October 15, 2013

Common Cloud Storage Terms Explained

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Cloud backup and storage companies have a propensity for using technical jargon that can make navigating their features a confusing ordeal. In order to help, we’ve highlighted some of the most common cloud backup/storage terms and provided simple definitions.

Backup vs. Storage

The two terms are often used interchangeably, so it can be hard to keep track of them, but they technically have separate meanings. Cloud backup services, such as Mozy, IDrive, or Carbonite, backup specific folders (or your entire computer) and allow you to restore the files later on. This service is perfect for businesses whose employees don’t need file synchronization between devices, work primarily from their desktop, and simply need to ensure their work is protected in case of data loss.

Cloud storage services, like Box, Dropbox, or Bitcasa, also backup selected files, but act more like an online locker. For instance, files in Dropbox are synced across computers and can easily be shared with other people throughout a public folder. For personal documents, or group collaboration, this can be an ideal type of service.

Finally, there is a third category knows as ‘cold storage.’ This is the kind of cloud storage offered by services like Amazon Glacier. It’s generally much cheaper than either of the above options, and is designed for long-term file storage or archiving. Users can’t access stored files immediately, and typically have to request data a few hours before downloading.

Data Redundancy

Data redundancy is exactly what is sounds like – the replication of data in multiple places. Storage providers generally have multiple server locations (some even locate them on different continents in case of a physical disaster in one area), and keep files duplicated in different locations. This ensures that if one server is breached or crashes, there’s a fail-safe copy in another location. Think of it as an extra backup for your backup!


Deduplication is an impressive sounding word that cloud service providers love to throw around on product pages. It really just refers to software that eliminates duplicate information from the files you upload. It saves you bandwidth on uploads and saves storage space for the provider. For instance, if you upload ten Word documents that all feature the same photo, the storage provider will only save one copy of that photo, instead of ten identical ones.


Scalability is the ability of a service provider to expand their hosting space in real-time, depending on the needs of their clients. If a cloud backup/storage company touts themselves as being infinitely scalable, they’re saying that no matter how big your data needs suddenly become, they can keep adding servers and space to keep up.

Public Cloud

A public cloud is simply any cloud infrastructure that is available to the general public, either for free or for purchase. Essentially, if you can pay for the service, you can store files there. Most cloud storage options are public clouds, including Amazon’s S3 infrastructure, IBM’s Softlayer, and Windows Azure. Although it’s called “public,” it can still be very secure, particularly if the system allows for client-side data encryption (more on that later).

Hybrid Cloud

Hybrid clouds are cloud storage systems that bridge both the public and private cloud infrastructure. This is an increasingly popular type of cloud storage setup, especially in the enterprise world, as it allows companies to store some (usually sensitive) information on-site in a small private cloud, while keeping less sensitive files on much cheaper public cloud storage.

Private Cloud

Private clouds are storage systems constructed entirely for one company or organization. Unlike public clouds, no other company or individual can purchase storage space on a private cloud’s servers. This walled-garden approach is by design, and is used by companies with strict rules about where their electronic data can be stored, or companies worried about security threats. Private clouds are becoming less and less common, however, due to their high upkeep costs, and their lack of easy scalability.

Secure Sharing

This is another term you’ll likely run across when researching cloud storage providers. While its usage isn’t 100% consistent across companies, it generally refers to the ability to share stored files using password-protected links. While most online storage services allow you to share files, only some offer the ability to make them password protected, which ensures that even if your email is shared (unknowingly or accidentally), your data will remain safe.

Physical Media Restore

While physical media and cloud storage seem anathema, its often still faster to transfer huge volumes of data in person rather than over the internet. If a company offers this feature, it means that in the case of data-loss, they’ll ship physical hard drives containing your information instead of making you download everything (which can tie up your bandwidth and strain your company’s day-to-day operations).

File Versioning

File versioning refers to the ability of a cloud storage/backup system to keep multiple versions of the same file. For instance, a provider may keep 5 versions of a Word document, ensuring that if you accidentally make changes to the document you can download a previous version without the changes.

Folder Syncing

Folder syncing refers to the ability of cloud storage services to automatically synchronize specified folders between your desktop and their online interface. This means that if you modify a document in your “files” folder, or add a new document, the change will be reflected online. Companies such as Dropbox offer folder syncing features.


Cloud backup/storage encryption can be a tricky subject, which is why we wrote a whole guide it. You can check that guide out here for a more complete overview. Basically though, there are three places where encryption can take place – on your desktop (client-side), while the files are being upload to the cloud (in transit), and while the files are on the provider’s servers (at-rest). Client-side is considered the most secure, because you retain the encryption key personally and the storage provider can’t decrypt your documents. At a minimum, make sure that any provider you choose offers in-transit encryption – otherwise when you backup your computer, you could be broadcasting your files to anyone else on the same WiFi network.

This is a basic overview of the most common cloud backup/storage terms you’ll run into. After you have an understanding of what they all mean you can start to figure out which ones your business will need, and begin choosing a provider. If you want to compare multiple companies at once, try our Smart Advisor tool. Just tell us what you want, and we’ll find you the best matches.