Cloud Squatting – Great And Free For Users But A Big Headache For Business

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Multiple free accounts can mean unlimited cloud storage but with serious tradeoffs
Multiple free accounts can mean unlimited cloud storage but with serious tradeoffs

Almost every cloud storage service on the Internet operates using a freemium model. Anyone who signs up gets a certain amount of storage for free. When someone uses up all their free storage, they can add more for a fee. Cloud providers usually layer on a few extra features for paid customers like the ability to stream audio files or the ability to restore deleted files or older versions of documents.

With so many free options, however, it can be tempting to use multiple services simultaneously. Add files to a free Dropbox account up till the free 2GB, then create an account with Box for the next 5GB (Box’s free limit), then create a SugarSync account and on and on.

This approach, known as cloud squatting, effectively nets users unlimited free storage so long as they’re willing to play an ongoing game of musical chairs with their data. iOS and other mobile apps that can access and edit files across different services make it surprisingly easy for users to become cloud squatters – and it’s surprisingly difficult for a business or IT department to prevent or deal with cloud squatting employees.

Of course, cloud squatting isn’t without its downsides. Depending on the services that a user choose and the apps they use on a Mac, PC, or mobile device(s), some services aren’t as accessible as others. Likewise, keeping track of where specific files are stored can be a major challenge. When collaborating, users may find it even harder to keep track of shared files spread amongst multiple services and multiple users – as well as the permissions on shared files and folders.

For businesses, cloud squatting poses an even bigger problem. If users rely on multiple cloud services, business documents and data can be spread across a large mix of services, put there by multiple users, and with a range of permissions and sharing settings. Effectively, it’s a security nightmare.

Its also bad for business consistency and continuity because there can be many versions of a given document, each stored in separate personal data silos. That makes collaboration much more challenging because there’s no real way to track and manage documents as they’re worked on by even as few as two or three people. The lack of features like Track Changes in mobile productivity suites compounds the situation.

For most heavy data users, the advantage of free storage eventually reaches a limit in its ease of use – a point after which it’s just an easier and better experience to settle on a single cloud service and pay for the extra space and features.

Businesses and IT departments, however, can’t afford to wait for users to reach that conclusion (some may never reach it). While it is theoretically possible to try blocking services that cloud squatters (or even paying cloud service customers) use, doing so requires a lot of management effort (block Mac and PCs from accessing sites, restricting anyone on the network from various services, and managing mobile devices to prevent or restrict access).

While taking some steps in that direction is a sound approach, the ultimate solution is to provide users with something equivalent or better. The reason many users put work-related files into their personal clouds is that those clouds are easier to work with than what’s available in the office. If you can provide a better experience – using internal tools to create a private cloud, establishing enterprise accounts with a public cloud, or using a hybrid cloud strategy – users won’t be as likely to cloud squat with company data.

Of course, using a carrot and stick strategy – restricting access while providing a better option is going to be the most effective option.