Ahead in the cloud

When it comes to small businesses and cloud storage, it’s all about finding the right fit.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

More small businesses are taking advantage of cloud-based storage and file sharing services every day. From the cost savings of not having to maintain an on-site server to the ease of access from being able to get at your important documents and other information wherever you are, the cloud just makes sense for small business owners operating on a tight budget and looking for efficiencies.

But how secure is the cloud? Reports of data breaches are not uncommon and protecting sensitive information — be it proprietary company information, employee records, or customer data — is paramount for any company. While the likelihood of a small business’ data being hacked may seem much slimmer than a juicy target like, well, Target, security cannot be overlooked.

Small- and medium-sized businesses are increasingly a target of cyber criminals precisely because they generally have fewer security measures in place. So what’s the truth about cloud security and what can cloud-based services offer your small business? Read on for a quick guide to the cloud for small business.

Debunking cloud myths

First off, “the cloud” just doesn’t sound very secure. Clouds aren’t exactly known for being impenetrable, but for cloud providers, high levels of security are part of the business model.

“The reality is these are gigantic facilities built to world-class standards,” says Bryan Bechtoldt, principal and chief technology officer for SVA Consulting in Madison, in a new online video discussion series about information technology called The Napkin Guys from SVA Consulting. “The physical security (of a cloud provider data storage facility) is just outstanding. You walk in, it’s like a movie. There’s biometric devices, man-traps, and cages with servers in them. It is exactly like you see on screen.”

As for the virtual side of security, Bechtoldt says it’s really all about access to great resources. “What ends up happening is you can have technical resources really caring for the security of your server and your application environment. So these are people who are specializing in making sure anti-virus is up to date, and putting in world-class backup schemes for your data. You really do get it cared for and a lot of times that’s stuff that just doesn’t get done on your site. There’s just not enough time.”

According to the folks at TechAdvisory.org, it’s actually a smart move for small businesses to use cloud services. Small business owners often don’t have the time or resources to employ and train an IT department to deal with security threats in house. The advantage cloud providers offer comes through layered security protocols and antivirus protection designed specifically to keep information safe from hackers at a cost that’s often less than the price of employing your own IT staff.

In addition, TechAdvisory notes that cloud-based storage services are much more secure from the threat of disasters — natural or man-made — because many cloud providers have redundancies built into their systems so that data is not stored in one central location but in several. This mitigates the threat of power outages or other situations where the data would become unavailable for a period of time or lost completely.

“Power is one of those things that’s always an Achilles’ heel,” notes Bechtoldt, “so even if you’re doing best practices and you have a backup generator for your server and wiring closet, which most people don’t, you really aren’t as secure as you should be from a power point of view. These facilities not only have a primary and a secondary generator, they have 10 or 12 hardwired to natural gas lines and they can run forever.”

Bechtoldt adds that businesses can often choose to have their data stored at a primary data center in one location, while it’s also backed up in another location halfway across the world to reduce the chances of data being lost or inaccessible during a major disaster in one part of the globe.

TechAdvisory also notes that many cloud providers constantly install updates and system patches to manage security breaches. They stay on top of those issues so small business owners don’t have to.

That said, the cloud is often only as secure as the user. Misplacing a laptop or mobile device makes your data vulnerable and nullifies many of the cloud’s security features.

That’s another reason why it’s so important to use strong passwords and other verification mechanisms. As TechAdvisory notes, it’s always wise to backup your files in another place, such as an external hard drive, in the event your cloud data becomes compromised.

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Picking the right cloud cervice

Like clouds in the sky, there are numerous cloud-based storage and file sharing services out there, each one offering something different.

Choosing the right fit for your small business doesn’t have to be daunting, notes Michael Muchmore and Jill Duffy, a lead software analyst and contributing editor for PC Magazine, respectively. “Which one you choose depends on the kinds of files you store, how much security you need, whether you plan to collaborate with other people, and which devices you use to edit and access your files. It may also depend on your comfort level with computers in general. Some services are extremely user-friendly while others offer advanced customization for more experienced techies.”

There are free and paid cloud services, and both options have their upsides.

Free to a degree

While some services like Dropbox, Apple’s iCloud Drive, and Google Drive are completely free, most paid services offer pared down free versions that come with limitations such as the size of files you can upload or the total amount of storage available.

Google Drive is a free file storage service that specializes in collaboration. Users can view and edit the same documents, making changes and saving them online in real time so everyone always has the most up-to-date version at their fingertips. Google provides a generous 15GB of free storage, making it ideal for many small business applications where multiple users will need access to the same documents remotely.

Dropbox is another file storage service that is notably compatible with other services. It’s also remarkably simple, which is one of its few drawbacks. Users can share Dropbox folders with others, and it’s easy to upload and sync files from anywhere and share information with anyone who’s been granted access. However, Dropbox doesn’t allow users to edit files online, which limits its collaborative applications. Dropbox offers 2GB of free online storage, which is plenty for users who want to share files for a defined window of time and then delete them from the system.

Apple’s iCloud Drive and Microsoft’s OneDrive are the other competitors in the free cloud storage service marketplace, and both are most functional when working with other Apple or Microsoft users. Both services provide up to 5GB of free storage and allow online editing.

Paid and insanely secure?

Box isn’t as well known as Dropbox, but it offers a robust set of features, as well as free, paid personal, and business-grade accounts. Box for Business starts at $15 per user per month (minimum three users) and includes unlimited storage (file limit of 5 GB), Microsoft Office 365 integration, custom branding, and a variety of security features.

Box for Business allows file editing with an additional download of editor software, making it useful for collaboration among users. The cost is manageable for small businesses but could become hefty for larger firms.

CertainSafe is perfect for users in the health care environment because its service is certified for HIPAA and other standards, unlike Dropbox. CertainSafe offers several pricing plans, all under $9 per user per month, depending on the number of users on the account.

A big draw to CertainSafe is its high level of security, or “Insanely Secure File Sharing,” as it bills itself. CertainSafe uses a different encryption key for every file user’s upload, and securely deletes uploaded originals to military standards.

According to PCMag’s Neil Rubenking, “having a different key for every file already means that an attacker who brute-forced one file would have to make the same effort for every other file. But in truth, a hacker trying to get into CertainSafe won’t find any files to attack.”

That’s because CertainSafe splits data into pieces and then stores each data chunk on different hard drives and servers. That also means a hacker who manages to gain access to one server only gets bits and pieces of data that are meaningless without breaking into all of CertainSafe’s other servers.

IDrive is among the better paid backup services available, according to the experts at PCMag. A free account provides up to 5GB of storage, while a Personal Pro account costing $59.50 per year for unlimited users offers up to 1 TB (1TB = 1,024 GB) of storage capacity.

IDrive backs up data on a daily schedule that users set. By scheduling the daily data backup, users don’t need to worry that a file hasn’t been uploaded or saved to the system. Users can also instantly sync files for more immediate use.

Interestingly, IDrive can also backup social media activity, safeguarding your Facebook and Instagram photos and videos for easy access later on.

Finally, PCMag’s Muchmore and Duffy say SpiderOakONE is a service worth considering if privacy is your number one concern, but its cost and ease of use are big drawbacks for small business owners.

SpiderOakONE employs a “zero knowledge” philosophy, meaning its employees have no access to your data, since only the user possesses the encryption key. SpiderOakONE has a free service but only for a 60-day trial. After that, plans start at $79 per month for 30GB of space or $129 annually for 1TB of space. The largest plan available offers 5TB for $300 per year.

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