Cloud backup vs. cloud sync vs. cloud storage: what’s the difference?

Trying to explain what’s the difference between cloud storage, cloud backup, and cloud sync feels a bit like trying to explain the difference between a comma and a semicolon. They all somewhat look and sound the same and are sometimes used interchangeably but are fundamentally distinct in nature and primary function.

In the ongoing battle for clarity over confusion, let’s look at what each of these cloud services means, how cloud storage and backup compare against local options, and what businesses should consider when deciding which to go with.

What is cloud backup?

Cloud backup services create and send a copy of your data to your cloud storage provider. This is done automatically by applying a set of predetermined rules and policies — as part of a standalone program or single complete solution. With cloud backup applications, you can configure data transfer and storage according to specific requirements like frequency (how often to back up data) and scope (what files, folders, or data to back up).

Besides being able to schedule regular data backup, a good cloud or online backup service should also enable:

  • Data encryption when uploading to the cloud
  • User authentication and authorization features like password protection
  • Multiple file versioning within a set period, with the ability to track changes
  • The flexibility to back up individual files and folders or the entire system while excluding specific files and folders, if required
  • Compression and deduplication of data to save on storage expenses

Reliable cloud backup applications should also come with data or disaster recovery options that can restore data to the latest available version. With advanced backup apps, backup and recovery options can even extend to Microsoft SQL Server, Microsoft Exchange servers, and Oracle databases. 

Cloud backup services are usually offered under subscription-based models with a monthly or yearly fee. And prices typically vary according to the amount of data requiring backup. Common cloud backup providers include Acronis Cyber Protect, Backblaze, Carbonite Safe, CrashPlan, Dropbox Business, iDrive, Veeam, and pCloud. Some also support hybrid cloud and multicloud environments. 

What is cloud sync?

While cloud backup makes sure that there’s an extra copy of your data in the cloud, cloud sync ensures that the data is kept up to date and accurately maintained in near real time. Cloud sync is especially useful in scenarios that involve collaboration or group tasks since it allows multiple users to access and edit data on any device, simultaneously. Users can also access and edit data from multiple devices. When changes are made to a file on a physical device or on the cloud, the same changes are automatically reflected on the cloud, and vice versa.

Most public cloud sync services like Google Drive and Dropbox offer two-way sync where updated files that are uploaded are automatically downloaded by the client. Certain ones like Dropbox require you to install an app on your device while others like iCloud and Microsoft OneDrive are built into the operating system and productivity tools. Cloud sync services typically have a lower storage volume and many are free to use up to a certain storage limit, which makes them comparatively more affordable.

Although cloud sync is great for collaborative work, it’s not recommended for large amounts of data that need to be kept safe. Here are a few reasons why it’s not advisable to rely on cloud sync services alone for data protection.

Unsynchronized data and documents remain at risk

Data, files, and folders that reside outside the cloud sync platform are not synced on the cloud and remain vulnerable to damage or loss.

Data may be permanently deleted without chance of recovery

Even within the cloud sync service, a file or document can still be lost forever if someone in the group (accidentally) deletes it. Without a versioning feature like you’d find in cloud backup applications, you won’t be able to recover previous file versions.

Vulnerability to malware

With cloud sync, files and documents are automatically synced across multiple devices. This can be a double-edged sword since this function also applies to corrupted files that have been infected with malware.

Pricing is commonly based on storage tiers though some providers like NetApp offer a pay-as-you-go model based on hourly rates and the number of sync relationships created. Service providers that provide cloud storage and syncing include Dropbox, icedrive, Mega, pCloud, and sync.com.  

What is cloud storage?

Cloud storage is a secure virtual drive in the cloud that’s usually accessible via an application or web browser. They provide the infrastructure for cloud backup and cloud sync services to work. It can be seamlessly integrated with businesses of any size, where data can be accessed like a local network share or on a physically connected device as a local drive.  Users can store as much data as they need and are charged accordingly. Without a cloud backup service, however, using a cloud storage service alone doesn’t include features like automated scheduling to back up data.

One of the more obvious benefits of using cloud storage is the ability to upgrade storage capacity easily and at any time. Users don’t have to purchase and set up additional hardware since that is entirely built and maintained by the service provider. Pricing for cloud storage is predictable and usually based on a pay-as-you-go structure depending on how much storage is required.

Cloud storage services also have the advantage of providing data protection and recovery in the event of incidents or natural disasters. Cloud storage data is copied across several different drives and even across regions as a fail-safe against any server downtime or acts of God.

What are the different types of cloud storage?

While there are differences based on the technical architecture of a service, the more important questions are whether it is public, private or a combination of both.

Public cloud storage

Also known as storage-as-a-service or online storage, public cloud storage is offered by third-party cloud service providers like Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google Cloud, and Microsoft Azure. These providers also own and manage the cloud hardware, software, and infrastructure, which are shared by different organizations or cloud “tenants”. Other cloud storage providers — which typically leverage public cloud infrastructure to provide their services — include Backblaze B2, Box, Dropbox Business, Egnyte, OneDrive for Business, SpiderOak One, and Tresorit.  

Private cloud storage

Private cloud storage is exclusive to one organization and always maintained on a private network. A private cloud server can be located and managed onsite at the organization’s data center or outsourced to a third-party service provider. Private cloud storage is typically more expensive than public cloud options but it also allows for greater control and customization. This makes it a common option for highly regulated organizations like government agencies and financial institutions.

Hybrid cloud storage

Hybrid cloud storage is a combination of both public and private options, which offers organizations the flexibility of benefiting from public cloud features and cost savings while still being able to secure sensitive data separately. Hybrid cloud environments are a growing trend with more businesses expected to invest in the integration of cloud services and solutions to achieve greater efficiencies and stay competitive. Some examples:

  • SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) like Google Workspace, Slack, and Zendesk
  • PaaS (Platform-as-a-Service) like AWS Elastic Beanstalk, SAP Cloud, and Red Hat OpenShift
  • IaaS (Infrastructure-as-a-Service) like DigitalOcean, Linode, and Microsoft Azure

Cloud storage & backup vs. local storage & backup

How do cloud storage and backup compare against local storage and backup? Is one better than the other? Here’s a summary of the main points of comparison.

 

Cloud storage & backup 

Local storage & backup 

Automation 

  • Cloud backup has fully automated scheduling features that can be configured based on specific requirements.   
  • Data backup is a more hands-on and labor-intensive process. (Though you also get more control over frequency and storage of backups.) 

Multiuser collaboration and accessibility 

  • Cloud storage, when paired with cloud backup and cloud sync services, enables collaboration, file sharing and multiuser, role-based access. 
  • Via the cloud, teams can access and work on the same file at any time, whether they are remote or onsite. 
  • Local storage and backup are not as efficient for collaboration. You would have to retrieve the data or files from storage and share with others via email or USB drive.  
  • Data retrieval is relatively straightforward and quicker.  
  • If you’re offsite and systems are down, there’s no way of accessing your data.  

Security 

  • Comes with built-in features like access control options, data encryption, and 2-factor authentication. 
  • Large cloud providers like Google Drive and Dropbox have more resources to build additional layers of security that are more robust.  
  • Comes with comprehensive disaster recovery and backup strategies, so that data is never lost.  
  • Allows more control over your data — you can decide where your files are stored and who has access. 
  • Local storage and backup are especially vulnerable to loss and damage due to incidents like malfunction, theft, and natural disasters. Without a robust backup strategy, you risk losing data without the ability to recover it. 
  • Less exposure to malware and cyberattacks since local drives are not connected to the internet until plugged into a computer.  

Reliability 

  • Risk of server downtime that may impact operations. 
  • Because you’re sharing server resources with many other parties, upload/download speeds may be impacted.  
  • Reliability also depends on your internet connection and speed.  
  • Less risk of downtime when using local storage like hard disks or USB flash drives. 
  • No dependency on internet connection or bandwidth, which can make storing files on local drives and servers faster than over the cloud. 

 

Scalability 

  • Much easier to scale and increase storage and backup capacity.  
  • Less flexibility when you want to scale and increase storage capacity. 
  • There’s no option of unlimited storage, unlike cloud backup services. 
  • For organizations with growing needs, there’s a need to keep purchasing and maintaining adequate storage. 

Cost 

  • Transparent and predictable, based on usage. 
  • No hardware cost.  
  • The cost to set up and maintain local storage infrastructure like servers can be very expensive.  
  • Costs also include space to store servers and other physical hardware. 

Support  

  • Access to 24/7 dedicated technical support. 
  • Some cloud providers also offer training. 
  • Local storage and backup rely on in-house IT support. If that’s not sufficient, organizations will need to outsource the role, adding additional costs.   

Ultimately the choice between the cloud, local resources, or a hybrid of both, depends on many factors like IT resources and expertise, organization budget, and operational requirements. Are employees onsite, remote or hybrid? Is a majority of the work collaborative in nature? Is the organization growing rapidly? For small and medium businesses, cloud storage and backups provide access to a full suite of security features and benefits at a fraction of the cost it takes to set up the necessary infrastructure on their own.

The many uses of cloud computing

Cloud computing technology has functionalities that extend across many other aspects of an organization. These can help to drive greater efficiency and better support today’s remote and hybrid work environments.

For example, you can manage remote endpoints with SmartDeploy, an endpoint management solution that comes with out-of-box integration with Box, Dropbox, OneDrive, and Google Drive. With SmartDeploy’s cloud deployment feature, IT can securely deploy Windows images, applications, and drivers over the cloud to endpoints, from anywhere. For organizations with remote employees, devices can be drop-shipped directly from the manufacturer to users and set up remotely with less time, effort, and cost. You can learn more in our live weekly demo or give it a go yourself with a free trial!