Does cloud-based file syncing qualify as backup?

Mobile device use is growing, and companies need to take steps to support access to corporate data on-premises and in the cloud.

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Mobile device use is growing, and companies need to take steps to support access to corporate data on-premises and in the cloud.

My IT guy sent out a corporate-wide email reminding employees to copy files to their Dropbox folder. In addition to Dropbox serving as a collaboration tool and enabling accessibility to files from any endpoint device, our IT group sees Dropbox as a form of endpoint file protection. We’re not alone. In a 2011 Cloud Adoption Trends survey of more than 300 IT professionals, Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) found collaboration and file sharing ranked third in use or planned use of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) applications, behind customer resource management (CRM) and email, and ahead of fifth-ranked backup/recovery. That prompts an interesting question for storage decision makers: Do new cloud-based file syncing tools qualify as backup? Let’s investigate the possible answers.

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File synchronization vs. file backup

As backup SaaS, file synchronization, sharing and collaboration services take hold, the proverbial lines are beginning to blur. Backup SaaS vendors like Mozy offer capabilities to access files stored in the Mozy cloud from multiple types of endpoint devices, enabling syncing. File sharing and collaboration services, such as Insync, SugarSync and Syncplicity (among others), also promote their backup capabilities.

Backup is any process or technology that automatically makes a secondary copy of data, and makes it available for recovery in the event the primary copy of data is lost. Typically, backup solutions provide versioning (automatically retaining multiple versions of any file), allowing data to be recovered from multiple, previous points in time.

Using file synchronization and collaboration solutions involves setting up a cloud-based folder and copying files into that folder. The files are immediately available for access via a Web interface from any Internet-connected device. In some solutions, like SugarSync, a user’s sync workspace on one device is automatically synchronized with sync folders on other devices.

Back to the question of what qualifies as backup. Using the aforementioned backup definition, file syncing could be considered backup. If the primary copy of the file is lost or corrupted, the copy maintained in the cloud-based sync folder can be retrieved. From a versioning perspective, Dropbox actually does create copies of the files saved to a cloud folder, including deleted and prior versions of files, and saves them for a 30-day period or longer with advanced features. Solutions like Box and SugarSync have a similar versioning feature with the ability to restore previous versions of files stored in the cloud repository. However, not all cloud-based collaboration tools have automation for backup. However, a few do have automated synchronization where new and changed files are automatically synchronized with cloud folders.

The other side of the cloud

We haven’t even talked about the biggest challenge in relying on these synchronization tools as backup. While leveraging file syncing solutions as a form of backup takes care of one pesky problem for IT, making endpoint users happy and productive, it presents another. In many cases, it allows employees to adopt consumer-grade file syncing solutions haphazardly, leaving organizations more susceptible to risk.

Consider this: Endpoint devices have typically been the most underprotected business asset. In a 2010 survey of more than 500 IT professionals, ESG research found that less than 50% of respondents back up 100% of desktops, less than 40% of organizations back up 100% of laptops, and less than 25% of those surveyed back up 100% of handhelds. Today, there are several forces at work in elevating file syncing and backup to the fore: increased worker mobility, growing interest in and use of cloud services, and the consumerization of IT. Today, IT professionals are challenged to embrace certain consumer technologies in the workplace while maintaining IT standards to minimize risk and meet corporate and/or regulatory requirements. Clearly, enabling file synchronization for both personal and professional mobile devices with centralized IT services and cloud storage services will be a high priority to facilitate user productivity.

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Many cloud-based file synchronization and backup services have a “free-mium” business model that offers some cloud storage capacity at no charge. This has created a “Wild West” scenario, with corporate endpoint users subscribing to cloud-based services and copying files -- both personal and corporate -- to cloud repositories without regard for privacy, regulatory or corporate policies.

The lack of awareness of cloud-based corporate data copies creates vulnerability for IT, and the absence of administration features for the centralized IT function creates management headaches.

On-premises endpoint backup and backup SaaS

It’s very clear that the landscape of endpoint backup solutions is evolving. On-premises, purpose-built endpoint backup/recovery solutions are catering to the needs of both the endpoint user (nondisruptive and enables self-service recovery) and IT administrator (automated, optimized and centrally controlled), and starting to eclipse more traditional client/server backup approaches. Solutions like those from Copiun and Druva are mobile worker-friendly, supporting different endpoint device types, as well as file access from endpoint devices like smartphones and tablets. They also ensure data privacy with features such as role-based access control and encryption, and optimized data transfer with features like block-level incremental backups, deduplication and compression that minimize the impact of data transfer on the network and reduce storage capacity requirements. The solutions enable self-service recovery and don’t interfere with endpoint user productivity. They also centralize administration of policies (retention, deletion), scheduling, alert conditions and error handling.

Corporate cloud-based backup services, such as those from Axcient, EVault, Hewlett-Packard (which acquired Iron Mountain’s backup services portfolio via its Autonomy acquisition) and Symantec, have furnished companies with commercial-grade backup SaaS solutions; however, not all have met the requirements of the mobile and alternative endpoint device user by supporting nontraditional devices or file access/synchronization capabilities. On the other hand, solutions from Carbonite, Code 42 Software (CrashPlan), EMC (Mozy) and KineticD, which have traditionally catered to consumer and small business audiences, are appealing for corporate customers who need to support mobile workforce and/or file sharing and syncing requirements.

Headed into 2012

H.G. Wells’ call to “adapt or perish” is apropos when it comes to the megatrends of mobility, cloud and consumerization. Taking proactive steps to support access to corporate data -- retained on-premises or in the cloud -- on a myriad of devices should be a top priority for IT organizations. Otherwise, companies risk employees “going rogue” and making the company susceptible to privacy/security breaches or noncompliance fines. If endpoint backup is in place, pressuring vendors to provide file sharing and synchronization features (especially from handheld devices) may make sense. For organizations already using a file sharing/synchronization solution, instituting policies and guidelines for backup/recovery (based on what’s available with your chosen vendor) should be a priority for 2012.

BIO: Lauren Whitehouse is a senior analyst focusing on backup and recovery software and replication solutions at Enterprise Strategy Group, Milford, Mass.

This was first published in February 2012

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