Cloud storage and file back-up is getting better with age. The services are now attracting a legion of small business owners enraptured by the ease of access, tight security, and the flexibility of anywhere access.
Call it a comedy of laptop errors.
Renee Lewis was chugging along fine on her laptop when the hard drive suddenly went haywire and overheated. In a panic, she contacted her partner at their business consulting company Pensare Group in Bethesda, Maryland and was able to get some back-ups.
She saved the files on a new, fully-functional laptop and kept working.
To make sure the new files were safe, Lewis signed up with SugarSync, a cloud service that backs up files, syncs devices and allows sharing of large files.
That's when she dropped the new laptop.
Fortunately, using the cloud service, Lewis was able to retrieve the files saved on SugarSync's site and download them to the first laptop, which was now working again.
"I was up in only a few hours," she says, who then breathed a sigh of relief.
Her files were safe in the cloud, a holding area on the Web used for file storage and many other purposes, such as e-mail and apps. She could use any laptop and trust that the files were available and easy to access. Now, whichever device she uses, the software updates the files in the background automatically. SugarSync even works with the iPhone and other smartphone models.
The main advantage: there is more freedom with the computer or phone she uses, and there is less stress about whether the files are safe on one primary laptop.
The number of cloud services for file back-ups seems to be growing daily. Some of the popular services available include ZumoDrive, Mozy, and Carbonite, to name a few.
SugarSync is one of the most popular cloud tools. The app works with most smartphones including many BlackBerry models. The service also offers a free 5GB account.
"I think we're going to see more and more acceleration of the trend as online storage becomes cheaper, more reliable, and the connection to the cloud is faster," says Michael Gartenberg, a research analyst with Gartner.
"The interesting thing is all of those services have a commonality of cloud storage but as you start looking at them, some are more optimized for consumers, some more for business. Some are more designed for backup and archives. Others focus on synchronization [or] on sharing and collaboration," he says.
That means small business has much more flexibility and choice today when it comes to backing up data on the cloud, he says. For example, a business can choose a more simplistic consumer-friendly tool for non-technical employees. Or, a more powerful tool that provides encryption and more security for some more advanced users in your company.
When we queried small businesses about their use of the cloud to back up files, many respondents mentioned Dropbox, which works like SugarSync in that it saves files to the cloud, syncs devices and allows for document sharing and collaboration between co-workers, especially those at remote offices.
Brent Thomas owns a company that makes reflective products for dogs and bikes and swears by Dropbox. "I have several contractors working for me and with one account you can share files and folders, allow anyone to make edits, and save them in the same Dropbox account. There is no need to e-mail files back and forth. They are just there saved in the cloud," he says.
Mike Schwarz, who is founder and president of RibbedTee Designs, which makes men's undershirts, says his company primarily uses Dropbox to share files with external consultants and suppliers.
"We store product photos in a public Dropbox folder, then send a link via e-mail to that public folder. Our creative people can access and download any photo they want easily and seamlessly. We also share files this same way with our PR teams, printers and also our bookkeeper," he says, adding that his favorite part of Dropbox is that he can share a private link with a third party without requiring them to install an application.
Brock Reed, creative director for Seattle design firm Creativello, says his company has been using Box.net for about a year. "They have a great mobile app. We use it when we are on the road and need to access or share files. Box.net also integrates with some great partners such as LinkedIn and Salesforce."
Box.net co-founder and CEO Aaron Levie says users particularly like linking their Box.net accounts with Salesforce and Google Apps.
"With the Google Apps integration you can actually store and manage Google Docs within your Box.net account," he says. "You can then open Google Docs and do collaboration and real-time editing so that data gets stored back in the Box so you can actually manage it all from one place at Box.net, but edit it through Google."
Box.net is a bit more business-centric than SugarSync. You can create a private "meeting room" for potential clients and partners to share files. There's also a digital signature system for signing contracts that works with eFax.com.
Nicholas Chu, vice president of operations for California-based IT consulting company Janus Networks, uses Soonr to backup company files. He says every company should be making back-ups, but he also raves about the service's file-sharing capability between devices.
"A few months ago we had an update to our service agreement and each of our technicians had to get sign-offs on this new agreement ASAP," says Chu.
"At the time, I was on a plane, so as soon as it was okay to use electronic devices, I connected my iPhone to the plane's Wi-Fi Internet, opened Soonr, and found the SLA agreement, which [originated] on the desktop of my computer in the office, and shared it with all of the technicians by simply dropping it into our project folder—all on my iPhone, above 10,000 feet in the air," he says.
Soonr provides a few extra collaboration features—you can use a dashboard that lists work projects and helps you organize your file management activities as a team, since workgroup files are listed chronologically.
This kind of anywhere, anytime access is a major boon for small business owners who are constantly on the move, use a variety of gadgets and need to stay up on business activities.