In the last entry, I tried to make a case for storing your data online once you grow beyond the capacity of a few portable hard drives sitting on your desk.. It may be suitable for a single individual or a group with a small amount of data. But as soon as you can’t hold all your data on a single hard drive or you have several people trying to access the same data at the same time, problems arise. In this post, I will discuss some of the options available once you decide to let go and hand your data off to someone else to take care of.

There are dozens of companies out there that store data for you on their own servers, giving you access and taking over some, if not all, of your data storage and data management needs. These companies, which range from small, potentially local solutions to massive, world-wide options like Amazon and Oracle, provide a range of services in helping you get what you want from your data. Often called ‘cloud computing’, ‘cloud storage’, or ‘storage as a service’, these companies have large servers on which they store your information. Most charge based on how much data you store. The successful ones make uploading, accessing, and downloading your data simple, quick, and inexpensive. Generally there is some interface developed where you specify which files are to be uploaded and they take care of the rest. For truly massive data sets, some companies even let you mail hard drives to their offices in order to bypass the internet bottleneck. Once the content of the drives are uploaded, you can view files individually online through a web browser (or other file sharing/access client).

The can be a pretty big step for a lot of organizations. Moving to 3rd party storage might seem like losing control of your data. When sensitive, critical data is involved, these concerns are well justified. However, these organizations are almost exclusively set up in such a way as to have no idea what your data actually contains. These companies are essentially blind to the details of what you’re storing. Sure, there are companies that focus in life sciences, medical records, financial data, and other areas, but the truth of the matter is, data is data and these companies’ systems don’t care what you’re uploading. No one is monitoring the content of the files and seeing your company secrets or protected information.

Further, these companies offer a very secure environment for your data. In most cases, data is backed up into at the very least a tape backup drive or, more commonly, a redundant disk array that maintains a copy of all your data at all times. In the latter case, the entire server could be destroyed in a fire and you wouldn’t even notice a drop in performance, let alone loss of data as the backup server comes online to replace it.

There are drawbacks though. Moving to 3rd party storage can, potentially, be costly. Generally, pricing is done on how much data you move. Uploading a file, accessing it online and downloading it all are going to cost you money. Generally, this is on the order of pennies per gigabyte, which is, in my opinion, an astonishingly low price. However, you have to be cautious, as those pennies can rack up fairly quickly if you access your data constantly.

Additionally, online storage may require a change in logistics for how you and your company do business. You can no longer walk hard drives or thumb drives down the hall to your colleague’s computer. Instead, it’s all online. When you first get data, you have to find some way to get it online. This could potentially lead to lengthy upload times. Once it’s there, you have access to everything, but it might not always be an easy process to share it with others. Short of having to share user names and passwords with everyone (which might sacrifice features like user access logs and auditing), not every company makes it easy to give your colleagues access. It’s important to understand how data needs to flow in your organization and ensure the company you’re working with can work with, or even improve that flow of information.

As I mentioned, bandwidth is another tricky issue. For small amounts of data, this is not usually a problem. You can upload files in seconds and not lose any more time than if you were saving the file to an external hard drive. Once you get into the gigabyte range though, things become a bit more cumbersome. Data transfer is largely dependent on what kind of internet connection you have, but even the fastest internet service providers won’t be able to compare to the speed of USB, Firewire, and other methods of wired transfers between computers. If you are transferring hundreds of gigabytes of data, it can take hours, or potentially even days to upload. Fortunately, these things can often be queued and left to run while you’re in a meeting, at lunch, or you’ve left the office for the day. Your data will be ready and waiting for you when you get back. As I mentioned earlier, in some cases, you can even mail hard drives to these companies to upload data directly into the server.

The important thing is that 3rd party data storage companies are aware of the problems we all face and have come up with or are working on innovative solutions to them. Every company offers different services and features that may or may not help you. It’s important to shop around, ask lots of questions, and ensure that you will be able to do exactly what you need to do with your data.