Secure small business storage on the Web?

Live Mesh and SpiderOak offer two different takes on secure Web-based file storage that can work for small business

It's mid-hurricane season where I live, and my thoughts have been turning (as they so often do) to disaster recovery for small business. We should all have learned by now that even a comprehensive backup can be inadequate if it's stored in a filing cabinet in the front office. No, for better protection you need to keep a copy of your files someplace safe -- or at least someplace not likely to be hit by the same event that created the need for the backup.

I've been trying a couple of simple solutions for backing up my critical data. The first is SpiderOak, a system the company describes as, "Your complete online backup, storage, access and sharing solution." A free account comes with 2GB of online storage, with more available for license on a monthly basis. The second is Microsoft's Live Mesh, an extension of your desktop onto the Web. There are similarities between the two, but there are also differences that might make one or the other a better choice for your needs.

SpiderOak is, in the way the interface presents itself, a backup system first, with file- and folder-sharing pleasant side effects. When you download the application onto your system, you're presented with a modestly-sized window that allows you to select specific drives, directories, or files for synchronization with the SpiderOak servers. Once the selection is made, the software starts the upload and synchronization is automatic after that. If 2GB isn't enough, you can get additional storage in 10GB increments for around $5 per month. SpiderOak says that they perform some serious compression on the files transferred in order to cut down on the requirements for both bandwidth and storage; looking at the same files stored on both SpiderOak and Live Mesh indicates that this is true. You can make the files you upload sharable through an account extension, but the interface makes it obvious that file backup and restoration is the reason this service exists. That interface is nicer than many of the remote storage services out there, and the interface (which works with Windows, Mac, and Linux systems) may be enough to make this your choice for a service.

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Live Mesh is, as you might guess, something different. I must start by saying that it's in the "Tech Preview" stage of existence right now – that means it can be buggy, unstable, undependable, and quite different from the finished service and it's all OK. In fact, I've found it to be none of the first three things, and only time will tell on the fourth.

Live Mesh sets up an online extension of all or part of a device, whether it be desktop computer, laptop computer, or smart phone. Once you add a device to Live Mesh, you can then choose files, directories, or drives that will be synchronized into Live Mesh. Here's the cool part: You can then add another device to Live Mesh and synchronize the file, directory, or drive to the second device. If you're working on a single set of documents from more than one device, you're always working on the most recent version, and a copy of the document is always on the Live Desktop out in the mesh.

Here's the less-cool part: when Live Mesh is engaged in synchronizing files (especially the first time it's making the transfers), it eats up an absolute ton of resources on your computer. I'd suggest creating the synchronized folders just before knocking off work for the evening and leaving the computer to work overnight. You'll be a much happier camper if you do. In fairness, since this is a Tech Preview, the performance in this area could get much better as the system gets closer to production. We'll see. We'll also see how Microsoft decides to price storage in excess of the five GB that currently is available to hold your stuff.

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One nice thing about Live Mesh can be seen in the screenshot. If you look carefully, you'll see that the image is rendered in FireFox. That's right, Live Mesh is a Microsoft service that seems to run just fine on both Internet Explorer and FireFox. Good for Microsoft. They saw that the ability to add Macintosh computers to the Mesh is coming soon. I'll look forward to that and report back when it happens.

What do you think? Are you using an online backup service? There's a piece of me that's still a little afraid of trusting key files to any service on the Web, but the fact is that Web-based services are getting better and more secure. In my final analysis, the comfort of knowing that my key files are backed up somewhere far away from hurricanes overcame my reluctance to trust Web services. I suppose I just took a step into the 21st century.

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