To start, you should know which type of cloud storage you're looking for: Will what's natively available on the devices that workers already use suffice, or will you need to provide and support another cloud storage method?

Popular applications have gone to the cloud or been built natively in the cloud, making cloud storage a requirement. If workers use Office 365, they'll get Microsoft cloud storage with it, and if they're using Apple devices or macOS, Apple's iCloud is almost unavoidable. Then there are cloud storage providers such as Dropbox, Box and Google Drive that offer free or freemium cloud storage.

Consumer services

Dropbox is a veteran cloud storage provider. It provides a web interface and a local client for Mac and Windows. It creates a specific folder in your environment from which documents are synchronized to the cloud. A nice additional feature is that it's easy to share documents with specific users.

Many people have a Google account, which includes free access to Google Drive cloud storage. Like Dropbox, Google Drive integrates with the local operating system and offers features to share data with other users. Google Drive's integration with Google Docs is a big benefit because different users can work on the same document at the same time and see changes applied in real time.

Box offers unlimited access in its Business and Enterprise editions. A Personal edition is available as well, but it is not as interesting as Dropbox and Google Drive. Box focuses more on business and enterprise users, which makes it a good choice for organizations with few or no regulatory compliance standards to meet.

Device-native and consumer cloud storage services can be difficult to administer because workers often use them without telling IT. Employees may store personal photos and documents alongside work-related files. For companies that don't have strict regulations, these services can work. But if you have compliance to worry about, turn to the business services from cloud storage providers like Box.

IaaS providers

Organizations often use infrastructure as a service (IaaS) integrated public cloud storage services to store data that is created from virtual machines running in the public cloud. The storage services that are offered by the big three -- Microsoft, Google and Amazon -- all use an object storage model: Data is stored in a synchronized way, with a focus on making that data available anywhere.

With this type of cloud storage, you'll be able to specify where to store the data, which makes it easier to comply with local regulations. Also, these cloud storage providers have a generic access method -- often the REST API -- which enables you to address this type of storage directly from an application. Amazon's Simple Storage Service was the first big player on the market, but Google and Microsoft are also good options.

Questions to ask your provider

Once you know what type of cloud storage you're looking for, you'll need to make a choice. Here are some questions to ask when you're looking for the best cloud storage provider:

What is the price? Significant differences that used to exist between cloud storage providers and services have leveled out. Still, there are price differences. Savvy shoppers might be able to find a cloud storage provider that offers the same amount of data as other services, but for half the price.

How well does it integrate? Some cloud storage services only work from a specific interface, whereas others integrate tightly with the user's operating system. Depending on your needs, cloud storage that integrates with a specific cloud application -- but not the OS -- might suffice. But if you want to use the cloud in a more generic way, the service you choose should integrate with users' local operating systems.

Where is the data stored? For some organizations, it may not be important where your cloud storage provider's data center is physically located. But in many countries, legislation forbids government data or other types of sensitive data to be stored in foreign countries.

For companies with very strict guidelines to meet and sensitive data to protect, an IaaS provider or on-premises private cloud -- or no cloud at all -- might be the best choice. 

This was last published in December 2017

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