What’s the difference between cloud storage, backup and sync?

18th August, 2016

People throw around terms like cloud storage, backup and sync interchangeably. It pays to understand the difference to make sure your precious business files are safe and sound.

If catastrophic data loss could bring your business to its knees, then it’s vital to have a digital insurance policy in the form of a robust backup system. Not only does this protect your files against fire, flood, theft and other disasters, it also reduces downtime while you get back on your feet.

Take the time to understand exactly where your online files live and how they are protected. The day disaster strikes is not the day you want to discover that your strategy has let you down.

What is cloud storage?

Think of cloud storage like an external hard drive which lives in someone else’s enterprise-grade data centre rather than on your desk.

You can manually upload files from your computer or handheld gadget to your cloud storage drive, which places a copy online and leaves the original on your device. Now you can access that online file from practically any internet-enabled device.

Cloud storage is handy for collaborating on documents, with services like Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive offering a browser-based Office suite, which lets multiple people edit the same online document simultaneously. You can also send a link to colleagues so they can download the file, making cloud storage a handy alternative to FTP when you need to share files that are too large to attach to an email.

By default, editing or deleting the original file on your computer won’t affect the copy in the cloud. You could delete the original file from your computer to save space, but if it’s an important file then you need several copies rather than putting all your eggs in one basket.

What is cloud backup?

To keep all your important files safe, you can install backup software on your computer, which automatically uploads new and changed files to a cloud backup service.

While there is some overlap with cloud storage services, cloud backup is designed to protect all the files on your computer and enable you to fully restore your system after a disaster.

Cloud storage is a handy place to keep backup copies of permanent files like financial records, but these automated cloud backup services are particularly useful when it comes to protecting files that regularly change, such as work in progress.

Regularly uploading the latest copy of your files ensures you’re protected if your computer meets with disaster. Many cloud backup services let you log in from another computer, grab your file and pick up where you left off — which is a real lifesaver if you’re on a tight deadline. At the same time it’s important to have offline copies should your cloud storage or backup service suffer an outage when you need it most.

Some backup services don’t offer any browser-based access. Instead you need to use the desktop software to download the latest copy of your lost file.

Specialist backup services often add advanced features such as storing several previous copies of your files. This can save the day if you accidentally delete a desktop file or realise you need to revert to an earlier draft. You’re also granted more control over what’s backed up from your computer and how often backups run.

What is cloud sync?

Cloud sync services also require you to install software on your computer or handheld gadget and then create a cloud sync folder. New and changed files saved in this folder are automatically uploaded to the cloud and downloaded to your other devices, so that the sync folder is stored in the cloud and mirrored across all your devices.

It’s similar to the way your calendar can stay in sync between your devices — create an appointment on one device and it pops up on all of them.

Sync services upload changed files automatically, which is useful but might not suit you when you’re working with large files. You might prefer to schedule regular backups and throttle upload speeds to avoid choking your internet connection when you’re trying to work.

Cloud sync services tend to lack advanced features like retaining previous versions of your files. You’re generally expected to sync every file to every device, which might be awkward if you want to backup a large library of sensitive documents from one computer, which you don’t want downloaded to the others. Keep in mind that cloud sync storage also tends to be more expensive than cloud backup storage.

So when you do use them?

Start by deciding which are your most important files and how much progress you could afford to lose if you were forced to rollback to a previous version.

Imagine your files were lost right now without warning — what would be your highest priorities? How quickly would you need certain files restored, and who would need access to them?

READ: Running your business from anywhere

Realistically you probably only need to sync a small subset of your business data — only those few files to which you’d need immediate access to an up-to-date copy, from any location, to make sure you don’t miss an important deadline and lose a customer.

You should also back up these files as a fail-safe should your sync service let you down. Of course, if you are working on a cloud file such as a Google Doc, your most recent updates will automatically be saved in the cloud and accessible from any device.

The rest of your important data can be securely locked away in a cloud backup service where it’s cheaper to store, easier to manage and less exposed to prying eyes. Whatever your preference, it never hurts to also keep offline copies of your most precious files, just in case.