The biggest decision an entrepreneur makes – and it has to be made over and over again – is: When do I stop doing (fill in the blank) myself and hire a pro to do it?
The answer is always the same: As soon as you can afford to, because you add more value on the visionary and strategic level. From payroll processing to vendor management to day-to-day operations, the timing of your withdrawal is always subjective, and you — all by yourself — might not be the best judge.
So, at least as far as storage is concerned, let's demystify the process by determining what the pain points are as you grow your business, and what options you have in response to those triggers.
Where does it hurt?
A recent Entrepreneur magazine article identifies five likely causes of storage headaches. A couple would be familiar to anyone who's ever refreshed a computer bought five years ago:
- Upgraded software and operating systems have a way of eating up all that huge RAM or flash storage the new hardware's vendor is boasting about.
- The more storage you have, the more storage you need, thanks to the growing preponderance of data contained in media files.
Those are the technological drivers, but then there are the business drivers, which actually have very little to do with increasing revenues. They're more like costs of doing business, i.e., hackers, lawyers and Uncle Sam:
- Security threats necessitating more frequent backups to multiple spaces.
- Legal advice to save emails dating back five or more years.
- Government regulations requiring businesses to maintain and back up data they might otherwise delete.
[For a side-by-side comparison of the best online data storage services, visit our sister site Top Ten Reviews]
What are you doing now?
If you really have no external storage strategy right now, I do hope you're at least saving frequently. That works for documents pretty well, but if you're dealing with spreadsheets, you'll soon find that you spend as much time saving to a disk as you do working through the macros and pivot tables.
But hitting the "save" button every 10 minutes isn't the answer. It doesn't matter how many times you've saved a document if you have it stored to only one device – and that device crashes.
The cheapest — free, actually — way of doing this is to back up to a no-cost place in the cloud. If all you need is 5 gigabytes, there is no shortage of options. C|Net compares no fewer than a dozen. Google Drive is, of course, the 600-exabyte gorilla in the room, but it has competitors. Apple and Microsoft are both in the game, of course, and even Amazon isn't above giving away 5GB to back up your music downloads and vacation selfies if it serves as a gateway to their industrial-strength Amazon Web Services offerings.
What to do next
If you're a one-person operation, or if your business is a highly siloed one in which each partner tills his or her own garden, any of these are fine. But do you have to collaborate? Do you have to share files in real time? If so, you might want to go with a fit-for-purpose file sync provider.
You've probably heard of Dropbox. Techies don't think too highly of it but end users do. It has a lot of competition – the digital intelligentsia seem to gravitate toward SugarSync — but Dropbox's competitive advantage is a simple, intuitive user interface and, for this column's readership, that's probably enough. The only problem is that you only get only 2GB for free. After that, Dropbox charges $9.99 a month for 1 terabyte of storage with Dropbox Pro. Dropbox for Business offers unlimited storage for $15 per user, per month, with a five-user minimum but this may not be cost-effective as your staff grows.
Bear in mind, this market moves literally at the speed of light. Competitors emerge, succeed and fail while others run in beta. As the paradigm moves from tacking on additional backup space through shared storage as a collaboration tool to the eventual erasure of the line between attached storage and cloud storage, some business models will evolve as others dissipate. Wikipedia lists 34 active file-hosting services and another 11 that went out of business. This article is just a snapshot as of this date. Next year, we might all look back on this article and laugh.
But there's nothing funny about how fast your storage requirements are likely to grow over that 12 months. How long will 5GB hold you? It's the equivalent of 10 CD-ROMs. At some point, you're going to have to turn to cash for cache.
Online shouldn't necessarily be your first step, especially if you're working on your own. Remember that security is one of your key drivers. Although backing up your data in the cloud is more secure than parking it on one, single potential point of failure, maybe it's not by much. Just ask Jennifer Lawrence (hyperlink intentionally omitted).
The low-tech option is to use a simple USB-attached thumb drive. At this point, even the smallest one — with a one-time price of $8 — gives you more space than the Dropbox free offering does. Another option is to buy an external drive for $70 and attach a full terabyte (roughly equivalent to your local library branch) to your workstation.
Storage requirements tend to grow by, as a ballpark figure, 25 percent year-over-year. Your mileage may vary, particularly if you're growing a business. That benchmark is based on a mature company's experience; don't be surprised if your small business's capacity has to double or triple this coming year.
Here's where we encounter the truly paradoxical thing about the storage domain: Its unit costs are constantly shrinking, but the number of units required keep getting higher. That's why you should budget – again, as a rough rule of thumb – to spend as much on storing your data and apps as you do on actually working with them on your computers.
As storage sprawls, its costs can spiral out of control. Here's how to get ahead of that.
First, realize that some data is more important than others. Anything that is held strictly for archival purposes, park in the cheapest space available to you, whether that's a thumb drive or Google Drive or whatever. Keep two copies, and only two copies.
Anything that's mission-critical and must be easily accessed, back up to multiple, secure sites. Pay what you have to for security, but only for what really needs to be secured because it's a trade secret or required by government regulation.
Of course, no security is foolproof. If you want to keep all your files in-house, one option that might be for you is network-attached storage. For somewhere between $300 and $1,000, you can get NAS in a box. It doesn't just store your data, it backs it up according to its redundancy capability, known as its RAID level. You'll probably be comfortable with RAID 5, which means that your files are stored on the main hard drive, then backed up on four others.
Alternately, you can buy additional space and functionality on any of the cloud sites discussed above or in the cited C|Net article, or do some research yourself. When and if that proves insufficient, it would then become time to consider Infrastructure as a Service solution. The best known of these is Amazon Web Services, but it doesn't have the field to itself. Rackspace, Microsoft Azure and Google Compute Engine are among the other players. Of course, they're not just looking to host your data, but your server capacity, network and apps as well. You might not feel comfortable handing that much of your critical assets to a black-box IaaS provider at this point in your company's development – or ever.
Originally published on Business News Daily.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described Dropbox's pricing system.