Six business-class cloud storage services: Which one is right for you?

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Cloud storage gives users on-the-go access to the files they need, but the service you choose must fit your business requirements. Ed Bott looks at key selection criteria and lists six top contenders.

Cloud-based storage has a variety of advantages, including increased mobility and more effective collaboration. Storing files in the cloud also means they're backed up and protected in case of hardware failure or user error.

There's no shortage of free cloud storage services aimed at consumers. But businesses have a different set of requirements that consumer services can't fulfill.

In this article, I look closely at six cloud-based storage services, all built with business-class features and price tags. The feature sets are different for each one, but the core functionality is pretty much the same across the board. Your users get an allotment of online storage, where they can store and retrieve files using a Web-based interface, with the option to synchronize some or all of those files from the cloud to a PC or mobile device.

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Which one is right for your business? As with many tech decisions, there's no right or wrong answer, and there's definitely no one-size-fits-all solution. My goal is to help you narrow down the contenders so you can evaluate the services that look like the closest fit.

Narrowing the field

What should you look for? Table A outlines the factors you absolutely need to research before you make a decision.

Table A

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The following sections profile six services, with a description of how the service works, what it costs, and what it can and can't do. None of the descriptions constitutes an endorsement. The companies backing these services are well established, and in my opinion it is unlikely that any of them will discontinue operation of the cloud service. As always, though, these details are a starting point. Your decision should be based on your own research and matched with your individual requirements.

Note: For a concise comparison of these products, download our at-a-glance chart.

SkyDrive Pro (Office 365)

At a glance

Don't confuse Microsoft's SkyDrive Pro service with the similarly named SkyDrive, which offers free online storage to any user with a Hotmail or Outlook.com account. SkyDrive Pro is an Office 365 feature included with all Small Business plans and most Enterprise packages. It can't be purchased by itself.

The relationship between SharePoint Online and SkyDrive Pro is confusing. SharePoint is a content management solution aimed at helping workgroups store, share, and collaborate on information. SkyDrive Pro is a feature of SharePoint Online that allocates personal storage space -- currently, 25 GB for each user. SkyDrive Pro features are tightly integrated with individual programs in Office. In fact, you need an Office license to use the SkyDrive Pro sync utility for Windows. If your office is built around Office, this should be high on your list.

Just to keep things confusing, as part of a recent legal settlement Microsoft agreed to stop using the SkyDrive name for both its consumer and business cloud storage services. As of this writing, the company had not announced what the new name of the service would be.

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Cost

SkyDrive Pro isn't available as a stand-alone product. Instead, it's a feature in all Small Business and Enterprise Office 365 plans except the E1 Exchange Online plan. (SkyDrive Pro is not available with Office 365 Home Premium.) The lowest price plan, Office 365 Small Business, costs $60 per user/per year and does not include a license for Office 2013.

Storage

SkyDrive Pro gives each user 25 GB of personal storage. This allocation is tied to the associated account and can't be transferred to another account. To increase an individual user's SkyDrive Pro storage (to 50 or 100 GB), you have to buy additional SharePoint bulk storage, currently priced at 20 cents per GB/month, and then allocate available space to individual users.

Supported platforms

The desktop SkyDrive Pro sync client runs on Windows 7 or later and is included with business versions of Office 2013. If you have an Office 365 plan that doesn't include the latest version of Office, you can download the SkyDrive Pro client separately. There's no OS X sync client. For mobile platforms, you'll find a Windows 8.x SkyDrive Pro app and an iOS app, but nothing for Android devices... yet. The mobile apps provide online access to SkyDrive Pro but they don't sync folders or libraries.

Dropbox for Business

At a glance

A lot of enterprises realize they need online storage when they discover their employees have already "deployed" Dropbox across the organization. Dropbox for Business gives you a chance to restore some semblance of control over the chaos.

Dropbox for Business has a handful of essential security features that you don't get with the consumer (or even Pro) Dropbox account, including unlimited file recovery, full version history, and tracking of who's logging in and from where, as well as the ability to prevent sharing outside your organization. It also integrates with single sign-on and Active Directory solutions. You'll find a hub dedicated to third-party apps from third-party software and service suppliers, like Salesforce.com, CloudOn, Asana, and Cisco WebEx.

And you never have to worry about running out of storage, either. The feature list promises, "all the space you need." Every Business plan starts with a terabyte (1,000 GB). If you run out of space, Dropbox says, "tell us and we'll increase it for free." Best of all, you don't need to retrain your users; they already know how Dropbox works.

Cost

The minimum cost for a Dropbox for Business account is $795 / year. That includes support for five users; each additional user account costs $125 per year.

Storage

"As much as needed," with no per-user limitations

Supported platforms

Befitting (and perhaps explaining) its popularity, Dropbox offers something for the overwhelming majority of popular platforms -- desktop sync utilities for Windows, Mac, and Linux, as well as mobile apps for iOS, Android, Kindle Fire, and BlackBerry.

Box

At a glance

Box (formerly Box.net) has been around since 2005, which makes it practically middle age by cloud standards. Pretty good for a company whose CEO, Aaron Levie, is still under 30. The company's product line has always been focused on businesses, although it also offers a free Personal service.

The bare-bones Box Business plan does what all its rivals do: It allows you to browse and manage files in a Web browser or on a local device -- in this case, using the Box Sync utility. On PCs and Macs, you can install a native Box Edit application that lets you open and edit files in a browser window. (Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Safari are all supported.) Box also has Windows desktop apps that integrate the service into Microsoft Office, with a separate add-in to use Box shared links in lieu of file attachments in Outlook. The third-party app platform includes connections to eFax, DocuSign, and FedEx. Box also connects to other business services, like Salesforce and Google Apps.

The Business plan includes basic management tools and the ability to connect with one Active Directory or single-sign on service. If you need more robust business features, including full encryption and integration with mobile device management software, you'll have to get a custom quote for an Enterprise plan.

Cost

The Box Business plan costs $15 per user / per month, with a minimum of three users. Enterprise plans are by custom quote only.

Storage

A Business plan includes 1,000 GB of storage; Enterprise plans offer "unlimited" storage.

Supported platforms

The Box Sync utility is available for modern versions of Windows and OS X, with a rudimentary free Windows 8 app in the Windows Store. Mobile utilities are available for iOS and Android and for Windows Phone.

SpiderOak Blue

At a glance

SpiderOak's business model is perfect for the post-Snowden Internet. The service's claim to fame is "zero-knowledge" privacy. You're the only one with access to the encryption keys for your stored files. The company never sees your password, and it receives, stores, and sends only encrypted files. Without those keys, SpiderOak staff can't see the names or sizes of files, much less view their contents. All they can see are sequentially numbered containers of encrypted data. If presented with a subpoena, there's no way the company can compromise your privacy.

Like most of its better-known rivals, SpiderOak has a personal/professional tier that starts with 2 GB of free online storage. But the real value comes when you move to the business tier, SpiderOak Blue. Users get the same straightforward sync utility that comes with the personal/pro services, but management gets a central console that allows user provisioning, group permissions, space management, and comprehensive, companywide reporting on usage.

SpiderOak's unique advantage is for companies that place a high value on privacy (including companies located outside the U.S.). Instead of using the company's own servers for storage, a private-cloud option allows SpiderOak to manage authentication and access using storage on the company's own servers -- SANs, JBODs, you name it.

Cost

A basic SpiderOak Blue plan costs $600 per month, which includes 1 TB of storage for up to 100 users. Upgrades are $600 per month, which adds another terabyte of storage and up to 100 more accounts. A Private cloud account costs $5 per user per month, with a minimum charge of $5,000 per month.

Storage

The minimum allocated storage for each end-user account is 10 GB. Additional storage is allocated from the central pool at a cost of $600 per terabyte per month.

Supported platforms

SpiderOak Blue supports desktop synchronization and management clients for Windows, Mac, and Linux. Mobile access is available via iOS and Android apps.

Intermedia SecuriSync

At a glance

If you've never heard of Intermedia, that's no surprise. The company is the largest third-party provider of hosted Microsoft Exchange services in the world, but it still gets lost in the shadow of Microsoft's own hosted services. That's a shame, because the company's services are impressive, and its support is world-class. (Full disclosure: I'm a paying customer.)

SecuriSync is the latest addition to Intermedia's extremely well rounded suite of online services. Data meets the core standards for enterprise-grade security, with encryption in transit and at rest. There are no limitations on file size (a sore spot for some other services), and the options for sharing files are surprisingly robust.

As befits a company whose core business is supplying hosted Exchange, Intermedia's SecuriSync offers excellent integration with Windows networks and Office apps. Active Directory integration is a checklist feature. A plug-in for Office lets you open and save files using shared SecuriSync folders. There's also an Outlook plug-in that can help you avoid choking mail servers with gargantuan file attachments.

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Cost

Storage is applied to and shared across all SecuriSync users on the account. The entry-level cost is $5 per user / per month, which includes 10 GB of storage space per user. Bumping the per-user cost to $10 per month is a significantly better deal, at 50 GB per user. The 10 GB allowance is also included with Intermedia's Enterprise plan, which includes Exchange, SharePoint, and Lync.

Storage

All Enterprise accounts offer a minimum of 10 GB per user of online storage. Additional storage can be purchased for a cost

Supported platforms

You'll find sync utilities for Windows, OS X, iOS, Android, and BlackBerry.

Google Drive

At a glance

If your organization has gone Google for email, each Google Apps for Business user gets 30 GB of online storage to go with their inbox as part of the basic package. You're already paying for that allocation as part of the Google Apps price tag, so you might as well see if Google's variety of online storage fits your business style.

Google Drive makes the most sense in environments where you're already using Gmail and Google Docs extensively. If your users are accustomed to creating, saving, and sharing documents this way, it's probably going to be relatively easy to convince them to move their entire work folders to the cloud. (Sync apps for Windows and OS X let them mirror the files in a local folder for offline and online access.)

Businesses that have specific regulatory requirements need to look at Google Apps for Business with Vault. The price tag doubles to $10 per user per month, in exchange for which you get data archiving and retrieval as well and companywide data discovery and export.

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Cost

Each user account (a Google Apps Gmail inbox) costs $5 per month or $50 per year and includes 30 GB of online storage shared between Google Drive, Gmail, and the other Google Apps. Additional storage can be purchased and assigned to users and groups at prices that drop on a per-GB basis as you go up. Currently, 20 GB of additional storage costs $4 extra per month (20 cents per GB); 400 GB is $35 a month (less than 9 cents per GB). The maximum total additional storage for an organization is 16 TB, which will set you back $1,430 per month on top of your Google Apps bill.

Storage

Each user account (defined as a Google Apps inbox) is assigned 30 GB. Organizations can buy up to 16,000 GB of additional bulk storage (see prices above) and assign the extra space to individual users or groups.

Supported platform

Google Drive sync utilities are available for current versions of Windows and OS X, as well as for iOS and (naturally) Android.

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