Saving your files: cloud or network?

Saving your files: cloud or network?
The cloud allows the latest version of my legal work to be synced, saved, and secured but not every cloud provider can be trusted with confidential information.

One recommended option is to use a Canadian-based cloud storage service. My currently preferred option, however, is to host my own personal cloud using a device known as network attached storage (NAS). For an explanation of the difference between a cloud service and a network attached storage, see my article entitled “Macs, PCs, mobile, the cloud: can they all work together?”

In this article I will outline some of the pros and cons of a cloud service and NAS.

Pros of a cloud service

Quick and easy setup: It is set up and ready to go in minutes. By registering with the provider and agreeing to their terms and policies, you can have your data on the cloud very quickly with the assistance of the company’s customer service. You save enormous amounts of time and expense compared to setting up an NAS system. Once your data is in the cloud, cloud providers make accessing your data user-friendly.

Third-party management: You do not need to worry as much about your data’s encryption and viruses. No technical knowledge is required to maintain, restore, encrypt, or backup your service. Your data is monitored and managed by third-party security and encryption services that are pre-packaged.

Reliability: Subscription cloud providers are generally reliable. When you want to retrieve a file it will be waiting for you and if your provider shuts down, its IT employees should have it online and your files accessible within hours.

Support: Many cloud providers provide 24/7 support.

Options: Many cloud providers offer additional options, including based time tracking, billing, document management, calendars and scheduling, data storage, and real-time collaborative productivity.

Cons of a cloud service

Privacy: Privacy concerns may be an issue with subscription cloud services. Third parties can monitor, access, and use your data without your permission. This is true with Gmail, virtual offices, and even your web site. The security of your data is only as strong as your provider’s encryption and backup services.

Privacy policies are also unique to each provider and will require particular review and due diligence before agreeing to their terms. Many providers state they will provide your information where required by law, authorized government agencies, or law enforcement officials. There may be no warrant involved for your information to be given to third parties and additionally, you may never be notified if it happens.

For instance, the U.S. Patriot Act gives American authorities permission to access and seize data stored on American soil without your knowledge or consent. This is important to keep in mind as many of the popular cloud providers, including Dropbox, iCloud, and Google Cloud, are not hosted on Canadian soil. Cloud service providers that store data on Canadian soil are not subject to the Patriot Act, as long as the data remains stored on Canadian soil.

However, just because your data is stored in Canada does not mean it is not subject to third-party access. Not only is your cloud service provider capable of accessing data stored on its servers, but government agencies have agreements and tools that may allow them access to your information. Many legal academics have asked whether you remain the owner of data stored on third-party cloud servers. Since these companies are custodians of your data and have possession of it, the question is at what point do you lose control of your data?

Reliability: If the cloud goes down you may lose ability to access files for a time. This is a very good reason for not relying entirely on your cloud service for backup of your important data.

Cost: Cloud services can be expensive. If you are interested in backing up your law firm’s computer systems, files, and documents onto your virtual private cloud it may exceed the data limit of your Internet service. Depending on the amount of data being transferred, you many need to purchase additional bandwidth.

Limited providers: There are very few Canadian-based providers and each provides different storage capacity, compatibility with devices, and costs.

Recommendations when choosing a cloud service

Be careful to distinguish between cloud service providers that offer their services in Canada, versus providers that host their cloud services on Canadian soil.

Be careful when accessing your files via the cloud while in foreign countries, including the United States. When data is transmitted across U.S.-based Internet providers, it may be susceptible to the Patriot Act.

Find out if the service standards are approved by your law society. The Law Society of British Columbia has published a practice resource on its web site entitled “Cloud Computing Checklist.” By following the guide you will essentially cover every aspect of cloud computing from reliability to security to costs.

The Canadian Bar Association has also published recommendations and numerous articles on cloud computing. The CBA’s “Guidelines for practicing ethically with new information technologies” addresses how to backup and secure your data, and you should ensure your provider matches or exceeds those standards.

Pros of a NAS

Expandable storage: Most NAS systems come with high storage space for backups, up to 16TB. Additionally, they also allow for drive expandability. QNAP has NAS servers with eight hot-swappable hard drive bays. It sells for about $1,000.

NAS is cost-effective: There are no monthly fees. Forbes Magazine recently crunched the numbers for a typical cloud subscription: $100 per month x 20 users is $2,000 per month or $24,000 per year.

NAS is customizable: NAS software allows you to set administrative rights and user profiles to regulate who has access to the NAS and what privileges a particular user might have. Additionally, you can even customize which specific devices will have access to the NAS. When it comes to customization, the sky is the limit.

NAS is secure: Perhaps the biggest pro of NAS is your data and hardware are in your control. The data can be encrypted, virus protected, and backed up how you want. You are able to encrypt your data without a third party encryption service. The QNAP also allows for mirrored backups so if one hard drive dies, you still have the same data on the other drive. Further, there are software programs available that allow for backup of the NAS itself. Some firms run a constant backup of the NAS on to multiple, independent, “hot swappable” portable hard drives which can disconnected and taken off-site at the end of the day without interrupting the system. Some NAS systems allow for tracking of the device in the event it is stolen.

NAS support multiple drives: NAS systems developed specifically for consumer and small businesses support multiple drives which enables users to set up RAID arrays to boost performance and for fault tolerance. These NAS devices allow for scheduled backup from all computers on the network to a central location created on the NAS.

Easy file sharing over network: NAS make it very easy to share files including multimedia such as video across a network.

Cons of a NAS

NAS takes some time to set up: A fairly high level of engagement is required to set up your NAS system. Unlike a cloud service that can be set up within minutes, acquiring the right NAS requires some investment of your time. You need to consider the specific features you need, whether the system is adequate for your office environment or is more home based, the storage capacity, whether the setup is simple or will require the service of an IT company, whether the NAS offers sufficient encryption, how many user accounts can be created, whether it allows for mirrored backups and can be backed up to external independent drives.

NAS is a commitment: The initial setup costs can be high. A basic NAS can run anywhere from $400 to $2,000. Often, the NAS system does not come with storage meaning you will need to also purchase hard drives. Fortunately, hard drives are not as expensive as they once were. If you are not a techie, you will also need to hire someone who is in order to set up and maintain your system. If you find accessing your files from off-site is slow, or you are regularly transferring large quantities of data, you may also need to increase your service including your Internet bandwidth at both your office and off-site location.

NAS is your responsibility: If your NAS system fails you need to know about this and be ready to remedy the problem right away. Unlike a subscription cloud service with full-time IT professionals who have the cloud online within hours in the event of a failure, if your system fails you may lose access to your NAS and important data for days. Fortunately, when it comes to NAS systems, there are backup programs that allow for automatic reporting of backups. For instance, you could have the system set up to forward an e-mail to your cell phone at a specific time to confirm a successful backup has taken place.

NAS systems do not always automatically sync: When you are outside of your office network, you may not be able to automatically access your NAS files as readily as you may when using the cloud. Instead, you may need to manually enter your NAS IP address, username, and password in order to log on to your NAS. This is not necessarily a bad thing as it adds a level of security.

NAS is a physical hard drive: Your NAS system could be stolen or damaged. For this reason, you should regularly backup your NAS system and take your backups off-site.

Some NAS systems might access your files via the cloud: Some NAS systems may transmit files through a third-party cloud while transmitting to your remote device.

Recommendations for choosing NAS

Unless you have the time, patience, and interest to be doing it yourself, I recommend using the services of a professional IT company that can assist with the setup and maintenance of your office technology on short notice. I contract my office IT maintenance to a local company. On short notice I can phone them for fast and efficient service not only for my NAS system but also my office network, computer crashes, and printer problems. Often times, they can even effect the repairs from off-site.

This article was prepared with the assistance of former summer student Ben Austring.

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