These days, small businesses increasingly need access to their data on the go, with no overhead for storage maintenance and no hardware maintenance costs. Cloud storage provides an efficient solution and is rapidly gaining in popularity. (For more, see: Cloud-Computing: an Industry in Exponential Growth.) This article explores the cloud-hosting concept and looks at some top cloud-hosting providers for small-business needs.
Data Storage Options
Before cloud-computing, individuals stored their personal data on hard drives and memory cards. But computers and mobile phones can be easily damaged or lost, and may require physical proximity to the device in order to access the stored data. Businesses have stored their data on large-sized servers hosted in dedicated data centers. Data can only be accessed by a user who logs in to the corporate network, and it may not be accessible via the Internet or when the user is on the move. (For more, see: Investing in Data Centers.)
Both the individual devices and the corporate servers need dedicated support and maintenance, and ensuring the security of the data remains a challenge.
What is cloud storage?
A cloud service provider or a cloud hosting company provides a fixed-size server space to clients, who use it to store data. While the client owns the stored data, the hosting company owns and maintains the required hardware. The cloud host offers non-stop accessibility to client data, while providing secure access as designated by the clients. The data, in turn, may be stored across one or many servers, configured by the cloud hosting company in their data centers.
Although this concept dates back to the 1960s, it has gained popularity in the last few years due to improved Internet infrastructure allowing faster access to remotely-hosted data. Businesses are rapidly moving to cloud hosting, as it does away with the hassles of local server maintenance, associated costs and certain security concerns. The growing market of cloud hosting includes big names like Amazon.com, Inc. (AMZN) and Microsoft Corp (MSFT) and giants like Intel are reportedly investing heavily in supporting technologies. (For more, see: Is Cloud Computing an Investable Trend?)
This article lists the top eight cloud service providers. Our list is arranged in alphabetical order, with pricing details as available at the time of publication.
- Amazon Web Services (AWS): Amazon’s AWS offers a wide range of cloud hosting services. Plans include Pay as you go, Pay less when you reserve, Pay even less per unit by using more, Pay even less as AWS grows, and Custom pricing. “Pay as you go” allows one to pay only for the resources actually used, without any long term commitments or upfront costs. The “Pay less when you reserve” plan allows one to invest in reserved capacity, and later get discounts and savings. “Pay even less per unit by using more” allows one to get benefits of reduced costs with increased storage space and data transfer. “Pay even less as AWS grows” plan allows one to receive benefits when AWS optimizations result in reduced operational costs. Custom pricing, as you might expect, is for clients needing customized solutions. AWS claims its unique selling proposition (USP) in computation and dedicated application services, including website hosting, mobile data backup, business apps hosting and gaming. Pricing details vary widely across multiple product offerings, and one can start with AWS free tier to get a firsthand experience of services and expected costs.
- Box: Box for business offers features such as secure file sharing, enterprise-level security, file sync, cross platforms, IT and admin controls, reporting and dedicated technical support. Their personal plan is free, offering 10GB of storage, and the personal pro plan costs $11.5 per month for 100 GB storage. Business plans include a starter plan costing $6 per user per month with 100GB of storage; for $17 per user per month, and with at least three users, businesses can get unlimited storage. Clients can request customization under the enterprise plan. Features, such as Microsoft Office 365, active directory, and maximum allowed file size, vary across business plans and users can choose what best meets their needs.
- Dropbox: Dropbox claims to serve more than 100,000 businesses through their Dropbox for business cloud-hosting solutions. Hyatt, Yahoo!, Macquarie Bank and National Geographic Channel are a few of the well-known brands in Dropbox’s esteemed clients list. Beyond the cross-platform sharing, storage, sync, backup and seamless integration features, Dropbox allows file sharing even with users who don’t have a Dropbox account. The basic plan for individuals is free, offers 2GB of storage and comes with Microsoft 365 integration, allowing one to edit files directly through Dropbox. The Pro plan for individuals offers 1TB of free storage. The Business plan offers unlimited storage, with a standard charge of $15 per user per month for at least five users. It also offers full audit records of user activities, sharing, and controls. Business users get priority dedicated support.
- JustCloud: JustCloud offers more than 50 features, including an admin control panel, network drives, access and permission management, geo-redundant storage, file versioning, and hourly backup. The business plan costs $35.94 per month and includes 100GB of storage for five computers, while the enterprise plan costs $71.94 per month and includes 500GB of storage space for 20 computers. You can also get a custom plan if you've got greater backup requirements.
- Microsoft OneDrive: The tech giant Microsoft offers its cloud hosting services through OneDrive. Individual users can opt for 15 GB storage for free, while higher capacities such as 100GB, 200GB, and 1TB cost $1.99, $3.99, and $6.99 per month, respectively. The business plans start at 1TB per user for $5 per month, and come with a free trial. Beyond the storage, cross-platform syncing and powerful searching are the key features of OneDrive. It has its own downloadable software to keep remote and local data in sync, and also supports many third-party apps to seamlessly work with cloud data. It also offers hybrid options that integrate your on-premises solutions with the cloud services offered by Microsoft.
- OpenDrive: OpenDrive offers a vast suite of features under its business plan, including data management, project and workflow management, and user management. Data management offers the standard data storage, sync and backup features, while project management offers online Office suite which supports more than 17 different file types for direct editing. Powerful desktop software and apps which work across Windows, Mac and Android platforms are available. OpenDrive has a basic plan with 5GB of free storage with limits on file size and speed of access. The professional plans start from $12.95 per month, offering unlimited storage, unlimited file size, and unlimited access speed for one user. The personal unlimited plan allows up to three user accounts (each user costing extra), while the business unlimited plan allows unlimited user accounts (at extra cost). Custom pricing for specific needs is available.
- SpiderOak: SpiderOak touts their "zero knowledge" policy when it comes to your data. Computer analyst and whistleblower Edward Snowden has praised SpiderOak in the press. Full privacy, full control to the clients, no knowledge to the hosts, and flexible hosting plans are SpiderOak's selling points. Plans start at $7 per month for 30GB of data, and go up to 5TB. For advanced business needs such as active directory integration, SpiderOak offers Enterprise hosted and Enterprise on Premise plans, with costs starting at $5 per user per month, but require at least 100 and 500 users respectively. Each plan also charges a one-time setup fee of $299 and $599 respectively. For businesses holding sensitive data and needing advanced system configuration and services, SpiderOak is a good fit.
- Syncplicity: Syncplicity is a good cloud host for businesses who hold sensitive data and want their administrators to be able to control and limit access. Stored data is accessible across devices on multiple platforms, the interface is clutter-free, and there are robust reporting features to monitor content usage. For administrators, it allows implementing policies and controls for accessing data. It enables you to group users and apply different controls to those groups. It also facilitates restrictions based on the location of devices. The personal plan, which offers 10GB of storage, is free; the business plan offering 300GB of storage starts at $60 per user per year and requires at least 3 users; the department plan, with 1TB of storage, starts at $60 per user per year and requires at least 25 users. And the enterprise plan, offering unlimited cloud storage, starts at $150 per user per year and needs at least 25 users. All paid plans have 30-day free trial period.
The Bottom Line
In the technology world, “free offers” often come with lots of restrictions. For free cloud storage, this means limits on the size and type of data that can be hosted, bandwidth utilization, platforms (Windows or Linux), availability of backups, and technical support. This may be fine for individual users, but small businesses will likely need to pay for a service that will meet their needs. While there are plenty of good options, you'll certainly want to do your homework before trusting your business data to any provider.