Crowd-sourced storage service charges bytes instead of bucks

Symform adds home office users and smaller businesses to its customer list

Peer-to-peer cloud storage vendor Symform today announced it is offering unlimited online capacity to customers who pay by contributing local disk capacity instead of money.

Symform uses a crowd-sourcing strategy to create a virtual pool of capacity through the use of peer-to-peer technology.

In 2009, when Symform launched its Cooperative Storage Cloud service, it sold mainly to resellers, who paid $15 a month for unlimited capacity and could then offer that pool of capacity to customers as an off-site disaster recovery backup service.

Symform's new cloud storage model is targeted to small office and home office users as well as small- and medium-sized businesses. And it's asking those business to contribute their storage capacity at a 2:1 ratio in order to receive the service. That means a user must contribute 2GB of space for every 1GB used.

Users can also simply pay for needed capacity through three service level plans.

Symform's professional plan costs $14.99 per month for 300GB of capacity with phone support during business hours; its business plan costs $49.99 for 1TB of capacity for up to two users with priority phone and email support; and a Premier Plan costs $199.99 for 4TB of capacity for up to five users with 24-hour phone and email support seven days a week.

The service plans can also apply to users who choose to contribute storage capacity to the pool instead of paying.

For example, the Premier Plan requires users to contribute at least 4TB of capacity to the universal pool.

Symform's desktop management interface

Alternatively, customers can pay 15 cents per gigabyte per month for Symform's cloud backup service. So if they're already contributing 1TB of capacity and they are using more than 500GB of the universal pool (based on Symform's 2:1 ratio) they are charged 15 cents for each gigabyte over and above that 500GB.

The concept of a distributed and disparate storage cloud is not new. More than a decade ago, for example, the University of California's OceanStore project was based on the concept that information could be broken down into many parts, assigned a unique metadata identification tag, encrypted and then randomly stored on systems throughout the world. MIT has a similar project, called Chord, in beta. Symform's cloud storage technology model is similar.

What's different about Symform's concept is the business model -- using small and midsize companies' spare capacity to keep costs down while offering a disparate, yet cooperative, data storage cloud.

Dave Simpson, an analyst at 451 Research, said Symform stands out from other online cloud storage providers because of its value proposition.

"This is an intriguing value proposition that could bring costs even lower while providing higher performance and security via a cloud network where data is distributed globally," he said. "And Symform's growth figures prove that end users and channel resellers are receptive to the concept."

Symform's software backs up any new or changed files to its peer-to-peer cloud. The storage capacity is distributed across the Internet from users in 150 countries.

When Symform accesses local capacity from a PC for its universal storage pool, its software takes blocks of up to 64MB in size and breaks them into 96 fragments. It then uses either a RAID 5 or RAID 6 parity, depending on the service plan, to protect that data in those fragments. The company uses AES 256-bit encryption to secure the storage capacity it uses.

Symform requires users to download with it calls "light backup software" that establishes its data backup service on an array, server, desktop or laptop computer. The backup application also allows users to designate drive capacity in the form of a folder for Symform's universal cloud pool. As a customer increases their use of Symform's cloud capacity, they can in turn increase the size of the folder designated for Symform's cloud pool by using a sliding bar icon.

"That helps us build excess capacity in our storage network and we can then monetize that through other users who may not contribute storage capacity but instead pay for it," said Praerit Garg is President and Co-Founder of Symform. "It allows us to create a storage marketplace, if you will, to monetize that."

Garg makes the pitch that it's far cheaper for someone to buy a 2TB hard drive for about $80 and then share that capacity with the pool than to pay to backup 2TB through a service. For example, MozyPro charges $379.99 a month to back up 1TB of capacity.

"At the end of the day, backup just turns out to be a risk/cost analysis. The other choice is to buy your own backup drive," Garg said.

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed. His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

See more by Lucas Mearian on Computerworld.com.

Read more about cloud storage in Computerworld's Cloud Storage Topic Center.

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