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Consumers in the Cloud

John Chunta had spent four and a half years writing his doctoral dissertation when, two weeks before its expected completion, his laptop's hard drive crashed and he lost the 200-page document.

“The 'blue screen of death' is what the tech guy called it,” says Chunta, a cancer researcher. “It was a freak-out moment.”

So Chunta bought a new hard drive and installed it in his laptop, then tentatively reinstalled the cloud storage service backup software he'd purchased from Carbonite Inc. just a few weeks earlier. It took close to two days to restore everything, but he was able to rebuild his dissertation.

Chunta, who now has a Ph.D. in anatomy and cell biology, is one of a growing number of consumers who are choosing to use online storage services because they are relatively inexpensive, can automate the backup process and offer massive amounts of ubiquitous storage. But choosing the right cloud storage offering can be tricky: You could end up with a complicated user interface or tools that don't meet your needs.

Online storage services such as Carbonite and MozyHome, which is available through Decho Corp., an EMC company, are designed to provide simple continuous data protection so that each time a file is saved, the changes are replicated to the vendor's data center. But the services available can vary widely depending on the types of features they offer. For example, some can encrypt data in flight or adjust how much bandwidth a backup should use.

A Magnum Opus Restored

At the prodding of his professor, Chunta had been using CDs and USB flash drives to back up his work, but he admits to being undisciplined and not backing up often enough. Even so, Chunta says he had more than 100 iterations of the dissertation and related research files.

So one day, while listening to a Carbonite ad that had been playing ad nauseam on the radio in his school's laboratory, he decided to try it. Chunta says he couldn't have been more pleased with his experience, particularly because he isn't computer savvy and the service was practically “plug and play.”

“Often, we're juggling a lot of different pieces of information, project proposals and grant submissions, and seeing how it all fits together. Having to remember where and how all the data is backed up amounts to mental minutiae,” says Chunta, who is on a fellowship at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich.

Carbonite is among a handful of consumer storage services that are essentially just hard drives in the cloud — simple, no-muss-no-fuss services. And the formula has worked for Boston-based Carbonite. Even through the recession, the company has grown its revenue at least 36% quarter over quarter.

“It's targeted at consumers and small businesses with probably 10 to 50 employees. The idea was simple: Pay $55 a year, and we back up all your data,” says Carbonite CEO David Friend.

Many large corporate backup vendors have been immersing themselves in the consumer market as well. EMC Corp. is among the leaders with its MozyHome product, which it added to its product line with the acquisition of Berkeley Data Systems in 2007.

In March, security software vendor Symantec Corp. launched a simple backup service called Norton Online Backup, marketing it as a consumer product for managing up to five PCs on a home network through a single dashboard. The block-level, incremental backups are encrypted both in transit and at rest in Symantec's data centers.

lSymantec offers 2GB of online storage for free with its Norton 360 security suite; additional allotments of 5GB, 10GB and 25GB a year can be purchased for $29.99, $49.99 and $69.99, respectively.

Microsoft Corp. entered the fray with its SkyDrive in 2007. SkyDrive is unique in that it is essentially free. While most services offer some free storage — 1GB or 2GB — to whet users' appetites, SkyDrive offers up to 25GB of online storage capacity at no charge; the only caveat is that individual files can't be larger than 50MB. SkyDrive doesn't offer any sophisticated tools, such as incremental backups or encryption. Microsoft makes its money from advertising on the SkyDrive site.

“Think of it as a [flash] drive in the cloud,” says Dharmesh Mehta, director of Windows Live product management at Microsoft. Mehta says what will differentiate SkyDrive from other online storage offerings is that it's about to be combined with Microsoft Sync in order to offer not only storage, but also content sharing and collaboration services through the LiveMesh beta.

Through LiveMesh, SkyDrive users will soon be able to share photos and files, and they'll be able to determine the degree of access other users will have to those files. For example, access could be limited to the primary SkyDrive user, or it could be open to a select group of friends or the general online population.

While SkyDrive is moving toward a file-sharing and collaboration model, other online storage and backup service providers see a rich market in just allowing the average consumer to safeguard data. Among the leaders are Box.net and ProSoftnet Corp., which offers a service called iDrive.

And then there are the myriad resellers that use cloud-based storage from third parties. One such reseller is Jungle Disk LLC, which uses Amazon.com Inc.'s Simple Storage Service (S3).

Computer vendors such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Toshiba are also bundling online backup services with new PCs and laptops. Such services are available through providers such as Memeo Inc., which also offers its service via direct online sales.

Mozy is the oldest and among the most trusted of the consumer-based online storage services, which is probably one of the reasons why storage giant EMC acquired it. Mozy's service is straightforward — the first 2GB of storage are free, and users pay $4.95 a month for unlimited online capacity. According to Dave Roberson, head of marketing at Mozy, the company has backed up 15 petabytes of data from customers.

“After you initially install it, you don't have to do anything with it. You select which files you want backed up and how often you want them backed up, and it just happens,” Roberson says.

Like most others, Mozy's service offers data encryption, but Mozy goes a step further by offering either a public or a private encryption key created by the user. The private key is stored on the user's computer, so if Mozy's data centers were hacked, there would be no key with which the thieves could unencrypt customer data. However, if consumers lose their keys, they also lose their data.

What some may see as a drawback to services like Mozy is that they require software to be downloaded onto a customer's computer. That software can have some complex settings and limit the number of file versions.

For four years or so, David Albrecht, a computer engineer from Illinois who is working on a master's degree, has used MozyHome to back up about 50GB of data on his MacBook Air laptop, and Amazon's S3 cloud storage service to back up a Linux home server.

“I think of Amazon's S3 as more of a pure cloud offering. I use it for Linux because it's easier to script and I don't think there's a Mozy-like tool available on Linux,” he says. “S3 is a high-availability Web service, and Mozy is made for personal backup.”

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