It’s a common enough practice: It’s the end of the day and you’ve decided to take your work home with you. You email the document to yourself. Then you email the new version back to yourself the next day.
Or perhaps you save it onto a flash drive that you shuttle back and forth between your home and the office.
Sometimes this causes confusion. Which version is the most up-to-date document? Where is the flash drive when you need it?
A host of new tools — Dropbox, Box.net, and Egnyte, just to name a few — are making it easier for small businesses to manage their files by storing them in the cloud — that is, online. That way, you can access them from wherever you are, whether you’re on the go on your smart phone, at home on your iPad, or at the office on your desktop. You can store gigabytes upon gigabytes of data online and be able to access them at your fingertips, sometimes even without Internet access.
Box.net CEO Aaron Levie says that small businesses stand to save money since they won’t have to spend as much on the hardware required to store data at the office. And since cloud storage allows workers to share and collaborate on projects more easily — making changes to a single document instead of circulating around multiple versions, for example — it can also give them an advantage against their larger rivals.
Before, “small businesses were not able to be as competitive with the technology they were using,” Levie says. “They weren’t able to implement the same kind of IT infrastructure that larger businesses could afford.”
In most cases, the service operates by having users upload their documents into the “cloud.” On their desktop is a folder where they place the files they wish to share. Each time a document is edited, the file is updated for the other collaborators. They’re synced to the desktop, as well as to mobile devices.
Prices range from free for a small amount of data (under 5GB, Box.net) to $50 per month for large reams of data (up to 1TB, Egnyte).
Of course, some worry about security and reliability. What happens if the Internet goes down or access to the Internet is slow? What if someone hacks into your account?
Naturally, all providers say that their services are secure, but there are also some ways to work around such concerns. You can opt to use cloud storage only for certain kinds of projects such as marketing presentations, which often require more than one contributor. Or you can use it as a way to arm your sales force when they’re going out on the road to meet the public or a client, giving them to access to all the documents at the main office without having to haul around reams of paperwork.
It’s harder to predict the reliability of the Internet or access to the service — just look at Skype’s recent outage and how it affected consumers and small businesses. That’s a tough call, though the providers say that one workaround is having data synced to the desktop is that you can still access your files if services go down; you just can’t update them for your colleagues until you have Internet access again.