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Cloud backup vs. cloud storage: What are the differences?

The cloud backup vs. cloud storage differences are often confused. Understanding how file sync and share relates complicates the issues further. Here's what you should know.

Vendor messaging has clearly fogged the cloud backup vs. cloud storage distinction. The fog is more like pea soup fog when it comes to distinguishing file sync and share. Many vendors like it that way because they think it gives them a broader market for potential customers. But that deliberate confusion contributes to dissatisfied and disaffected customers, among other issues.

To help clear up some of that confusion, let's take a look at the considerable differences between cloud backup, cloud storage and file sync and share. Understanding their differences is the first step in choosing the right technology for different data types.

What is cloud backup?

In a nutshell, cloud backup, which is also known as online backup or remote backup, is the process of providing an extra copy of an organization's data by sending it over a network to an off-site server. But that's the simple version. The cloud backup vs. cloud storage technology landscape from which IT leaders and storage administrators must choose is more complicated.

In the vendor landscape, cloud backup is most frequently called a managed backup service and is delivered by a managed service provider (MSP). It's also known as backup as a service (BaaS), which provides data backup to the cloud of an organization's physical servers, virtual servers, containers, laptops, databases, compute instances in the cloud and applications such as Office 365, Google Suite and Salesforce. Although data is backed up to the cloud, most services deliver a hybrid model that keeps the most recent backups on premises for faster recoveries. The MSP might provide the service from its own cloud or from a public service provider such as Alibaba, AWS, Azure, Google or Tencent.

data storage backup options

Some public cloud providers have do-it-yourself backup services. AWS has a backup service that replicates an organization's AWS cloud stored data. It is limited to data stored in the AWS cloud on elastic block storage, elastic file storage and S3 object storage. Azure offers Microsoft Azure backup, which is limited to backing up Windows servers, Linux servers and Hyper-V. Both these services are rudimentary and require self-service on backups and recoveries.

There are thousands of MSPs offering BaaS today, but not all services back up everything. Many of these services are based on popular backup software such as Commvault and Veeam. Others are based on backup software specifically designed for the cloud -- frequently positioned as "cloud native" -- such as Acronis, Asigra, Axcient, Barracuda Networks Intronis Backup and Druva. Some MSP BaaS are application-specific. Oracle's BaaS is specific to the Oracle Database. Salesforce has a BaaS option that only works with Salesforce. Microsoft Office 365 doesn't actually back up customer data but will optionally replicate between data centers. They will also keep the data of a particular user seat for up to 90 days after the customer stops paying for that seat. These are not the only ones.

Any pricing comparisons between MSPs requires making sure the comparison is for the same data and services.

BaaS MSPs generally offer professional service for implementation, operations, management, troubleshooting and most important recoveries as part of their service. As previously noted, some MSPs are purely self-service.

BaaS subscription licensing is all over the map, ranging from as low as $0.05 per GB, per month to $1.50 per GB, per month. The amount charged depends on the services, number of clouds in which the data resides, data kept both on premises and in the cloud, retention, ability to search the backup data or repurpose virtual backup copies for DevOps and test dev, recovery time objectives (RTOs), recovery point objectives (RPOs) and more. Any pricing comparisons between MSPs requires making sure the comparison is for the same data and services.

Most MSPs offer additional value-add services such as the following:

  • disaster recovery (DR) in their cloud with failback
  • ransomware scanning in the backups and in recoveries
  • ransomware detonation detection
  • backup recovery validation
  • backup data repurposing
  • backup metadata search
  • backup data search
  • laptop geolocate
  • laptop remote wipe
  • file sync and share
  • hot, warm and cold DR

Backup as a service is not the only definition of cloud backup. Many products -- including backup software, backup appliances, deduplication storage targets, secondary storage and even primary storage -- can back up to public cloud storage. The vendors call this cloud backup. Customers pay for the software, hardware or system sending data to the cloud and pay for the monthly data storage subscription costs of putting that data in the public cloud. Some storage vendors also include a license surcharge for the data moved off their platform to public cloud storage. The public cloud storage is most frequently object storage.

However, the object storage performance may not be acceptable if a recovery is necessary in the cloud. Several vendors' options keep the most recent data backups or replicas on site. Many also offer optional virtual representations of their products that run on cloud instances utilizing block or file storage for the most recent data copies. Both these approaches solve the cloud recovery performance issues.

Cloud backup can be summarized then as either:

  1. Backup as a service, or
  2. A data protection storage feature on data protection software -- backup, replication, etc. -- data protection appliance, secondary storage or primary storage.

In any case, the right stakeholders will need to create an effective cloud backup strategy to guide your organization's next steps.

The most onerous and surprising aspect of cloud storage to organizations are the data egress fees.

What is cloud storage?

Cloud storage generally means object storage in a public cloud, especially when looking at cloud storage as a low-cost storage option. There are several problems with that view. The first is that it does not differentiate between public and private clouds. Every storage vendor promotes their storage for "private" clouds. If a cloud is generally a data center, then it's a viable representation. For this article, cloud storage will apply to public cloud storage services. Another problem with the general view of public cloud storage is that most public clouds offer far more storage services than object storage. Cloud storage services can include flash solid-state drive (SSD) block, hard disk drive block, file, object, lower performing cool data object storage and deep archive or cold storage that's an object front end to tape. Each cloud storage service has very different performance characteristics and subscription pricing that increases with performance. The subscription costs can range as low as $0.001 per GB, per month for cold storage to as high as $12 per GB, per month for high-performance flash SSD storage.

There are also many not-so-obvious fees with cloud storage, so understanding how the data will be stored, accessed and moved in and, more importantly, out of cloud storage is critical. All of that affects the monthly subscription fee. The most onerous and surprising aspect of cloud storage to organizations are the data egress fees. Basically, there is a toll for data transferred out of cloud storage. It's not a hidden fee. But most users do not understand how they are accessing their data and those egress fees add up.

Public cloud storage services are considerably varied. There are options for dedicated flash SSDs or HDDs instead of sharing them with other cloud storage tenants. Services can even specify specific flash SSD IOPS. As storage services become more isolated and more performance specific, the subscription costs increase.

Having a variety of cloud storage options is a necessity. Different applications have different storage performance requirements. An e-commerce online transaction processing program will demand performance much greater than a general website. Every user has their own security requirements. They may not want to share drives with other users for compliance or regulatory reasons.

That huge range has opened opportunities for increased public cloud storage competition. There are several software vendors now offering their own cloud storage services in public clouds competitive to the public cloud's native storage options. Vendors such as Elastifile, Qumulo and Zadara all offer cloud storage subscription alternatives in the same public service clouds. And that doesn't include cloud-adjacent storage.

Cloud-adjacent cloud storage offerings are subscription cloud storage services offered by the large vendors, including Dell EMC, NetApp and Oracle Exadata. They co-locate their equipment in data centers such as Equinix and QTS that are physically close to the public cloud service providers' data centers. The data centers are interconnected with high-performance, high-bandwidth pipes. These services enable customers to use known, familiar, storage services with their cloud applications. The costs are higher than the native public cloud storage, but they also offer more performance especially at scale.

Another foggy aspect of cloud storage is the concept of a cloud storage gateway, which serves as an intermediary between data on premises and storage in the cloud. Cloud storage gateways look and feel like local secondary storage. They typically provide a native block (iSCSI or Fibre Channel) or file (NFS or SMB) interface, and some even offer an S3 object interface. These gateways are targets for backup, storage replication, server replication or archiving. They then deduplicate, compress and optionally encrypt the data before sending it to a public cloud object storage. That public cloud storage can be standard object, cool object or cold storage depending on the time to data accessibility requirements. The gateways reduce the cloud storage costs by deduplicating and compressing the data before storing the data on the cloud.

The problem with cloud storage gateways is that the data can only be accessed through the gateway. It cannot be accessed natively in the cloud. That means disaster resilience requires at least two gateways -- physical and virtual -- and likely more to protect against regional disasters. There is also the problem of cloud storage egress fees. Since the data can only be accessed on the cloud storage gateway, any data not cached on the gateway must be recalled from cloud storage. That racks up those storage egress fees.

And then there is hybrid cloud storage. As public cloud services have extended to customer premises with offerings such as AWS Snowball and Outposts, Azure Stack, and Oracle Exadata Cloud and Private Cloud at Customer, the lines of public cloud storage have blurred. In each case, storage is included with the hardware placed on the customer premises. AWS and Oracle charge subscription fees for the services used on premises, while being elastic and on-demand. Microsoft's Azure stack is a little different. It partnered with large server vendors that sell the Azure Stack hardware. Microsoft subscription licenses the services.

Therefore, when referring to cloud storage, it is essential to be specific as to what is meant. There is no one definition.

FSS terms and agreements specifically state their software or service is not to be used as backup or backup service.

What is cloud sync?

Well-known versions of file sync and share (FSS) -- commonly referred to as cloud sync -- are Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, iCloud Drive and Microsoft OneDrive. FSS is an application that can use any storage, including cloud storage, to enable file sharing between multiple authorized devices, users, partners, clients and more while maintaining versioning for a defined period. FSS is a replacement service for FTP and NAS shares.

Unfortunately, there are several incorrect assumptions about file sync and share. Many users perceive FSS as cloud storage. It's not. FSS is an application that synchronizes files in a specific folder between devices of the same or different users and writes to storage on premises or in the cloud. It's not storage or cloud storage, but it is a highly useful application or service. FSS solves the very annoying email-attachment-limitation problem..

Another file sync and share misconception is that it's cloud backup. Once again, it's not. Neither are the enterprise versions called enterprise FSS, or EFSS. FSS or EFSS only maintains a copy of the files and their versions in a separate application server (connected to storage) as long as those files are in the specific FSS or EFSS folder. Applications, application folders, and hidden files and folders -- of which there are many -- are not captured by FSS or EFSS. It is not a service that automatically performs all backups nor provides any recovery assistance. In fact, FSS/EFSS terms and agreements, which few people bother to read, specifically state their software or service is not to be used as backup or backup service.

Cloud sync is a variation of FSS that syncs files or file folders between devices and cloud storage, different cloud storage suppliers, or different locations. It is SaaS for FSS. It is important to note that FSS is becoming a storage system feature just as cloud sync is becoming a standard cloud storage service.

Which one is right for you?

Choosing between cloud backup vs. cloud storage vs. FSS for your organization is pretty simple. It comes down to the answers to some basic process questions.

Are the organizations' backup and recovery processes characterized by any of the following?

  • They are incomplete, such as falling short in ransomware prevention, personally identifiable information (PII) compliance or laptop remote wipes;
  • There are too many backup and recovery processes because of multiple point products;
  • They are too time-consuming with unreliable RTOs;
  • They are too demanding in manual effort, personnel, expertise, knowledge and hassle; or
  • They are too costly in software licensing, hardware, storage costs, personnel, supporting infrastructure, patching, DR (such as a remote DR site or cloud) and tech refresh.

If so, then a professionally managed BaaS cloud backup MSP should be considered. Be sure to compare multiple MSP services because they vary greatly in the services offered and the subscription licenses charged.

Are the organizations' backup and recovery processes characterized by any of the following?

  • Data protection RPO and RTOs are met consistently and reliably;
  • Ransomware is prevented from deleting or getting into the backups;
  • All PII compliance requirements are being met;
  • DR requirements are being met;
  • Current processes are cost-efficient and -effective;
  • They are reliable and easily manageable;
  • Backups are capable of being put in a public cloud storage bucket;
  • Processes are optimized for fast recoveries either with the most recent recoveries being stored locally or the applications recovered with the data in the cloud; or
  • Processes require long-term cloud retention and potential recovery in the cloud for DR purposes.

If so, then using cloud storage -- cloud storage type to be determined by required performance recovery requirements and cost -- is the best answer.

If the organization is looking for an off-site archive or long-term retention in lieu of tape libraries and off-site tape, then cloud cold storage is the answer.

And, finally, if the organization requires multi-device access to files, multi-cloud storage access to files, or collaboration of files, then FSS/EFSS/cloud sync are excellent choices.

Please note: BaaS (and DR as a service, or DRaaS), backup to cloud storage, cloud storage and FSS are not necessarily mutually exclusive decisions. The organization may decide BaaS is great for all of the remote and branch offices or even just laptops but not good for their data center. Cloud storage may be utilized for archiving and only long-term backup retention. FSS is an outstanding productivity tool in addition to data protection considerations. The key is determining what's required and how much total costs can be afforded.

Next Steps

Cloud meets local backup with the hybrid approach

How to choose a cloud backup vendor

Prevent backup failure with these tips

Dig Deeper on Cloud backup

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Which distinctions are most important when it comes to the differences between cloud backup, cloud storage and file sync and share?
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