Is Cloud Storage Unlimited?

One of the most hotly debated words, or perhaps more accurately phrases, in cloud computing is “unlimited storage.” Since the debut of DropBox in 2007, countless cloud computing solutions providers have rolled out cloud storage services that are unlimited. These companies promise to unleash the potential of the Internet to allow individuals and businesses to upload unlimited photos and make file sharing a breeze with unlimited access to storage. What many of these companies, and indeed the customers using those storage solutions, failed to realize was the actual limits of cloud storage from a hardware, fiscal, and overall feasibility standpoint.

Today, billions of individual users and companies around the globe access cloud storage solutions from providers like Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple iCloud. For example, Google Docs is one of the single most-popular cloud storage and sync solutions out there for file sharing and online backup. The question still remains for many, is cloud storage unlimited?

What is the Difference between Backup, Storage, and Sync?

As you go about comparing cloud storage solutions and providers, you are bound to run into a slew of confusing terms that might be misleading in your decision-making process. There are three terms in particular that you will run into on a regular basis: cloud storage, cloud backup, and sync. Clearing up the meaning behind each of these terms is important as you compare different services and try to decide what type of cloud computing and cloud storage platform you want to use.

While the terms are interrelated, they are not interchangeable terms. Cloud storage is the service that providers like DropBox, OneDrive, Google Drive, Apple iCloud, and Amazon Cloud Drive offer. You can upload files and photos from one device to these cloud storage services. It is held in one central, virtual location that you can access from any device no matter where you are. As long as you can get on the internet, you can access these files in cloud storage.

In a typical backup scenario, you save your files to a thumb drive or the hard drive on a device such as your laptop. Now, let’s say on a business trip you spill coffee on the laptop or it is stolen from your hotel room. Any files on that laptop that were not uploaded to a cloud storage platform are now lost. Likewise, if you lose the thumb drive but retain your laptop, those files not uploaded to the cloud are now lost.

Cloud backup can help avoid this by making copies of your files and ensuring that continuous backup of your files occurs. This doesn’t mean that the service automatically pulls all of your files and uploads them to a cloud storage folder for you. Rather, cloud backup means that while you are working on a file through an application, the cloud backup service will save your changes as you go and do its best to maintain the most-recent version of the file. In this case, if you lose your laptop or thumb drive, you can get on another device and download your files.

Finally, syncing is simply the act of sharing content across a cloud storage platform. For example, you can use Google Drive to upload a variety of Word files and then allow other users to access those files. Any changes they might make to the files are saved and synced, allowing you to then access that altered file.

Does the Cloud Really have Unlimited Storage?

With so many major providers like Amazon and Google promoting unlimited cloud storage for photos, data, and files, surely you can store as much data as you like in the cloud, right? Think about the offers of free pizza for life or free coffee for life as an example of the failings of “unlimited” promises. Sure, a local pizza parlor might offer a contest winner pizza for life, but in reality that offer is going to come with a cap such as “limit one pizza per week.” Likewise, a coffee shop might offer unlimited coffee for life in a similar scenario, but limit that “unlimited” coffee to one 8 oz cup per visit. If there is a cap on something, is it truly unlimited?

In truth, “unlimited storage” really speaks to the fact that customers can get as much storage as they need, not necessarily want. Needing a lot of storage doesn’t mean you need unlimited storage. Unlimited just means you can get the storage you need at a cost. While other providers, such as the case mentioned below, have tried and failed to offer the typical idea of unlimited storage, CompleteCloud offers a true form of unlimited storage. CompleteCloud provides access to all the storage they need without an extra charge for doing so. For example, 500 G is the same cost as 10 TB. Your storage needs shouldn’t be an inhibitor to the right IT solution, so we removed it from the equation.

As mentioned, other companies have tried to actually provide unlimited cloud storage to customers with no cap how much data is downloaded, uploaded, and stored at any given time. As ChannelProNetwork cited, Bitcasa tried just such a service. In any unlimited cloud storage scenario, the cloud provider would need a mixture of low-volume users willing to pay roughly the same amount each year for cloud storage solutions as high-volume users. The goal would be for the company to collect enough in service fees from users to continually expand storage to meet the needs of all, while remaining profitable. Unfortunately for Bitcasa, the majority of the users that flocked to the service were high-volume data users. The system was taxed and financially unsustainable. The price for unlimited cloud storage went from $99 to $999. What individual user will pay that when Apple iCloud, Amazon, and Google Drive offer free plans capable of storing photos and files?

What is the Maximum Capacity for Cloud Storage?

As just alluded to above, there is a maximum capacity for cloud storage. However, the maximum cap on cloud storage depends on the cloud service provider. As mentioned, it is theoretically possible to provide unlimited cloud storage, but in reality, it is not all that technically and financially feasible. The true gauge of the capacity of cloud storage is the number of servers and hard drives available to the cloud provider. Hardware is one of the major limiting factors here.

Let’s pretend, for a moment, that money isn’t a factor. Assuming an individual or a corporation could afford to keep paying for new hardware, such as servers and hard drives, indefinitely to provide unlimited storage. The hardware itself would eventually become a fail point. Servers age out, hard drives hit capacity individually, and equipment just ages in general. This equipment would need to be maintained and, at times, replaced indefinitely in order to ensure there is always an unlimited amount of storage space a user can access. Then there is the matter of the supporting IT network equipment that allows for access from mobile devices or desktop apps.

The power of cloud storage isn’t based on one individual user’s access to the Internet or the device that the user has in hand to access a storage solution. For the data to actually live in the cloud, somewhere there is a cluster of hardware devices supporting all of that that will eventually become a weak link in the chain.

On average, a 1 TB storage plan should be more than enough for an individual user or even small business at any one given time. When Microsoft dabbled in unlimited storage, it ran into cases of users exceeding 75 TB of cloud storage space. That’s the equivalent of 14,000 times the amount of data the average user typically stores in the cloud. So, while businesses can promise all the unlimited cloud storage they want, hardware also typically pose a problem in meeting such lofty promises.

Storage Concerns? We Can Help.

Where is Cloud Data Stored?

Another core factor often overlooked when it comes to cloud storage is the physical storage of all that data. As we just covered, individual users can transfer photos and files to the cloud with just a few clicks, but those files don’t just float around the ether. Once files have been uploaded from one device to a cloud storage service such as Amazon Cloud Drive, the data has to have a physical landing point. For many users, this could and should be a factor that is closely watched. Datacenters with servers and storage capacity hardware are located around the world, both in the United States and other regions like Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia.

In many cases, you don’t have a choice where your data is physically stored. If you use a public cloud platform like Amazon Cloud Drive to store data, your information could end up in datacenters in one of the following locations in Amazon’s global infrastructure:

  • 6 data centers in northern Virginia
  • 3 data centers in Ohio
  • 3 data centers in northern California
  • 4 data centers in Oregon
  • 20 data centers in the Asia-Pacific region – 3 in Mumbai, 3 in Seoul, 3 in Singapore, 3 in Sydney, 4 in Tokyo, 1 in Osaka, and 3 in Hong Kong
  • 2 in central Canada

There are a number of reasons to be concerned with the safety and security of your private, sensitive data in a public cloud environment. How does a user in the United States know that their data on servers and drives in Seoul, Singapore, or Tokyo is safe? What happens if an earthquake strikes Tokyo and destroys Amazon data centers? Your data could be lost or, at best, inaccessible until the hardware it is stored on comes back online.

This is one of the main reasons that business users, in particular, turn to private cloud platforms for data storage. Most private clouds are deployed onsite or selectively chosen by the users while working closely with the service provider. In this case, the users know where the data resides and most likely has greater insight into the security protocols, backup plans, and disaster recovery initiatives of the cloud storage provider.

Can Data be Lost in the Cloud? Is it Safe?

There are no guarantees in life outside of death and taxes. Data stored in the cloud can, in extreme cases, be lost entirely. However, it is important to note that the best cloud storage solution providers out there have disaster recovery and backup plans designed to do all that is technically and humanly possible to ensure that data in the cloud is safe and cannot be lost. Keep in mind that technology can fail. Computers can freeze or backup copies can be lost. Server crashes can take data into an abyss never to be found again.

While complete data loss is something that providers work very hard to avoid and build-in fail-safe systems to try and prevent, there are some common reasons for data loss in the cloud. These include the following, presented in no particular order of common occurrence:

  • Accidental deletion/user error – unintentional deletion is perhaps the most common, or in any case the easiest, incident to run into. With that said, this most likely occurs from the user end when a file or entire folder is deleted that was though to no longer be needed. If no backup was stored physically onsite, that data is lost for good.
  • Overwriting data – again, this is most likely to happen from the user end, but that is not always the case. For example, some Software-as-a-Service applications have automatic save features that can cause data sets to be partially overwritten as new information is added and inadvertently replaces old information.
  • Malicious actions – this is the one that should concern users of a public cloud storage solution the most. While all cloud storage providers work hard to secure the networks that ensure access to the hardware for cloud storage, a malicious actor can hack into those networks and compromise, steal, or hold hostage some or all of the data in a cloud storage solution.

Now, that answers the idea of cloud data loss, but it is worth discussing further the security of cloud data. Once again, you are bound to find that public cloud systems are inherently at greater risk of security breaches than a private cloud. First and foremost, public clouds present a greater security risk purely because of the number of users that might have data on that cloud. By hacking one system, malicious actors can gain access to all of the user data stored on the public cloud.

If you’re storing your photos in an Amazon Cloud Drive account or Google Drive, but a small business is doing the same, that business might be a valuable target for a hacker. The hacker didn’t care much about a college student’s term paper or someone’s vacation pictures, but they now have access to all of the user data regardless of who that user is.

There are two primary ways to avoid this situation. For starters, make sure you are aware of the security protocols in place with the public cloud user you entrust your data to. What security software do they use? How often is it updated? Is it monitored 24/7 for attempted hacks or other issues? Alternatively, you could work with a private cloud platform instead. With your data stored in a private cloud platform, yours is the only data there and you can work with the provider to established the protocols that best protect your data. This is the primary reason that it is best for businesses to use a private cloud platform, because it offers better protection, reliability, and customization.

Does Cloud Computing Mean the Same Thing as Cloud Storage?

Cloud storage and cloud computing are similar, but not synonymous, services. Cloud storage is the strict act of uploading files to a cloud storage service and accessing them from a mobile device, desktops, or laptops from anywhere you can connect to the Internet. A cloud computing solution can offer cloud storage as a part of its broader service, but it is not one-in-the-same. Cloud computing is the broader act of using virtual infrastructure, applications, and storage to remove the IT burden from a company while still meeting its computing needs.

Why is it Said that Cloud Computing Offers Unlimited Scalability?

Finally, cloud computing is often touted as providing unlimited scalability to consumers. When it comes to cloud storage, this promise is more or less true, with consideration to the points discussed earlier. For example, if you’re willing to pay for more bandwidth, better upload/download speeds, and increased storage space, you can get all the storage space you need from a provider when you need it.

Let’s say, for example, you run a business that sees intense seasonal fluctuations in customer activity and interactions. You can access more applications and store more data during those periods and then downgrade your plan when demand subsides. Broadly speaking, cloud computing platforms offer unlimited scalability in terms of the customization that is possible with the right solution.

CompleteCloud from Avatara, as an example, is an ideal cloud computing platform for businesses because it can be tailored to the minute details and needs of the individual business. If data storage needs fluctuate throughout the course of a calendar year, the physical hardware supporting that can be adjusted to meet the needs. For companies that need to run secure applications and provide virtual machines for remote employees spread across the country or around the globe, CompleteCloud can deliver a service that is not only safe and secure, but also uniform for each employee whether they logon from the United States or Australia. Everything about a service like CompleteCloud can be customized for your needs. It is not one-size-fits-all, and it can grow or shrink as you need it to.

Schedule an Appointment