The Amazon cloud services outage that knocked out several popular Websites last week raised questions about the reliability of the cloud, but the general consensus is that it works if you plan for failure. Like any good business plan, a good cloud plan should include provisions for failure, including plans B and C, and plenty of backups.
The majority of advice coming out of this particular outage is focused on redundancy, multiple data centers, and failure plans. Setting up (or even buying into) multiple data centers may not be possible when you're a smaller business, but you can plan against failure and keep redundant local backups in addition to your cloud storage so that you will always have access, even when the cloud goes out.
Cloud backup services are great. They provide easy and inexpensive offsite storage for your data. But what if you need your data right now, and Internet access is slow or down? Make sure to choose a cloud service with a good companion desktop application that will sync local copies of your files with the cloud. It's important to hang on to those local copies. Check out some of the best online storage services for small business, and take note of which ones have good desktop clients. These tools will allow you to work with local versions of your files, syncing changes back up to the cloud, and down again to collaborators.
Google Docs used to offer this feature through Google Gears, but has since turned it off with promises of bringing it back implemented in HTML5. That will be nice, but what about now? The Google Cloud Connect plug-in for Microsoft Office syncs local Office files to Google's servers. (There's also Google Apps Sync for Microsoft Outlook.)
And BusyDocs offers a simple way to keep and edit local versions of your Google Docs files, while syncing you changes back up to the cloud. It is for Windows only, however, and temporarily unavailable while they work on major changes for the new version.
Syncplicty is a more robust tool that runs on both Macs and Windows PCs, as well as syncing with file servers and Google Docs. There are also iPhone and Android apps available for data access from smartphones. Syncplicity has more tools for multi-user and collaborative environments also. They store your data centrally on their servers, in addition to the local copies on your machine, making for a decent backup system when the cloud is up.
Microsoft provides many cloud-syncing services that leave you with local copies as well. OneNote works especially well with notes that can sync to the cloud. Changes push almost instantly across multiple machines connected to the same cloud-synced notebook, and the notebooks remain fully function offline. There is also a new OneNote app for the iPhone, in addition to the Windows Phone 7 app, which will let you view notebooks from a handset. Unfortunately, neither the iPhone app nor the Web app will display ink notes. If you like to take notes in ink, you'll need the Windows desktop application to view them.
Then of course, there's also Evernote, which runs on PCs, Macs, iPhones, iPads, Android phones and tablets, and maybe even your toaster -- OK, maybe not the last one. Evernote is a great tool if you find yourself needing access to information on a variety of different platforms. You can share Notes, although you'll need a premium account to allow others to edit them. Browser extensions for IE, Firefox, Chrome, and Safari will take Web clippings straight into a new note. You can also create audio, video, picture, and text notes from anywhere. The Windows client also has an ink notes option -- with notes that are still viewable on the mobile versions, unlike OneNote's ink notes.
You still need to back up files locally for the sake of redundancy. Cloud backups are one great way to make sure your files are safely off of your computer in case something happens to it, but it's also good to have quick access to local hard drives that also contain copies of your files. (Read more about backup strategies to organize your data based on the size and type of backup solutions you'll need to keep them safe.)
For simple file backups, all you need is an external drive and some good backup software. In case you need a full system image, check out this article on cloning your hard drive. When you need more space than current hard drives offer, or simply want the safety of redundancy, consider a RAID set up, or a NAS system if you trust your local network more than the cloud.
The cloud offers many advantages, such as syncing data across multiple machines and platforms, collaboration among multiple users, and easy to use off-site backups. But when the cloud goes down you need redundancy, redundancy, redundancy. Make sure that everything you trust to the cloud, you also keep a hold of locally.
When all else fails, you can always just step away from the computer, walk over to the coffee shop, grab some caffeine and snacks, and just hang out with people until cloud access returns.
Michelle Mastin has been a freelance musician and teacher since leaving conservatories five years ago, and a hobby nerd for all of her 30 years. Watch classical music and gadgets collide at her blog, or follow her on Twitter @violajack.