But handing off any IT function involves some loss of control, and storage raises particular worries. For many companies, information is the core asset, and if employees and customers can't get to it, business grinds to a halt.
"Nobody's perfect. The best clouds in the world have downtime," acknowledged John Engates, CTO of Rackspace, a 10-year-old hosting company that has a cloud storage service in beta testing.
So what happens if things go sour with the service provider that's holding on to your data? How easy is it to get the information back or move it on to another provider? There are some dangers that enterprises should prepare for, but it turns out cloud storage may not be as risky as it seems, and possibly no more troublesome than an in-house system, according to users and industry analysts.
If it does come to the point of changing service providers, there is likely to be work involved, said IDC analyst Benjamin Woo.
"It's much more involved than just saying, 'I don't like this provider. I'm going somewhere else,'" Woo said. For one thing, you may have to change the backup software you use on your own premises, if your new cloud provider's system doesn't support it. Internal policies and procedures may also have to change, he said.
As for the process of getting back the data held in the cloud or moving it on to another provider, there are no standards used in common across the industry, analysts said.
There's no equivalent in cloud storage of a common transport mechanism like SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol), said Joe Kvidera, founder and CEO of Procedo, which provides data migration software and services. Because the industry is still in its infancy, vendors are choosing their own compression, encryption and transport mechanisms to differentiate themselves, Kvidera said.
But some vendors are taking steps to give subscribers more control and make migration easier. FreshBooks' McDerment believes it would be easy to move his archived files to another cloud. Rackspace provides a Cloud Files API (application programming interface) that could be used to write a new script, he said. Meanwhile, the API allows FreshBooks to manipulate and arrange its documents just by changing code, he said.
Nirvanix also provides a set of APIs, and it has worked out integration deals with vendors of backup and archiving software such as Atempo so customers can keep using the utilities they're familiar with, said Nirvanix President and CEO Jim Zierick. In addition, Nirvanix offers CloudNAS, a bridging software that can make the Nirvanix cloud look like any NAS (network-attached storage) drive. Using the Nirvanix API set, it mimics commonly used file systems such as CIFS (Common Internet File System) and NFS (Network File System), Zierick said.
Still, migrating a large amount of data from one service provider to another, or from a cloud to in-house storage, is a major undertaking. The basic Nirvanix service uses the public Internet to move files around, but the company has helped individual customers to rent high-bandwidth lines to handle large one-time shifts to the Nirvanix cloud, Zierick said. It has even helped customers load the data on a server at their facility and then physically transport that server to Nirvanix for offloading. The company is now talking to storage consulting firms about offering migration services.
Procedo's Kvidera said demand for migration services, which can cost between $5,000 and $40,000 per terabyte, is growing rapidly.