How to choose the right cloud supplier for your business

Whether you've already moved your servers to the cloud or are in the market for something new, here's what to look out for

In the last century, businesses wanting to centralise their data storage had to invest in an on-site file server, and maintain and manage it themselves. Nowadays, you can save a great deal of money and simplify your management overhead by taking advantage of cloud storage.

In fact, "cloud storage" undersells the service, as today's cloud providers offer much more than a remote repository for your data. There's a wealth of features on offer to allow your staff to easily and safely share documents, as well as collaborate with colleagues all over the world, using their own choice of device.

Syncing services, meanwhile, ensure that employees are working on the latest versions of documents, without having to wait around for files to download on demand. Big email attachments also become a thing of the past, with most providers allowing you to send secure download links to team members or clients outside of your business.

Unfortunately, there are a ton of options out there, with each including a diverse range of sharing and collaboration features. In order to make sense of it all, we've put together a quick guide on what to look out for in order to make the right buying decision.

Making plans

All cloud providers offer a range of storage plans, so you can choose the one that best fits your requirements and your budget. There's normally a free tier, but these invariably have capacity restrictions, along with limits on the size of files you can upload. Go with one of these and you might regret it when you suddenly find that crucial files can't be synced in the middle of a project.

1&1 HiDrive provides a public cloud folder for team members to share

A paid service will give you much more data headroom, and will also include an administration console, allowing you to decide precisely who is allowed to access your cloud storage, and enforce file-level access controls. Tiered administration is a good thing to look out for as well: this allows selected employees to be granted some administrative rights, so they can manage features such as access requests, adding new users and password changes.

For all these reasons, we strongly recommend you go with a paid service, and prices start at just a few pounds a month. If your business needs to work with unusually large volumes of data, consider moving up to an advanced plan that provides unlimited cloud storage for all your users. You might be surprised at how affordable these services are.

Cost controls

We've emphasised the low cost of cloud storage, but it's still worth weighing up your needs and making sure you're not buying more gigabytes than you need any more is just a waste of money.

Think about who needs access, too. Pricing is based on the number of users, and not everyone in your organisation needs to be included. Most plans can be dynamically upgraded if you want to add users in future, but downgrading isn't always so simple: it's worth checking before you sign up.

If you choose a plan with per-user limits on cloud storage, it's a good idea to publish a policy as to what employees can store there to avoid filling up your storage allocation with personal files. If you can't curb their enthusiasm, choose a provider that can enforce account usage controls such as storage quotas.

On that subject, a word of warning: we've seen starter business plans use slightly misleading advertising, implying that they're offering a certain amount of storage per user when in fact the quoted figure is the total amount of storage for your whole business. If a plan doesn't specifically state that a storage allowance is per user, it probably isn't.

You may also be able to save money by making a longer commitment. All providers will accept payment on a monthly basis, but there are substantial discounts on offer if you sign up for a yearly contract.

Agents of change

Sync agents keep your files up to date, and some can apply bandwidth limits

Real-time file syncing makes cloud storage fantastically convenient and getting set up is easy. In most cases, the administration console can be used to send an email invitation to users, containing a link they can click to download a synchronisation agent and join the collaboration party.

The Box Drive agent provides easy access to all your files in the cloud

Note, though, that the sign-up process requires the user to provide a password for their cloud account. All the usual caveats apply here: the password should be secure and not easily guessed. Good providers offer admin controls that allow you to set policies that ensure passwords adhere to a specific format and strength.

Once the agent is installed, and the user is logged in, the latest files will start automatically downloading to each user's computer. If you're working with lots of large documents, look for an agent that lets users decide what should sync automatically and what should live in the cloud. Be warned, though, this can leave staff stymied if they lose internet access for any reason. We were one of many UK businesses that were hit by a recent Virgin Media service outage and were unable to access our cloud files for over four hours.

The Box admin portal gives an overview of all file sharing activities

Assuming all's working well, cloud services also provide personal web portals, so each user can view their data, upload or download files and share folders with team members. File versioning is a very worthwhile feature, allowing deleted files to be recovered or reverted to an earlier version.

Tresorit provides a rich desktop app with easy access to documents

One last valuable feature is the ability to send large files to other users or external clients simply by creating a web link in the portal and emailing it to them. For increased security, look for a service that allows you to password protect links, and apply download limits and expiry dates.

Some providers also enable external clients to send files to your cloud repository by invitation, without needing their own credentials.

Cloud nine

Business cloud storage services bring a wealth of benefits. They can save you money and increase productivity, and many offer integration with other apps and cloud services such as Office 365.

It's worth noting that mobile support, although generally good with apps for Android and iOS, can vary considerably in terms of capabilities, so it's worth checking each provider to see which have the features you need.

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