Consumers in the Cloud

Which online service is right for you?

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.

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