Symform: A cloudy backup option?

I got an e-mail yesterday about Symform, a new online backup storage service. The description of the service reminded me of SETI@Home, which leveraged the Internet to let thousands of personal computers around the world mine extraterrestrial signals in their spare time. Rather than using extra CPU cycles, Symform seeks to take advantage of unused storage space. You lend your extra space to Symform, and in return other Symform users lend their space to you. Everyone wins (at least in theory) because the data is stored off-site, protecting you in case of complete on-site facility failure. The cost per GB of using Symform would be much less than that of other online backup providers, because Symform doesn’t have to buy disk drives or pay for the electricity to keep them running. All Symform has to do is manage the traffic between machines.

I don’t know why I’m so much more skeptical of having backup data stored in this fashion than I am in having it stored within a large data center, but for some reason this notion just gives me the creeps. It’s just too easy for me to imagine scenarios in which I discover, just as it’s time for me to restore from backup, that the Symform subscribers who are housing my data have decided they no longer want to participate.

Am I reacting too negatively? Is this actually a brilliant idea that small businesses should strongly consider? I invite your comments.

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  1. Posted March 3, 2010 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    I had a similar reaction when I was first introduced to Symform. But when I talked to them I realized something important – the first premise is that we can’t trust where our data is stored. That’s a very important premise from which to start and I’m not aware of any other backup storage method that starts from that premise.

    So building from there, they created a highly redundant, encrypted storage system and using the cloud via Amazon Web Services they found a way to cut the cost of data storage and improve data recovery times.

    1. We can’t trust where we store our data. Disks fail. An unauthorized person might get hold of our data. Symform breaks your data into 1mb chunks, then they encrypt it, then they send that 1mb out to 32 different locations for RAID-96 redundancy. Then they move to the next 1mb and repeat the process. Each megabyte is uniquely stored over an ever growing array of disks.

    2. When they come around to your usergroup be sure to ask about data duplication. They are de-duplicating data through the whole shared cloud. My mind bends at the concept.

    3. Time to recover data is greatly reduced. This is a big problem for cloud storage of data. If you’ve ever tried to get you 300GB of data back from any of the services you know what I mean. It just takes a very long time. Symform reduces this time by taking advantage of using the download speed on your own Internet service. When you request data back from the Symform cloud each 1mb piece is going to come back from a unique location (or as unique as the algorythym can manage). This is an upload for that person. They are uploading data to you. Upload is the slow side of ISP service, so minimizing that to 1mb is a good thing. It won’t run into bandwidth issues on the side of the storage. On your end, you are downloading many 1mb pieces of data, but that’s OK, they are small and coming from many locations and you are using big end of your ISP service to do it.

    It’s an interesting service and one worth looking into deeply.

  2. John
    Posted January 11, 2011 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    We looked at and tested Symform because we thought the concept would be worthwhile. The problem is that the software puts an intense load on your servers and your bandwidth and if you are running a server that is more than a year or two old, it will cripple it tremendously. After 3-4 months of trying it out where their technicians could not figure out why it was crashing their servers, they actually asked us to not use the service because it was taking too much of their support time. Honestly, unless they improve this service greatly, I would stay away.

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