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Can cloud file syncing replace backup solutions?

While cloud file syncing solutions as a form of backup makes endpoint users happy, haphazard adoption by employees can leave organizations more susceptible to risk.

What you will learn: Employees at companies across the U.S. are using a variety of technology -- ranging from desktop computers, laptops, tablets and smartphones -- to access and edit company documents. With so many items being created on multiple mediums, file syncing, or backing up to services like Dropbox, has become a prominent solution. More than 300 IT professionals who participated in a 2011 Cloud Adoption Trends survey conducted by the Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) ranked collaboration and file sharing third in use or planned use of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) applications, while backup and recovery ranked fifth.

So, do file syncing and backup serve the same purpose? Can businesses rely on these solutions as a backup option? In this feature by independent industry analyst Lauren Whitehouse, learn some of the possible answers to these questions.

File synchronization vs. file backup

As backup SaaS, file synchronization, sharing and collaboration services take hold, the proverbial lines are beginning to blur. Backup SaaS vendors like Mozy offer capabilities to access files stored in the Mozy cloud from multiple types of endpoint devices, enabling syncing. File sharing and collaboration services, such as Insync, SugarSync and Syncplicity (among others), also promote their backup capabilities.

Backup is any process or technology that automatically makes a secondary copy of data, and makes it available for recovery in the event the primary copy of data is lost. Typically, backup solutions provide versioning (automatically retaining multiple versions of any file), allowing data to be recovered from multiple, previous points in time.

Using file synchronization and collaboration solutions involves setting up a cloud-based folder and copying files into that folder. The files are immediately available for access via a Web interface from any Internet-connected device. In some solutions, like SugarSync, a user’s sync workspace on one device is automatically synchronized with sync folders on other devices.

Back to the question of what qualifies as backup. Using the aforementioned backup definition, file syncing could be considered backup. If the primary copy of the file is lost or corrupted, the copy maintained in the cloud-based sync folder can be retrieved. From a versioning perspective, Dropbox actually does create copies of the files saved to a cloud folder, including deleted and prior versions of files, and saves them for a 30-day period or longer with advanced features. Solutions like Box and SugarSync have a similar versioning feature with the ability to restore previous versions of files stored in the cloud repository. However, not all cloud-based collaboration tools have automation for backup. However, a few do have automated synchronization where new and changed files are automatically synchronized with cloud folders.

ESG research shows that less than 50% of respondents back up 100% of desktops, less than 40% of organizations back up 100% of laptops, and less than 25% of those surveyed back up 100% of handhelds.

The other side of the cloud

We haven’t even talked about the biggest challenge in relying on these synchronization tools as backup. While leveraging file syncing solutions as a form of backup takes care of one pesky problem for IT, making endpoint users happy and productive, it presents another. In many cases, it allows employees to adopt consumer-grade file syncing solutions haphazardly, leaving organizations more susceptible to risk.

Consider this: Endpoint devices have typically been the most underprotected business asset. In a 2010 survey of more than 500 IT professionals, ESG research found that less than 50% of respondents back up 100% of desktops, less than 40% of organizations back up 100% of laptops, and less than 25% of those surveyed back up 100% of handhelds. Today, there are several forces at work in elevating file syncing and backup to the fore: increased worker mobility, growing interest in and use of cloud services, and the consumerization of IT. Today, IT professionals are challenged to embrace certain consumer technologies in the workplace while maintaining IT standards to minimize risk and meet corporate and/or regulatory requirements. Clearly, enabling file synchronization for both personal and professional mobile devices with centralized IT services and cloud storage services will be a high priority to facilitate user productivity.

Many cloud-based file synchronization and backup services have a “free-mium” business model that offers some cloud storage capacity at no charge. This has created a “Wild West” scenario, with corporate endpoint users subscribing to cloud-based services and copying files -- both personal and corporate -- to cloud repositories without regard for privacy, regulatory or corporate policies.

The lack of awareness of cloud-based corporate data copies creates vulnerability for IT, and the absence of administration features for the centralized IT function creates management headaches.

On-premises endpoint backup and backup SaaS

It’s very clear that the landscape of endpoint backup solutions is evolving. On-premises, purpose-built endpoint backup/recovery solutions are catering to the needs of both the endpoint user (nondisruptive and enables self-service recovery) and IT administrator (automated, optimized and centrally controlled), and starting to eclipse more traditional client/server backup approaches. Solutions like those from Copiun and Druva are mobile worker-friendly, supporting different endpoint device types, as well as file access from endpoint devices like smartphones and tablets. They also ensure data privacy with features such as role-based access control and encryption, and optimized data transfer with features like block-level incremental backups, deduplication and compression that minimize the impact of data transfer on the network and reduce storage capacity requirements. The solutions enable self-service recovery and don’t interfere with endpoint user productivity. They also centralize administration of policies (retention, deletion), scheduling, alert conditions and error handling.

Corporate cloud-based backup services, such as those from Axcient, EVault, Hewlett-Packard (which acquired Iron Mountain’s backup services portfolio via its Autonomy acquisition) and Symantec, have furnished companies with commercial-grade backup SaaS solutions; however, not all have met the requirements of the mobile and alternative endpoint device user by supporting nontraditional devices or file access/synchronization capabilities. On the other hand, solutions from Carbonite, Code 42 Software (CrashPlan), EMC (Mozy) and KineticD, which have traditionally catered to consumer and small business audiences, are appealing for corporate customers who need to support mobile workforce and/or file sharing and syncing requirements.

Headed into 2012

H.G. Wells’ call to “adapt or perish” is apropos when it comes to the megatrends of mobility, cloud and consumerization. Taking proactive steps to support access to corporate data -- retained on-premises or in the cloud -- on a myriad of devices should be a top priority for IT organizations. Otherwise, companies risk employees “going rogue” and making the company susceptible to privacy/security breaches or noncompliance fines. If endpoint backup is in place, pressuring vendors to provide file sharing and synchronization features (especially from handheld devices) may make sense. For organizations already using a file sharing/synchronization solution, instituting policies and guidelines for backup/recovery (based on what’s available with your chosen vendor) should be a priority for 2012.

BIO: Lauren Whitehouse has more than 25 years of experience covering backup and replication, and other data protection technologies.

This story was originally published in Storage magazine.

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