In a recent briefing note we discussed the need for backing up cloud-based productivity applications, also called Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), such as GoogleDocs, Office365 or SalesForce.com. People often assume that because these services are storing their data in the cloud, that data’s protected, as if it was backed up. There’s another related situation where the wrong assumptions about backup are being made – with cloud storage and file sync and share (FS&S) services.
Many users think that just because they’re using cloud-based service like DropBox or even iCloud, that their data is safely protected, essentially backed up. After all, these companies do take steps to protect users’ data, right? The answer is “yes and no”. Yes, they do protect the files stored in their cloud infrastructures, but no, you can’t assume that using a FS&S service provides you the same protection that a backup solution would.
As most IT professionals know, “real” backup protection must be more than just a copy of files sitting on another storage device somewhere, especially if that data is subject to change. Effective data protection comes from a comprehensive software system that creates a copy of the files worthy of protection and maintains those copies in a safe location, as they change. This means storing those files for as long as desired, including older versions of files. File sharing services have problems providing this level of protection, problems related to data selection, system state and data retention.
FS&S services copy files from a users’ computer to the cloud and then synchronize those files with the copy stored in the cloud. But the devil’s in the details. How do they select which files are to be included in that sync process? The answer is they don’t, you do.
DropBox creates a folder on your computer that it synchronizes with the cloud, but you have to put files into that folder in order to have it copy them in the first place, and then keep them in that folder to have them updated. It’s an active selection process, meaning you have to manually move files into a specific folder or have the application creating those files use that folder as well. Anything else, like files you forgot to move into the cloud folder, files created in an app that doesn’t recognize your cloud service or files stored on an external drive, is excluded.
In addition to providing remediation for accidental file loss, backup solutions are also used to recover a computer that’s suffered a hard drive crash or similar system-wide failure. FS&S does nothing to preserve that system state. After such a failure, the user would have to reload the operating system and reset all configuration information, before restoring files that were on the computer. And again, these would only be the files in the specific cloud share folder.
Another issue is data retention. Cloud FS&S services create a copy in their cloud of each file that’s been selected for the service (requiring active selection, as described above) and update that file as it changes. But many don’t keep historical copies of changed files or save deleted files. Some FS&S services do offer a recovery process but have short retention times or charge extra for this option.
Backup services, on the other hand, store the original copy of a file and typically keep all versions of that file, even after it’s been deleted. The exact number of versions kept and the duration of that retention vary with cloud providers. As noted in the previous column, most restore requirements are caused by user error, accidental deletion, overwriting the good version, etc., operations for which FS&S solutions would provide no protection. Good backup services also eliminate the potential for confusion or negligence in actively selecting which files get protected.
For FS&S users adding backup protection simply means backing up the shared cloud folder on their computer. Some backup solutions actually include all user folders as a default and others have a more involved configuration process. But all backup solutions eliminate the need for users to move their files into a specific folder in order to be included in the protection process. And while saving multiple file versions can consume more capacity in the cloud, even with sophisticated change-based processes, some backup solutions are still available without capacity limits.