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Understanding Cloud-based vs. Local/Network Data Storage

by Frank Tresnak | Dec 20, 2016
Originally posted in the American Payroll Association's PayTech magazine.
We all have an increased need for our important files to be accessed from anywhere with mobile devices and tablets, and this has led to use of cloud-based storage.  But, what is it?  Is it safe for the increasing number of files and types of files (spreadsheets, images, music, etc.) that you need to store?  Is this the best place for your data?  This tip will explore and compare the advantages and disadvantages of using cloud-based storage and traditional local storage (on your device or server).
There are many providers of cloud-based storage.  Many offer free storage for a set amount of data space; if needed, you can expand space to store more data files for a fee.  Many device makers (mobile phones, laptops, etc.) are offering cloud based storage with a purchase.  Media providers are also providing space to store files that you have rented, purchased or licensed.  Last, many users are loading files to cloud based storage as a way to do a remote backup of their local machine.
So what are the advantages of Cloud-based storage?  Many are readily apparent:
  1. You can access your data from any device, anywhere.  This is much easier to use than files stored locally on a network or device which may not be open to remote access.
  2. Sharing your data files is easier in a cloud service.  You can grant access if you are collaborating on a project or task, rather than sending files back and forth.
  3. You can reduce your hardware costs, since you don’t have to buy added drives, file servers, etc.
  4. Expanding capacity is easy, cloud based services can simply add space as you need it.
  5. Your data is less subject to hardware crashes or computer damages.  The cloud provider is responsible for their environment.
That really sounds good — but are there any disadvantages?  As with most technologies, there are trade-offs:
  1. You must have an Internet connection or a mobile device data plan to get to your files.  If you have issues with service in your location, this should be a factor in your decision.
  2. The IT department loses control over the data and content, and files may not get backed up as you need.  Hackers are increasingly looking at cloud storage for intrusion attempts.
  3. Security and privacy of the data you store in the cloud may be a concern. The recent government data access scandal and the vulnerability of the Heartbleed bug calls into question the protection of your data.
  4. There could be a vulnerability if an employee leaves your company.  You need to consider how you manage and control access to files and whether any data is proprietary or sensitive in nature.
Let’s take a look from the same perspective to locally stored data.  To reiterate, local means stored on your device’s hard drive/memory or on a server in your network.  What are the advantages?
  1. Increased security, because access to files and permissions are controlled by your internal IT staff.
  2. Local storage is normally the quickest way to store and access your data files.
  3. You have physical possession of your data and files.
  4. No Internet connection is needed, and any mobile device data charges would not apply.
Those all sound good, but what are the disadvantages of local storage?
  1. If your device is stolen (phone, laptop, etc.) your information on the local drive is lost or compromised.
  2. Viruses and malware can destroy the data on a hard drive, or be spread throughout the network files.
  3. Drives are fragile, and they do fail.  A Google study shows that 8.6% of drives that are three years old have failed.  If your data is not backed up, your data is gone forever. Is your backup strategy in place?
  4. It is harder to adapt to changing storage requirements.  If your drive has a certain capacity and is full, you add the expense of purchase and installation of another drive to add space.  If your device is being replaced, you need to migrate your data files to a new device.  This uses your valuable time and could require assistance from your IT staff.
Question:  So bottom line, what are the best practices for storage?  Answer?  It depends.
Let highlight a few options:
  1. If you need to collaborate with others and share files, cloud storage is the most efficient method to handle this need.
  2. Local network storage could be safer for security threats than cloud storage, as long as updates and patches are being applied in a timely way. Keep your company’s proprietary data files and information stored locally (there are many devices available to assist with hardware backups for this information.)
  3. If you have a critical presentation or speech stored in the cloud, play it safe by also storing it on your local drive in your laptop or mobile device.
Conclusion:  Understand that no matter which data storage method you use, either can fail you at a critical time.  Develop a written policy on what items should be stored in what technology. Make sure your data, regardless of where it is stored, has a regularly scheduled back up plan and check that it is functioning as you planned.