Looking to store your files and folders in the cloud? You’ve probably come across three terms: cloud backup, cloud storage, and cloud sync. While these all sound the same, they are in fact quite different. It doesn’t help that some people use these terms interchangeably, adding to the confusion.
Treating these things the same can lead to a lot of trouble if you’re looking to preserve business data. If you’re a SysAdmin (or even if you’re not), it’s worth taking the time to learn how these things are different, and when you should use each kind of cloud solution.
The focus of this article is to explain exactly how these cloud services differ and how you can best leverage them depending on the situation. But first, let’s clarify the one big similarity: the cloud.
What is ‘The Cloud?’
Probably the most overused buzzword in the IT industry. In fact, in a Spiceworks poll of buzzwords marketers love and IT pros hate, cloud ranked number one. This is particularly ironic, since the same survey found the word cloud was used in 68% of all Spiceworks posts!
The term, supposedly first coined in the mid-90’s by Netscape executives (so you know who to blame) refers to software that runs on a remote network of servers, as opposed to localized on a computer. A lot of people think the cloud is a nebulous, non-physical thing that exists ‘on the internet’ – having a presence between places, much like a real cloud.
In short, if it’s cloud based, it’s just on someone else’s machine – not yours. It’s got to be somewhere, after all!
What is Cloud Storage?
Cloud storage is, unsurprisingly, storing things in the cloud – those other people’s machines we mentioned earlier. It’s essentially treating a remote network of servers – your cloud destination – as a supplementary storage location that you access over the internet. In short, an external hard drive that exists in someone else’s enterprise-grade data center rather than on your desk.
A great example of a cloud storage solution is Amazon S3 or Microsoft Azure. Obviously these companies make a lot of money renting out this cloud storage space, and their machines are highly reliable with negligible downtime. The benefit of using cloud storage is that unlike an external hard drive where you have to physically connect it to a machine to access the data, you can access cloud storage from any internet-enabled device. Also, your data won’t get physically damaged or lost, since it’s in a completely different location (Unless a cloud provider like Microsoft damage it, which is exceptionally unlikely).
This makes it really easy to share data stored in a cloud destination with others. You’ve got to manually upload files or folders from your computer location to your cloud storage location, which means if you don’t do it yourself, it’s not going to happen.
When you copy a file to the cloud and then delete or edit the original on your physical drive, the cloud copy won’t be affected.
What is Cloud Sync?
Cloud sync is a feature that allows you to edit a file on one device and have those changes reflected on another device in almost real time – in other words, to a cloud storage destination. The idea is generally credited to Drew Houston, founder of Dropbox. He came up with the idea after repeatedly forgetting his USB flash drive while he was an MIT student (something we can probably all relate to).
Even people who aren’t IT pros are typically familiar with cloud sync services like Dropbox, Google Drive, and Microsoft OneDrive. The general concept is the creation of a ‘sync folder’ that for all intents and purposes, behaves like any other folder on your hard drive. The only difference is the contents are mirrored on other machines or the cloud.
The obvious benefit is that unlike just using cloud storage on its own, the process is automated and up-to-date. This takes out an element of human error when it comes to remembering to manually transfer data to the cloud for safekeeping.
The relationship between cloud sync and cloud storage is that cloud sync is the method used to mirror your data, whereas cloud storage is where this mirrored data would be located.
The main benefit of cloud sync (besides a safeguard against forgetting your USB drive) is to allow others to view, edit, or download files in your cloud storage space in real time. Unlike manually uploading this data, all the copies are synchronized, meaning you won’t have two or more different versions of files on multiple destinations. This makes sure everyone is on the same page at the same time.
Cloud sync falls short when it comes to creating or editing large files. This is why scheduling regular backups can help to avoid choking your internet connection when you’re trying to work.
Another fallback is a lack of version control. With cloud sync, if you need an old version of a word document that you’ve updated, you’re out of luck. And if a file gets corrupted, this corruption is mirrored in your cloud duplicate. This means instead of having one corrupted and one clean version of a file, you’ve got two corrupted versions. The same is true of file deletion – if you accidentally delete something, this happens across all machines. Since syncing is near immediate, this doesn’t give you much or any time to stop this from happening. This is a particular problem with ransomware infections.
What are Cloud Backups?
For Cloud Storage, the main purpose is to supplement your hard drive. For Cloud Sync, it’s to share the contents with others. But with Cloud Backup, it’s to replicate your hard drive in case a disaster strikes.
To keep all your important data safe (files, folders, drives, etc), you can install backup and disaster recovery software on your machine. While many backup software solutions let you backup to a physical or network location (E.g. NAS), some allow you to back up to a cloud storage destination as well.
The main reason for this is if disaster strikes your machine – flood, fire, ransomware, hardware or user error, employee sabotage, etc – you can bring this data back from the cloud with no problems. Unlike sync, cloud backups support versioning, so you can retrieve files as they were at any point in time you backed up. For example, if you need a word document as it was last Tuesday – before it became corrupted or you accidentally changed it – this is entirely possible with cloud backups.
There are quite a few benefits of cloud backup over physical or network backups, such as accessibility, increased physical safety, greater security and so forth. But the weakness of cloud backups is you need to be able to access the cloud storage destination over the internet – if there’s an outage, you also want an offline backup of your data to minimize your downtime.
Cloud backups can be performed automatically based on a set schedule. This means you can schedule it to run at night when the backup will hog less resources. Like any other form of backup job, you want to configure your cloud backup schedule to your redundancy needs.
Some cloud backup software such as BackupAssist come with advanced features designed specifically for preserving your data and keeping it safe, such as high-level encryption, or deduplication to reduce storage space needs and transfer times.
So When Do I Use Them?
Use a cloud backup solution in combination with a local backup solution to preserve your machines in case of a disaster (or even to recover a few files). For this, you’ll need a cloud storage destination, either public or private. Meanwhile, a cloud sync solution is good for sharing vital files, ones that you need a high level of access to.