The Synology And Symform Partnership: The Future Of Consumer And SMB Storage

Last week, Synology announced a partnership with innovative cloud storage firm Symform. Finally, someone is combining the peace of mind and worry-free connectivity speed of the network-attached storage (NAS) drive with the convenience of cloud storage. Arguably, this is targeted more at small and medium-size businesses (SMBs) — those big enough to have a security and backup policy but too small (or too cheap) to build an enterprise relationship with a commercial cloud provider like Amazon. However, even with my consumer-focused hat on, I see a lot to like:

  • It allows a trickle update of cloud files. As anyone who has wondered what the hell Microsoft’s SkyDrive desktop app is doing as it whirs away for a couple of hours will know that syncing to the cloud is still pretty tedious — especially if your connectivity speed isn’t up to scratch. By adding a central repository of your data on the always-on NAS drive, you bypass this issue while still ensuring your files are available in the cloud.
  • It pairs two technologies that lack sufficient mainstream appeal, creating a compelling hybrid. As I’ve said before, NAS technology hasn’t hit the levels of popularity that I expected it to 5-8 years ago; it will ultimately be replaced by cloud storage — but not for many years yet. I’ve also said that in the long term, cloud storage isn’t really an “application” or a ”service”; it’s a facet or feature of other applications or services. Pairing lots of local networked storage with cloud back-up (or even just key directory duplication) means that you are getting the best of both worlds now rather than waiting for all-encompassing, super-reliable online services of the future.
  • Symform’s business model doesn’t limit the amount you store in the cloud (unlike its competitors). Effectively, Symform works as a coordinator of available peer-to-peer (P2P) storage: Agree to let Symform use some of your space hard disk space (either on a PC, a NAS drive, or a server), and it will give you half of that amount as cloud storage for free (on top of the initial 10 Gb allowance). Symform promises secure, regulatory-compliant, globally distributed cloud storage for little more than the price of adding a new hard disk to your rack/NAS /PC – and that’s if your storage is nearly full. Of course, you can pay as well . . . but that makes the offering significantly less attractive.

But, there are some bridges yet to cross:

  • It still means shelling out at least $500 for the local storage. Cost remains the biggest issue for consumers or small businesses looking at network storage. Why would you pay at least $400 for the most basic 2 Tb Synology NAS set-up (for example, the DS212j plus two Western Digital 2 Tb drives) when you can buy a 3 Tb Seagate external USB3 drive for $135?* Well, there are lots of reasons that a seasoned IT professional would recognise: availability, redundancy, multidevice access, file syncing, and management tools to name a few . . . but none of these resonate with mainstream consumers (oe even the small end of the business world). Let’s not forget that consumers are still failing to manage and back up the gigabytes of unique and irreplaceable content generated by their digital cameras.
  • Symform’s business model is both a blessing and a curse. While I commend Symform for coming up with something different from the largely interchangeable offerings of Box, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Dropbox, there are still some thorny questions that need answering:
  1. Can Symform make money if only a small fraction of users pay for storage? Of course, you could argue that the same can be said of Dropbox or Box; at least Symform doesn’t have to invest in building massive storage capacity to support its service.
  2. Can a P2P solution rival a big honking data center in Texas for reliability and speed? Again, there is a persuasive argument that P2P is more robust and efficient than traditional “client-server” models — just look at BitTorrent technology. As with BitTorrent, redundancy will be the key; its imperative that a user’s files aren’t corrupted if another customer’s storage node drops out of the pool.
  3. Is it legal? This is an argument that could run and run (and I’m not a lawyer…don’t even play one on TV). Government agencies already frown upon cloud solutions which store files/data outside their home geography. Does distributing tiny fragments of files globally make this better or worse? Similarly, can the US government ask for access to customers’ files as they can from other US cloud providers? Incidentally, it’s a myth that the 2001 Patriot Act makes the US the only country able to do this.
  4. Given the above, is Symform a long-term bet? Back-up is, by definition, all about peace of mind. You want your data to be secure both now and for the foreseeable future. This makes Symform a risky bet for businesses — although at least switching to a different service is easier these days than replacing actual physical back-up devices.
  • The security and confidentiality of cloud storage will continue to be an issue, especially given Symform’s business model. When it comes to cloud storage, IT pros rightly point out that file security and confidentiality can be a real issue; you are effectively transmitting your files (usually unencrypted) to a remote data centre protected by a single password. And you could argue that this issue is compounded by Symform then farming out the virtual data center to other individuals’ NAS drives.

Overall, I hope that Symform succeeds — they are trying something different and in theory offering a valuable free-ish service with little downside. The Synology partnership certainly strengthens its hand, while also making its NAS drives more appealing. There is bound to be a shake-up in the cloud storage market in the next 12 to 18 months; too many firms are offering free or low-cost storage with little differentiation. Symform at least has the advantage of a different infrastructure and business model.

* Of course, we’re not strictly comparing like with like here; the 2 Tb Synology set-up is offering RAID redundancy, and it could be configured as a 4 Tb storage option

Online Cloud Storage: Future Table Stakes Or Killer App?

Google has at long last officially announced Google Drive, and tech blogs are awash with comparisons to Dropbox, iCloud (slightly unfairly), SkyDrive, and other cloud storage services. The early consensus seems to be that SkyDrive just wins out in terms of free storage and incremental paid storage (particularly if, like me, you already had a SkyDrive account and opted in to the free 25 Gb capacity upgrade), while none of the main platforms support all the clients that you may have been hoping for (omitting Linux, Android, iOS, or Windows Phone depending on which platform you’re looking at).

This explosion in available online storage has looked inevitable ever since Dropbox (and several other firms) really hit home with simple desktop folder-like services that don’t try to do too much (sync calendars, offer workflow solutions, etc.). Security experts will argue about whether the encryption is up to snuff (it isn’t), but most consumers will be storing personal (non-confidential) material on there anyway.

Arguably, we’re only at day 1 of the real competition. Features (and third-party clients) will be added, the free storage amounts will (inevitably) increase over time, and different business models and audience segments will emerge — for example, services for SMB customers are already available.

The key question, though, is whether these firms can make a business out of this. In the short term, certainly — as long as they’re offering something that isn’t free elsewhere (remember those “premium” web email services that offered more storage before those limits pretty much disappeared — thanks, Google) or that has better functionality/is easier to use than the competition (Dropbox still scores well here). The problem for the pure-play offerings is that when storage becomes just another feature of Microsoft’s, Google’s, Amazon’s, or Apple’s online offerings — most of which are free or wrapped up in one easy subscription — the justification for paying separately for the service disappears.

This is where the dreadful “stickiness” term comes into play: Dropbox, ADrive, JustCloud, SugarSync, and hosts of others need to fight to make their service so attractive (or difficult to give up) that continuing to pay a reasonable fee seems the best option. But this is tricky; they can’t offer more and more storage, and erecting barriers to prevent consumers moving their files elsewhere defeats the whole object of the service. In fact, as the once-superior Dropbox client shows, any advantage is likely to be short-lived. One possible key to survival is making the storage useful to the user’s social circle, not just the user. I’m less likely to move my thrilling 4-hour video of the kids’ last birthday party if it means I have to bring the grandparents up to speed on how to register for and access a new online storage solution. Dropbox is introducing direct links to customers’ shared files, which is a nice step in this direction.* Its referral program’s offering of extra storage for each person you get to sign up has also swelled its customer ranks nicely to 50 million people – that’s a lot of people, and unlikely to decline too rapidly.

However, I’m not convinced that the best route for Dropbox and its ilk beyond the next 12 months isn’t to get bought by the likes of a Google or Microsoft looking to grow their own user base. An alternative, for the more ambitious pure plays, would be to partner into an emerging ecosystem to fight the established players; combine online storage with a social network, Twitter client, location service, and mobile data plans, and suddenly you are looking at a compelling bundle. Unfortunately, most of these other apps are free to use and already have privacy concerns, so online storage of personal files may not fit well with this. Google will have to face this challenge itself.

* (In fact, Dropbox’s official blog pretty much uses a [less cynical] word-for-word version of the previous example, which I’ve only just looked at, honest!)