Symform Lets You Back Your Data Up in “True” Cloud

by on September 10, 2012

(Image: Symform)

Last week, Seattle’s Symform held an open house to celebrate a “record year of growth, our global expansion to 150 countries, the recent closing of our Series B funding, our many new partnerships and employees,” and, well, much, much more.

There were the requisite hosted bars, scattered throughout their offices in the National Building, but also live painting and jazz. (The open house served to publicize jazz saxophonist Mark Taylor and the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra; magician Nash Fung, artists Jimmy Gersen and Joan Robbins; and the Columbia City Gallery  and SEEDArts.)

You could sample a lavender drink called the Stratosphere (based on the Aviation cocktail) and watch a projected map of the world festooned with different colored dots, some of which hopped.

The dots naturally raised the question of what Symform is. It turns out that they are a cloud storage network–a “revolutionary” one, in that they aren’t using the word “cloud” to mean “a datacenter someplace.” No, Symform’s cloud is a true cloud, a distributed data storage network that you might be tempted to shorthand as “BitTorrent for backups”–except for some critical security differences.

(When they first opened their doors in 2009, with fewer nodes, they did rely upon Amazon’s Web Services, which often enough serves to remind people of what can go wrong at datacenters.)

It’s pretty appealing once you look into it, not least because of their promise of 10 free gigabytes of data storage. As with most other peer-to-peer platforms, it begins with you downloading their software, which, when installed, allows you both to create backups and to be backed up to.

Symform puts your excess hard drive space to work storing data (previously sliced and diced) from other Symform uploaders. Above the 10 gigabytes for free, you can pay with excess bytes on your hard drive in a two-for-one trade (e.g., you get 20GB of backup in return for allocated 40GB of drive space locally to Symform–and you have to promise to keep whatever hard drive you’re using on and connected to the internet). You can also just pay for storage at 15 cents per month per gigabyte.

How on earth is this safe, you ask? Remember the mortgage crisis, where no one knew who owned (or owed) what because the original mortgages had been securitized, sliced into tranches, over and over? Symform is a little like that: Your original data is sliced up into blocks of nonsense, then encrypted. These encrypted blocks are then sliced into 96 pieces and sent to computers all over the world.

There’s built-in redundancy–you only need about 64 pieces to rebuild each data block, which covers you in case of outages or other interruptions. But this is also a level of extra security–your data isn’t all in one place. That means this isn’t Dropbox-style real-time file transfer, Symform’s Margaret Dawson noted: It’s a storage service.

It’s meant to be for data you need to hold onto, but don’t look at that often. That archive of photos from 2005, for instance. Basically–and here’s where the buy-with-bytes price point comes in–all the stuff you worry about losing due to hard drive failure but are too cheap to back up online. Symform’s application, by the way, is customizable. You can tell it to throttle back when you’re working or to power up while you’re out of the office overnight.

4 thoughts on “Symform Lets You Back Your Data Up in “True” Cloud

    • Looks like they store it as well:

      “In order for a perpetrator to compromise just one block of data, they would need to be able to identify 64 of the 96 individual Symform devices across which the block’s fragments are spread, compromise those devices, extract the fragments, and reassemble them. They would then need to obtain the randomly generated 256-bit key by breaking into Symform’s Cloud Control. Just to reassemble one file, they would need to repeat this whole process for potentially hundreds of blocks.”

  1. I wonder what happend when you turn your computer off. Or if you switch it on 4 h per day, will your data saved available during 4h per day as well ?

    • That’s why this isn’t for everyone, Calvin. You have to commit to having your computer or storage device on and connected to the internet 24/7/365. I understand that many people rely on a separate NAS device that they leave on and running, so they can shut their computer down.