What to do About Sync'd Online Backup

By Ian Gotts

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First it was cloud-based apps that were causing CIOs sleepless nights. Business users are wooed by the ease of use, sexy look and feel and the speed of implementation. Sadly, business users are oblivious to the security hazards, the lack of integration into core systems, the scalability and longevity risks to the cloud vendor. This is something that in previous articles I have called the “Stealth Cloud.”

The Stealth Cloud has allowed corporate data to leak into the cloud as users populate these applications with their information. But that trickle is turning into a stream, primarily due to cloud based apps. Specifically, a genre of apps called “file sync & online backup," is a rapidly growing area claiming the “cloud is the new USB”.

In a world that is awash with data, good connectivity and affordable storage prices, this statement may be true.

So what are these apps offering to make them so appealing? First, we need to recognize that, for a huge number of employees, their work and personal lives live on their laptop, which typically have a working life of two to three years. IT departments implore them to make sure they back up their fragile hard disks but don’t really offer an easy way to do it.

By easy, I mean zero-effort -- set it up once and forget it.

IT departments have provided file storage but it is up to the employee to remember to back up when connected to the corporate network. And to be honest there are far more interesting things to be doing than remembering to backup.

With the “file sync” app, vendors have recognized that we are not ready for a 100% cloud solution. There are too many times we are not near a Wi-Fi or corporate network, so apps make it easy to synchronize a folder or a set of folders on a device, duplicate them in the cloud and then sync those cloud folders with any other device.

This translates into complete data portability. In fact, I am writing this article on the Mac at home but saving it to the “sync folder” I use in the cloud. Every time I hit save it is available to the other devices I have connected. I can edit it on my PC or my iPad. I can even make it available to other people as a shared file.

This is all achieved with a simple registration and log-in to a website and a download of a small client side app; identify the folders that are to be sync’d; and the folders will stay permanently sync'd with no need to back up.

This may explain why this phenomenon has gone viral. The puppy dog sale is the first 2GB is free. A couple of players are offering 3GB. Microsoft’s Skydrive is 25GB but there is no easy sync app so it falls at the first fence. Two gigs may not sound like enough, but you can "earn" more space by completing the training or inviting friends.

If users go beyond the initial free space, there is often a sliding fee. Since the fee is so low, individuals have no problem expensing the cost. As a result, true total corporate costs are never seen and vendors are able to stay in business.

This sounds great. Online sync. Back-up. File versioning. File sharing ... Sounds like another of the CIO's jobs done for them.

Outside of IT

But the downside, just like the Stealth Cloud apps, is they are not part of corporate IT strategy. Therefore, the benefits of scale and common use are lost. Type “file sync & online backup” into a search engine and you will get over 300,000 hits. Type in just “file sync online” and you get over 3 million! There are over 50 vendors who claim to be the leading file company and they all look the same; certainly to the untrained eye.

The CIO needs to get ahead of the business users and offer an equivalent or better solution that not only meets people's needs but also forms part of the corporate strategy.

It is all about minimizing risks.

The first and greatest risk is that your business’ hard won ISO-27001 security accreditation will be flushed away in an instant. These apps run roughshod over security policies and accreditation.

Some of you are reading this and thinking that it is no different from the issues of USB sticks and external hard disks. That is true but, we as the IT community, have hardly got a real handle on that issue either. The benefit with physical devices is that they eventually end up gathering dust in cupboards. The challenges with “file sync” apps run deeper:

So what are the options for a CIO? There are broadly three:

  1. Ban using these apps: Most CIOs are fairly unpopular with the business users so this will drive the wedge further.
  2. Ignore the problem: Not an option and possibly a dereliction of duty. The "I" in CIO does stand for "Information," after all
  3. Offer a credible option: Review the market and decide on the best approach whether it's in-house, open source installed in-house or third party solution. Normal IT strategy and vendor evaluation stuff. And then set some policies on how it should be used.

No matter what they do, CIOs need to get on with it. Every day that goes by the problem gets worse and it will be harder and harder to wean users off their favorite cloud if that's what you want to do.

Ian Gotts is the author of six books including, Common Approach, Uncommon Results; Why Killer Products Don’t Sell; and two Thinking of … books on cloud computing. He is a prolific blogger with a rare ability to make the complex seem simple, which makes him a sought-after and entertaining conference speaker. His book, Thinking of ... Offering a Cloud Solution? Ask the Smart Questions, articulates the opportunities and the challenges ISVs face in their transition to the cloud.