Analysis: Rackspace Beats Google, Microsoft At Hosted Storage

Unveiled last week, Rackspace's Cloud Drive provides a quick, easy-to-deploy solution for "cloud-based" storage and file backup. Here are the basics: At a price of $4 per month, per user, Rackspace will offer a company or workgroup 10 GB of file storage per user. Using the interface of the Jungle Disk Workgroup Activity Manager (Jungle Disk is a Rackspace subsidiary), files can be managed and backups can be scheduled and tailored to a specific need. From a desktop or server, the files are copied onto Rackspace's storage infrastructure where they can be managed or retrieved.

Some takeaways from a look at Cloud Drive from the CRN Test Center:

It's simple to set up and deploy, taking about 15 minutes from signing up for the service and scheduling regular backups of specific folders on a PC.

The syncing and sharing features work for the most part. One overnight, scheduled backup failed with this message:

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"Unknown SSL protocol error in connection to [] Error Location: JungleHTTP.cpp:825 JungleHTTP::MakeRequest via JXRTransport.cpp:634 JDGatewayConnection::ExecuteAsyncThread"

A manual backup of the same folder was successful without rebooting the desktop, the server or the network. (It may have been other, overnight scheduled system activity that caused a conflict.) On two other nights, scheduled backups took place with no problems.

The Jungle Disk Workgroup Activity Monitor is a desktop application; it did require a system reboot to start. However, over the past week Rackspace launched a beta version of a Web interface to this service for file access. It appears to work fine.

Unlike other offerings, Rackspace provides security in the form of AES-256 encryption -- a smart move that may make the service more attractive to those with compliance concerns.

Overall, the experience using the Rackspace cloud-based storage and backup wasn't perfect, but it was good. Importantly, it's been delivered to market in a better fashion for smaller enterprises in a much more useful way than Google has arranged its online storage, which is delivered through its Picasa photo-album app and Gmail, or through Microsoft's lackluster Sky Drive. The ability to schedule backups and perform system restorations inside the Rackspace offering -- in addition to the company's functionality that allows employees to sync and share files across the network -- puts it to the head of the line over its two larger rivals in the cloud.

It should be noted that Google recently increased its storage offering to 20 GB of online capacity for $5 per year, shared between Picasa and Gmail, with as much as a full terabyte of storage available to those willing to pay $256 per year. But Google lacks the syncing, sharing and administrative functions of Rackspace.

Also know that Microsoft has made some improvements to Sky Drive since the product first launched, including the ability to share files with people accepted into a personal network. And, while Sky Drive offers a maximum of 25 GB of storage for free, it also lacks the automation tools provided by Rackspace. And Sky Drive still has a gawky and awkward design and Web-based layout.

Here's a quick Tale of the Tape:

Capacity and Price: Rackspace offers 10 GB of capacity that can be shared between colleagues for $4 per month per user; Google offers 8 to 10 GB for free or 20 GB for $5 for one year; Microsoft offers 25 GB for free on Sky Drive.

Automation: Rackspace's Jungle Disk offers scheduled backup to its cloud service; Google and Microsoft provide no automation tools.

Collaboration: Rackspace allows for syncing and collaboration among colleagues via its desktop console; Google storage is limited to sharing provided in Gmail or Picasa; Sky Drive allows for link and file sharing between users on a personal network.

Security: Google and Microsoft provide password-protected access to accounts; Rackspace provides password protection and AES-256 encryption.

Availability: One Rackspace scheduled backup failed over the course of several days; Gmail has experienced several high-profile outages this year; Sky Drive has been largely available with varying amounts of latency.

While not free, like Google's storage or Sky Drive, Rackspace's service provides nice automation and administration and management tools. Packaged with Rackspace's hosted e-mail offering, it puts the company right in the game with the industry giants and should be on the map for small businesses considering moving partially or slowly to a cloud-based IT model. It's not perfect, but marks a solid start for Rackspace as the industry stands at the threshold of the cloud era.

The bottom line: Free, online storage for the masses has been available for almost 15 years, since Yahoo introduced its now-defunct "Briefcase" service. Google and Microsoft continue to tweak and improve what they have in the market, but Rackspace has gone the extra distance to make its Cloud Drive offering not only user-friendly but business-friendly as well. Improvements to Cloud Drive should be expected over time, but for now it is outflanking two of its biggest rivals.