Bringing the Cloud Home

This past March, Amazon announced the launch of Amazon Cloud Drive, Amazon Cloud Player for the web, and Amazon Cloud Player for Android. In a nutshell, these offerings create a digital locker service that allows you to store your music in the Amazon cloud and gives you the ability the play your music from any Internet-connected PC or Android phone.

The service comes with a small amount of free storage, and for an annual fee, you can add more.

This got me thinking about the possibility of home-grown solutions that would offer similar features and no annual fee. Is it possible to provide a cloud service for small businesses that offers ubiquitous web access to a web-connected device, and do it cheaply?

I came up with some basic criteria for bringing the cloud home for a small business:

  • Easy to setup and use.
  • Can be supported in-house.
  • Low initial cost.
  • Provide media streaming and online file storage.
  • Access via smartphone or any web-connected PC.
  • Complete backup solution for onsite and offsite.
  • Able to serve email and web pages.
  • Ability to grow as the business grows.

I discovered several “roll your own” NAS (Network Attached Storage) solutions that offer cloud capabilities, but these didn’t provide the out of the box experience I was looking for. Eschewing the “roll your own” approach I began to look at complete turn-key solutions. In my research, a few vendors came to forefront: Qnap NAS, Netgear’s ReadyNAS, Drobo, and the Synology NAS.

According to their respective websites, these products provide a bevy of features that would keep the geekiest IT enthusiast in digital bliss for quite some time. But could these types of solutions deliver on our “basic criteria” list for small business needs?

In true fashion of putting myself in the rough for my readers, I set out to discover if an out of the box solution would indeed satisfy our list of small business needs.

Many of these products offer very similar feature sets, including a robust online user community, and ample Wiki and FAQ pages. For my live field test, I selected Synology’s new DS411slim. I made the decision based on price, size, and availability, as well as the DS411slim’s compact size and the fact that it only sips 9 to 16 watts of power. (The secret to its diminutive size and frugal power needs are that it is designed to use 2.5” laptop hard drives.) I loaded the DS411slim with four 1TB hard drives, the largest hard drives available on the market today.

Most of the Synology NAS features are available across the entire product line, which leaves the customer free to choose the hardware solution that best fits his or her business needs. The heavy lifting for the Synology is accomplished by the DiskStation Manager 3.1, Synology’s advanced NAS server OS. (All of the NAS vendors I looked at offer their own NAS server OS and similar web-based management tools, though each had its own unique look and feel.)

The hardware set up for this type of solution was straightforward and could be accomplished easily by most customers:

  • I attached the laptop hard drives to the carrier trays, and then inserted them into the DS411slim.Next I attached my network cable and power cord to the unit and powered it on.
  • Once the power light was a steady blue, I ran the setup wizard by inserting the setup CD into my laptop.
  • After following the wizard I was up and running.

I then attached my portable USB drive and copied all of my music, photos, and files onto the NAS. This did two things for me:

1.       It provided a level of data redundancy (the NAS has RAID to protect from data loss should a hard drive fail.)

2.       I could then access my music, photos and files from any Internet-connected PC and, using a free app, from either my iOS or Android device.

You may be asking yourself how I could access the data from the web so quickly. Good question. The NAS software includes a wizard that steps you through setting up a free Dynamic DNS account (you even get to choose the sub-domain name.) Once this was complete, I had an easy to use web-address that gave me instant web access to my music, photos, and files.

Once the NAS is accessible from the web, users can activate a built-in web server to serve their websites, or setup the mail server to store and access email. (This will be a future project for me, and will require that I read the Wiki to ensure proper setup.) Along with the built-in web and mail server, Synology offers third party app support for platforms such as WordPress, OpenCart, Drupal, and several others.

Synology also includes free Windows and Mac software for setting up desktop backup. Windows uses Synology Data Replicator 3 and the Mac uses native Apple Time Machine support. I will be using the Windows client for my desktop data and Outlook backup.

Offsite backup options are plentiful. According to the company website,

“Server backup includes three alternatives: Local Backup, Network Backup, and Amazon S3 backup. You can backup data in shared folders or sub-folders and choose between incremental backup options or other flexible scheduling choices. All can be easily configured with a step-by-step wizard to make it simple to create an automated backup solution.”

The network backup feature can backup to another Synology DiskStation or any RSync-compatible server. That sounds sufficient for most small business needs.

So there we have it, mission accomplished. This type of onsite NAS product offers a long list of capabilities and expandability features that should keep pace with a growing small business. It would appear that my list of small business needs was handily met and I haven’t even scratched the surface of what this product can do. While this may not be considered an enterprise cloud product, it does bring many cloudlike features to the small business on a budget.

Have you implemented a cloud storage solution for your small business?
What features are most important to you in a cloud offering?
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