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Symform is the World's Safest, Most Cost-Effective Cloud StorageSymform Frequently Asked Questions (and Answers too!)

When you introduce an innovative technology and make grand claims of better performance at a lower price point, people are naturally skeptical. Turning those skeptics into satisfied customers is our goal. Here you will find all the questions we get asked most and, what we hope are, complete and understandable answers.

If we've missed anything or you just want more information, please contact us for assistance.

  1. What is the best way to describe Symform?
  2. What was the inspiration behind this idea?
  3. Man, why is online storage so expensive?
  4. How does Symform avoid this?
  5. Wait a minute, if you rely on random computers worldwide, how is the data kept secure and always available?
  6. Could someone breach this security?
  7. Can we encrypt our files and manage our own keys?
  8. What about nodes failing in the network - hardware failure, power loss, user error?
  9. Could data ever be lost?
  10. How does Symform address backup?
  11. How does Symform deal with Exchange and database files like SQL?
  12. What about versioning, incrementals, differentials, etc?
  13. Does Symform mirror all the data in the folders every time we complete a backup?
  14. What is the recommended Symform configuration?
  15. Why do I need to open a port for this node?
  16. Do I need to change the settings on the router/firewall?
  17. How does contribution work?
  18. Does Symform “cordon off” this contribution folder?
  19. Can I contribute excess storage from my office or another location?
  20. What if my client has laptops?
  21. Does Symform support the Mac or Linux?
  22. How long does it take to complete the initial “seed” of data?
  23. Is Symform slow when uploading and downloading data? I notice that most online services are extremely slow.
  24. How should I think about bandwidth and the speed of moving data into the cloud?
  25. Can I manage how Symform utilizes my client's bandwidth?
  26. In the event of a disaster is there a super-fast way to recover my client's data?
  27. What is the pricing?
  28. How does licensing work?
  29. Do I have to constantly tune and manage my Symform implementation?
  30. What about compliance with HIPAA, Sarbanes-Oxley, GLB, et al?
  31. Is my client legally liable for other people's data stored in the contribution folder on his/her system? What if it's copyrighted material or illegal pornography?
  32. Is Symform green?
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1. What is the best way to describe Symform?

Symform is an online data protection and disaster recovery service. It is not a backup application. It's an offsite backup to your onsite backup system. The concept was predicated on the realization that millions of businesses have computers with an excess of inexpensive storage capacity, power running 24x7, and unlimited Internet bandwidth - especially nights and weekends. Accordingly, the Symform team has developed software that aggregates this relatively unreliable and un-trusted capacity over the Internet and has transformed it into a secure and reliable global storage system.

Symform provides you with secure, reliable, and inexpensive online storage. It is “cooperative” because you contribute local storage equal to the amount that you consume online.

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2. What was the inspiration behind this idea?

Call it upside down economics. You can buy a 1 TB USB drive (just about anywhere) for about 80 bucks. Cheap right? It will last 2-3 years give or take. Now, if you want to backup that 1 TB drive to a traditional online storage service, you would normally pay $0.40 to $4.00 per GB per month - every month. So, when you do the math on 1 TB, you would pay $400 to $4,000 per month for online storage. These economics simply don't make sense - especially for SMBs. Symform decided that there must be a better way.

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3. Man, why is online storage so expensive?

No big mystery here. Data center capital investment and operating expenses are unbelievably oppressive. About 85% of data center costs are sunk into power consumption, real estate, and Internet bandwidth. As you know, prices for power continue to rise due to worldwide energy demand. And you can't just have one data center in that business. You need two in order to keep data safe and secure.

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4. How does Symform avoid this?

We don't require data centers to store data. We are aggregating the millions of computers all over the world (they become Symform “nodes”) that run power 24/7, have excess local storage capacity, and have reliable Internet access. In short, we decided to create the world's largest “global storage system.” You and your clients are the cloud. A bit out of the box, right?

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5. Wait a minute, if you rely on random computers worldwide, how is the data kept secure and always available?

This is the million dollar question. We assume that all Symform nodes are insecure and unreliable. This is the basic foundation of our architecture. We address this by encrypting the data using the 256-bit Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) at source. AES has been sanctioned by the NSA and adopted by the U.S. federal government. We then divide the encrypted data into 64MB blocks. Each block is then shredded in 64 1MB fragments. Then, we add 32 parity fragments to every block using an error correction algorithm called Reed-Solomon. These resulting 96 encrypted fragments are then distributed randomly to 96 nodes within the Symform Storage Cloud. We call this RAID-96TM.

If you are interested in exactly how we shred data (or if you just need something to put you to sleep), please read How Symform Processes and Stores Data

How Symform Processes and Stores Data

If you are the type who just has to know all the details, here is the nitty-gritty of how we process your data at source, before it leaves to be distributed into the Symform Cooperative Storage Cloud:

  1. Files are divided into 64MB blocks. If the file is 64MB or less then it fits into 1 block. If the file is not a multiple of 64MB, its last block would be less than 64MB.
  2. The block is encrypted using the 256-bit Advanced Encryption Standard (AES). The encryption algorithm internally pads up the block that is not a multiple of 256 bits (32 bytes) up to the next multiple of 256.
  3. Each encrypted block is divided (shredded) into data fragments. Here there are two cases – blocks less than 256K and blocks larger than 256K.
    1. Blocks less than 256K
      • Data fragments are generated in 4K chunks. If the block is less than multiple of 4K, it will be padded with zeros to make it a 4K multiple.
      • After padding, a 4K block will generate 1 data fragment. An 8K block will generate 2 data fragments and so on. A 256K block will generate 64 data fragments.
    2. Blocks greater than 256K
      • Always gets padded to the next 256K multiple. (e.g. 512K,768K,… 64MB.)
      • Always generate 64 data fragments. The size of the fragment depends on the padded block size. A 256K block generates 64 4K fragments, a 512K block generates 64 8K fragments and a 64MB block generates 64 1MB fragments.
  4. The number of error correcting fragments that are added depends on the number of data fragments. This table outlines how error correcting fragments are computed:
Data Fragments Error Fragments Total Fragments Redundancy Data Fragments Error Fragments Total Fragments Redundancy
1 7 8 8.00 33 26 58 1.81
2 8 10 5.00 34 27 61 1.79
3 9 12 4.00 35 27 62 1.77
4 10 14 3.50 36 27 63 1.75
5 11 16 3.20 37 28 65 1.76
6 11 17 2.83 38 28 66 1.74
7 12 19 2.71 39 29 68 1.74
8 13 21 2.63 40 29 69 1.73
9 14 23 2.56 41 30 71 1.73
10 14 24 2.40 42 30 72 1.71
11 15 26 2.36 43 31 74 1.72
12 15 27 2.25 44 31 75 1.70
13 16 29 2.23 45 31 76 1.69
14 17 31 2.21 46 32 78 1.70
15 17 32 2.13 47 32 79 1.68
16 18 34 2.13 48 33 81 1.69
17 18 35 2.06 49 33 82 1.67
18 19 37 2.06 50 34 84 1.68
19 19 38 2.00 51 34 85 1.67
20 20 40 2.00 52 34 86 1.65
21 20 41 1.95 53 35 88 1.66
22 21 43 1.95 54 35 89 1.65
23 21 44 1.91 55 36 91 1.65
24 22 46 1.92 56 36 92 1.64
25 22 47 1.88 57 36 93 1.63
26 23 49 1.88 58 37 95 1.64
27 23 50 1.85 59 37 96 1.63
28 24 52 1.86 60 38 98 1.63
29 24 53 1.83 61 38 99 1.62
30 25 55 1.83 62 38 100 1.61
31 25 56 1.81 63 39 102 1.62
32 26 58 1.81 64 39 103 1.61

What does all this mean?

  1. Smaller blocks incur more redundancy overhead to ensure the same level of availability compared to larger blocks. They are small blocks so redundancy overhead isn’t much of a concern anyway. The more significant issue here tends to be the communication overhead associated with transferring small fragments.
  2. A very small file (e.g. less than 4K) may be completely inside a single data fragment and therefore in theory its contents are protected by encryption only and not by dispersal across nodes. In practice this doesn’t matter as much because the information about which file is associated with which data fragment and where that data fragment is located is stored separate from the data fragment itself – in Symform’s cloud control. So, an attacker would have to identify a file and break into Symform to find out where its fragments are located. After this, they would have to actually have access to at least one of those fragments to be able reconstruct the encrypted contents. Last, and certainly not least, they would have to break the 256-AES encryption.
If any of this creates real concerns then following our recommended guidance around generating local backups (archives) would “pack” lots of small files into a large backup/archive file and Symform will store the large file using large blocks which will be dispersed across multiple nodes.
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6. Could someone breach this security?

Not bloody likely. It would require the right 64 people to find each other then “collude” to re-construct a single block of encrypted data. Just a single encrypted block. Then they would have to break the military-grade 256 AES encryption, of course. Finally, you have to repeat this process for each of the other blocks of the file with a new set of 64 people and a new key! The probability of a breach is infinitesimally small.

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7. Can we encrypt our files and manage our own keys?

Sure. You can encrypt the data before Symform ever sees it. Your choice.

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8. What about nodes failing in the network - hardware failure, power loss, user error?

Again, we assume nodes will fail. Symform operates a service called “Cloud Control” which lives within Amazon Web Services. Cloud Control monitors the uptime of all nodes continuously. If a node fails (it doesn't call home on schedule), we regenerate the lost fragments (remember the 32 parity fragments?) then re-locate them to other operating nodes.

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9.Could data ever be lost?

In our RAID-96 system, 33 nodes (the right ones) would have to simultaneously fail for data loss to occur. The probability of this happening is infinitesimal. For comparison, a RAID-5 system allows for only 1 disk failure and is considered highly reliable.

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10. How does Symform address backup?

Symform is not a backup application. We're an offsite backup to your onsite backup. You may use any backup application (e.g. StorageCraft, NT Backup, Backup Exec, et al) that you prefer. Once you make a local backup and store it on an internal disk or USB drive, you point Symform at the folder(s) that hold the local backup files. These are the folders that get “mirrored” into the Symform Cooperative Storage Cloud.

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11. How does Symform deal with Exchange and database files like SQL?

Again, your backup application should be designed to gracefully manage these files. Symform will mirror the backup files into the storage cloud.

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12. What about versioning, incrementals, differentials, etc?

Your backup software and standard procedures will govern how, what, and on what schedule you backup your data. Symform will mirror the resulting backup files to the storage cloud.

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13. Does Symform mirror all the data in the folders every time we complete a backup?

Symform continuously monitors changes in your local backup folders. It “de-dupes” automatically at the block level. So, only those blocks that have changed are mirrored into the cloud. This makes it very efficient and fast.

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14. What is the recommended Symform configuration?

There are a lot of options, but here's a typical scenario:

  1. Designate one computer to be the Symform node. Download the Symform software to this node.
  2. Point Symform at the folder(s) that hold your local backup files. The folder(s) can be anywhere on the LAN. Symform just needs a Windows UNC (universal naming convention) path to locate them.
  3. Designate a “contribution folder” on a drive somewhere on the LAN. This could be an internal disk, a NAS drive, USB drive, etc.
  4. Open a port (on your firewall) for this node so that Symform can identify where to place encrypted fragments from other nodes.
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15. Why do I need to open a port for this node?

It is necessary for the Symform Contribution service to listen on a port for incoming traffic (encrypted fragments coming in from other nodes). This port is picked randomly (or you can choose your own) to ensure that it is not identical across all nodes in the network in order to protect against port scanning attacks.

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16. Do I need to change the settings on the router/firewall?

Yes. This is very important. You must configure a port mapping rule on the edge firewall to allow inbound traffic to this port. This is very easy to do. The External Port on the mapping rule MUST match what is configured here. If port number selected is already in use by another application, you need to select a different port number. The rule should allow traffic from ANY external IP address. The Internal IP address should be of the machine on which Symform Node is configured - we therefore recommend using a static IP address for the computer running Symform Node software.

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17. How does contribution work?

This is very simple. You contribute local storage equal to the amount you consume in the cloud. Since our model creates a 1.5X redundancy (remember 32 fragments are added to every 64), a 100 GB backup would consume 150 GB of online storage in the Symform Storage Cloud. Therefore, you would need to have 150 GB of available storage for contribution. This folder can be on any storage device on the LAN that you desire. The minimum contribution requirement is 10GB. The minimum up time percentage of a contributing node is 80%.

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18. Does Symform “cordon off” this contribution folder?

No. Symform won't “lock” this space so that it is unavailable for normal use. Should Symform find that there isn't an adequate amount of space available in the contribution folder, it will send a notification to the email address provided. We provide a grace period for the customer to remedy the situation.

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19. Can I contribute excess storage from my office or another location?

Yes. A feature called “Flexible Contribution” enables you to contribute storage and bandwidth from another node or nodes. You are able to set-up additional storage in your office (or co-lo) so that your clients won't have to manage this. You'll also be able to "pool" resources and contribute from multiple nodes that you have organized in a Symform resource group -- example: your client has multiple offices and wants to contribute from more than one on behalf of the entire group.

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20. What if my client has laptops?

Symform's software runs on a laptop where it can continuously sync data from the laptop to the Symform Storage Cloud. Since laptops aren't frequently in the office or tethered to the Internet, the Flexible Contribution function makes it easy for a laptop node to be “sync only” and contribute storage from another node or nodes in a Symform resource group.

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21. Does Symform support the Mac or Linux?

Not presently. We will add support for these clients in a future release.

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22. How long does it take to complete the initial “seed” of data?

This depends upon two things: the amount of data and the speed of available bandwidth. If your client has slow bandwidth, you can copy their data to a portable storage device (e.g. a USB drive) then do the initial seed (via a temporary node) from a location with faster bandwidth. Your office, a colo facility, or wherever. Once the data is seeded, you can install/configure a permanent node at your client's office then begin to upload changes. Pointers from this new node to the data that you uploaded from the temporary node will be created automatically. Remember, Symform automatically de-dupes the data that is already in the cloud.

If would prefer for Symform to seed your data for you, click here to learn more.

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23. Is Symform slow when uploading and downloading data? I notice that most online services are extremely slow.

Symform creates up to 96 parallel channels up and down so throughput is extremely fast. This is a key architectural benefit. Unlike traditional online services, we don't use one pipe for thousands of customers. We also don't throttle or pay for bandwidth. Traditional online services throttle bandwidth intentionally in order to avoid paying expensive peak bandwidth rates in data centers.

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24. How should I think about bandwidth and the speed of moving data into the cloud?

Most bandwidth is asymmetric - example: 2mb/sec up and 10mb/sec. Your up-link is your most precious resource. The table below will give you a basic understanding of how much data you can move offsite in one day and one week.

BW in Business Hours (10hrs) BW in Off Hours (14hrs) 1 Day Max 1 Week Max
384Kbps 768Kbps 4GB 32GB
1.5Mbps 2Mbps 12GB 90GB
4Mbps 5Mbps 32GB 230GB
9Mbps 10Mbps 50GB 350GB

This table shows the recommended full backup schedule based on data set size and bandwidth available

Data Set Size Bandwidth Available
  <=1Mbps <10Mbps >=10Mbps
<=50GB Total, <50MB/Day Monthly Weekly Weekly
<=500GB Total, <1GB/Day Quarterly Monthly Weekly
>500GB Total, <5GB/Day N/A Quarterly Monthly
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25. Can I manage how Symform utilizes my client's bandwidth?

Yes. There are controls to manage when Symform operates. For example, you may set Symform to operate during non business hours. Think about how much resource you have during nights and weekends.

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26. In the event of a disaster is there a super-fast way to recover my data?

You are able to restore your data extremely fast using the current system. Of course, this depends on the available download bandwidth at the restore site or at another facility.

In addition, the “Instant Restore” feature enables you to sync a Symform node (your data) to the Symform Storage Cloud and simultaneously sync it with another node -- like one in a second office, an employees home, or in a co-lo facility. This way, the data is always "hot" and ready to be restored immediately should a disaster occur. Full restore times of a few hours instead of a few days are now achievable.

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27. What is the pricing?

We have two flavors of pricing. Our most popular is our contribution pricing model, which is a flat-fee per month, per machine being backed up. This is for unlimited data. That's right, no per GB charges! This model assumes you are exchanging an equal amount of local storage to that you consume in the cloud.

For customers who cannot or wish not to exchange local storage, we offer a non-contribution pricing model.

If you are a customer interested in using Symform please see our Corporate Pricing Program.

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28. How does licensing work?

The Symform software is generally only downloaded to one system per site (a node). That system is a repository for local backups which are then mirrored to the Symform Storage Cloud. Every computer that is backed-up (that is, data on the computer is being placed in the cloud) requires a license. It's all about the source of the data.

Example: You have 10 desktops and 2 servers being backed up locally. Their local backup data resides on a seperate desktop which acts as the Symform node. This desktop is not being backed up. In this scenario, the Symform node requires 10 desktop licenses and 2 server licenses.

Note: “contribution-only” nodes do not pay a license fee

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29. Do I have to constantly tune and manage my Symform implementation?

No. Once it is implemented, it is set-and-forget. You will receive regular reports and alerts in email from the service communicating the status of your customer nodes. You can also log into the Symform Dashboard to get real-time status of your nodes.

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30. What about compliance with HIPAA, Sarbanes-Oxley, GLB, et al?

Yes, we comply with these regulations. By implementing the best practices for onsite data backup using a mature, 3rd party local backup application of your choice and combining it with automatic mirroring of the local backups into the secure, redundant, geo‐distributed Symform Storage Cloud, customers are able to meet the various compliance requirements as follows:

  • Backup files are encrypted locally using federally certified 256-bit AES encryption before any transmission of the data.
  • Encrypted data are redundantly geo‐distributed using RAID 96™ technology to prevent data loss, tampering, alteration, or unauthorized access.
  • Data is available 24x7 via a broadband connection.
  • When needed, data are recoverable by authorized personnel only at authorized locations like the customer premises or an authorized service provider premises using secure, randomly-generated security credentials.

Please refer to our section on HIPAA compliance for more information.

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31. Is my client legally liable for other people's data stored in the contribution folder on his/her system? What if it's copyrighted material or illegal pornography?

No. The law is very clear about this. Please refer to the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the U.S. Communications Decency Act for more detailed information. The legal test within these statutes is whether a person is storing illegal data “knowingly.” Since Symform is encrypting then shredding data into fragments, there is no way for anyone to know what is contained in the data stored in their contribution folder.

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32. Is Symform green?

Very. We don't operate massive data centers. We leverage the existing power consumption of computers worldwide. That's as green as Kermit the Frog.