We all have a list of things we know we should do but never quite get around to. I'll bet backing up, or saving copies of the files on your computer, is one of those items.
I’m supposedly a technology expert, but when my own computer started making whiny noises on cold mornings and I sensed I might be headed for trouble, locating my external hard drive and a USB cable was just a little too much hassle. Even though I’ve lost weeks of work by failing to back up data and know the importance of doing so, I still regarded that as the job of an IT department, not something I did at home.
This time I finally got smart, followed my own advice, and turned to the cloud.
Cloud Pros and Cons
Most simply put, the “cloud” is a cyber warehouse where you can store your data as a backup system. Clouds are hosted by large companies on the Internet, rather than by you personally on the hard drive of your personal computer. It’s like keeping your excess junk in a self-storage unit rather than in your attic.
When the phenomenon begin, in 1999, there were just a handful of cloud services; today there are probably hundreds. They’re similar in that they store large amounts of data online, but they differ in how much you can store, whether they’ll automatically synchronize with changes you make on your hard drive, how much they cost, and how secure the service is.
Storing data in the cloud is simple. Once you choose your service, you simply go to the site, create a password and, following prompts, upload your files by selecting them in the cloud storage site’s menu. When you want to access them, you go back to the site or use its downloadable application and your password to access your files.
Cloud storage is infinitely superior to home-storage because any physical piece of hardware (your computer or a stick drive) is likely to crash — some technies say it’s a question of when, not if. The one reliable exception is an external hard drive. Even if you’re lucky enough to avoid a crash, laptops, stick drives and external drives can still be lost, damaged or stolen. But you can’t lose your cloud, where a tremendous amount of data can live forever.
The down side? Aside from the fee, if the host’s server were ever hacked or you’re tricked or phished into revealing your password, your personal documents could end up on a pirate bulletin board in the more lawless reaches of the Internet. Or if you didn’t have Internet access, you couldn’t access your data (with most cloud services).
Different Kinds of Clouds
Dropbox: This free, easy-to-use cloud storage system has been around since September 2008. It operates on all your computing devices — desktop, laptop, smart phone and tablet — and automatically syncs changes you make to files on your hard drive with those in the cloud. The smart phone app allows you to upload and view your files from anywhere.
The catch? You get only 2GB of storage free, which is probably enough for vital documents, but not for a load of digital music and photos. More space (up to 50GB) is available for $10 a month. On the plus side, this is a great file-sharing system for families or small offices because it lets everyone with access make changes to files. While the company has experienced security breaches in the past, these have since been fixed, and the site is considered very reliable generally.
Google Docs: Google has long led the way in vertical integration: Your email goes to gmail, photos and videos to Picasa, and office documents to Google Docs. Gmail gives users more than 7GB space of free storage space, but Picasa and Docs offer a mere 1GB of file space each. (More space is available for a fee: typically $50 yearly for 200GB.)
Google wants you to keep everything in its cloud — the better to bombard you with targeted ads — and even though you can set up the system to work “offline” to allow you to store and synchronize files on your own hard drive, it’s awkwardly done. The advantage to working in the Google cloud, as you do with Gmail, is you can do your editing on any machine, via any Web browser. It's also possible to share documents with other users, letting them view and/or edit the files for collaborative working.
Google is generally safe and reliable, but even it experiences the very rare outage, when the site is not available (despite your working Internet connection). And while the site has been hacked in the past, it's incredibly rare.
Apple iCloud: If you own an iPhone, an iPad or a Mac computer, using iCloud is practically a no-brainer. It automatically backs up your calendar, mail, contacts, music, photos, videos and documents to one place on Apple’s servers and is shared across all your Apple devices. As everything with Apple, it’s super-easy to use, if not massively flexible.
You need to monitor your storage closely. Beyond the initial free 5GB of storage, because iCloud is synced with your phone, the last 1,000 photos taken on your phone camera are automatically uploaded to the site's Photo Stream and stored for 30 days. If you want to keep any pictures permanently — or do any photo editing — you just manually save them in another place (your Camera Roll). Books and music purchased through them are stored for free. An additional 50GB extra costs $100 yearly.
The catch? If you don’t use Pages or Apple’s word processing, spreadsheets or other office programs, then you'll need to convert every single file you want stored online (from, say, Microsoft Word or Excel)—which is, frankly, a pain.
Amazon CloudDrive: This simple online locker gives users 5GB of free storage, and after that it’s just $1 per GB per year. But it’s only a storage locker. While you can put anything in it manually, it doesn't automatically synchronize. So if you make changes to a letter written on your hard drive, you have to remember to save those changes across to your CloudDrive account, too.
Microsoft Windows Live SkyDrive: This gives you 25GB of free storage on Microsoft’s safe servers, with up to 5GB of that automatically synched with your hard drive files by the Windows Live Mesh application. As with Dropbox, SkyDrive lets you share files with others and choose whether individuals can just view or also edit each shared file. It’s not as simple to use as Dropbox, but you get a lot more storage for free — and it can be used on almost any smart phone.
Other cloud types: The cloud world is expanding daily, and it’s no longer just the domain of the big server companies. These smaller companies, like SOS Online Backup Home Edition, Norton Online Backup or Nomadesk, sometimes offer more features for the money, and some people believe they’re less likely to attract the attention of hackers.
Each cloud service has its pros and cons, and which you choose is a matter of personal preference. Me, I went with Google, because it also hosts my emails, calendar and data, which means I only need to remember one password.
Simon Munk (www.simonmunk.co.uk) is an award-winning technology journalist based in London.
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