Sometimes local data storage just can't cut it. Perhaps you don't have the capacity or time to manage large amounts of data, or perhaps the data needs to be shared and you don't have an adequate network for that, or maybe you're starting up and need infrastructure without spending time and money.
Whatever the reason, these days the data answer is often the cloud. What's the cloud? Basically, it's Internet-based storage in a monster data centre somewhere.
The operative word is "somewhere"; the premise is that users need neither know nor care precisely where their data lives. Cloud providers may have data centres in multiple countries, and move data among them. If you're in a regulated industry that requires data to be stored in a particular country, the cloud may not be for you. And, as customers of Amazon's Simple Storage Service found out recently, not reading the fine print can see you lose essential data if there's a cloud outage. So, if location or absolute redundancy is important to you, read the terms of service before you sign.
That said, the cloud can still be a great choice. It's easy to expand or reduce capacity, virtually on the fly. You pay for what you use, rather than paying for projected capacity as you do when you're buying your own infrastructure. And since the storage is in an enterprise-class data centre, it should have resilient hardware, well protected power and redundant connections to the Internet.
But just because your data is in a data centre doesn't mean you can abdicate responsibility for its management - as users of Amazon and other cloud-based services have discovered. You have to understand precisely what services they provide.
For example, does the storage provider back up the data, or is that your responsibility? What, if any, guarantees are there of availability, and what sort of compensation is offered if those guarantees are not met? And, perhaps most important: What's in the fine print?
Your choice of service also depends on what you need to store, and how you need to access it. Here are a few examples of what's out there.
Dropbox (www.dropbox.com): This is probably one of the best known providers, although not necessarily for storage. It's used by consumers and businesses alike as a means of transferring files that are too large to send by e-mail. Files saved to your local Dropbox folder are synced to the website, mobile devices and any other device that shares the folder. Since it's relatively bandwidth-frugal, it can be used by teams as a collaboration tool. A 2 gigabyte Dropbox is free, and 100 gigabytes costs $19.99 (U.S.) a month.
Amazon Web Services (http://aws.amazon.com): Offers storage via its Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3). It's charged by usage; you pay for the storage you use, and the transfers to and from that storage. There's a free tier that provides new customers with 5 gigabytes of Amazon S3 storage, 20,000 get requests, 2,000 put requests, 15 gigabytes of data transfer in, and 15 gigabytes of data transfer out each month for one year. Amazon's service level promises are impressive, but see above about knowing what you're buying and reading the fine print - a small number of companies permanently lost data during a recent outage because they hadn't paid attention.
Rackspace (www.rackspace.com/cloud): Offers unlimited cloud-based storage starting at 15 cents (U.S.) per gigabyte. A number of products are built on the platform, including Cloud Drop, an inexpensive cloud storage application built on the force.com platform using Rackspace Cloud Files. It is meant for Salesforce.com customers.
Windows Azure Storage (www.microsoft.com/windowsazure/storage): Microsoft's offering provides storage for binary and text data, messages and structured data. The storage services include four components: the Blob service for storing binary and text data; the Queue service for messages that may be accessed by a client; the Table service for structured storage for non-relational data; and users of Windows Azure can create virtual hard drives. It, too, is billed by usage plus amount of data transferred. For redundancy, Microsoft says it replicates data three times on different fault domains.
MozyPro (http://mozy.com/pro/): This one is from storage giant EMC. It offers a pay as you go backup service that costs $3.95 (U.S.) a month for each desktop or laptop, plus 50 cents per gigabyte per month and $6.95 per month per server, plus 50 cents per gigabyte per month.
Windows Live SkyDrive (http://explore.live.com/windows-live-skydrive): A second Microsoft option for work groups or small businesses, this one offers 25 gigabytes of free, password-protected storage. It's promoted as a way to store and share files, but it's a personal or small team solution, and not something you'd want to bet your company on.
As cloud usage continues to grow, you can expect to find more offerings like these that can satisfy the needs of your small business. Just remember to do your homework. It's really easy to get started with a cloud service, but it's much harder to switch if you're unhappy.
Special to The Globe and Mail