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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Using Cloud Storage: Benefits and choices

In this Digital age, everyone stores their data electronically. From Office files to Home Videos to Photo Albums to Music collections, most of us tuck them away safely in our Computers in nice electronic packages: Kb's, Mb's, Gb's, etc.....
This "Electronic space" is often located on "Physical" Devices, such as your PC or your External  Hard disk drive (HDD). These traditional "Physical" means of storage are limited in terms of the devices you possess (ie disk space), the quality of those devices, and their presence (meaning, will you have those devices handy when you need your data?).

Enter the "Cloud"
What is the "Cloud"? The term as used in "Cloud Storage" is a metaphor for the INTERNET...
What it basically means is that your data will be stored, not in any traditional physical device you own, but rather on the world wide web. In the end it is still stored physically of course, backed up on the date server of the Cloud Storage Provider. But what it means for You, is that somebody else is taking the responsibility of keeping your data, and will have it ready and available for you anywhere and anytime you want it. Also, these Providers will almost certainly have more reliable Physical storage hardware and back-up systems than Us, the regular consumer.

What is Cloud Storage? How Cloud Storage Works

At its most basic level, a cloud storage system needs just one data server connected to the Internet. A client (e.g., a computer user subscribing to a cloud storage service) sends copies of files over the Internet to the data server, which then records the information. When the client wishes to retrieve the information, he or she accesses the data server through a Web-based interface. The server then either sends the files back to the client or allows the client to access and manipulate the files on the server itself. 

An Illustration of How Cloud Storage works. Your actual data is only stored in 2 devices, the Device you created it on and uploaded it from (PC/Mobile/etc.) and the Server of the Cloud Storage Provider. 

Now lets check the Pros and Cons of Cloud Storage

Benefits and advantages of using Cloud storage
  1. Mobility - How convenient would it be to be carrying around your files without carrying your devices? With Cloud storage, you can access your data from any PC/PDA that has an  internet connection. Put your music collection online from your PC and listen to it from your laptop or PDA. Save contacts, notes, meeting files on your Laptop or PDA, and view it on your PC. Go on vacation, and if you need to access an important file, look for an internet cafe.
  2. Accessibility  - The data is shared among all your selected devices and selected people. So once you save your work on the cloud from your PC for example, you don't need to transfer it to all your other devices, and you don't even need to send it to all the people you want to, just give them access to the file from your Cloud.
  3. Space saver - Since the data is uploaded onto the Cloud, then it is not taking up storage space in any of your devices (except where the file was originally created of course, unless you delete it). Imagine all your precious Photo albums, worth tons of gigabytes, suddenly showing up on your storage-starved phone; or on the PC of the friend you want to show them to, without having to save the files onto it. The burden of storing the files, rest on your Cloud Storage Provider.
  4. Save your Data! - If the unfortunate happens and your PC crashes, with all your important files along with it, then you have a problem. If your external HDD fizzles out, then you have a problem. With Cloud storage, you are not relying on hardware (not your own anyway) to keep your data. Your files are readily available on the internet, on any device, regardless if any one of them suffers an untimely accident.

Drawbacks and disadvantages of using Cloud storage
  1. Connection - No internet connection, no data. With a portable passport HDD, or thumb drive, sure its "one more thing to lose", and carrying it around everywhere (along with your laptop of course) will hamper your mobility. But even on a remote area without WIFI, you can still access it. This shouldn't be too much of an issue nowadays, since Internet availability is only getting bigger.
  2. Uploading limitations - Usually providers will put a limit on what files you can upload to the cloud. Most of the time, this is limited by file size. So if you're intent on keeping large files handy on the cloud, such as Movies/Videos..this is a major barrier to consider
  3. Space cost - Almost all Cloud storage providers have a free starter or start-up plan. However these are usually in sizes too small to actually represent a good replacement for external hard drives or total system back-ups. In order to get the significant storage options, you will have to pay more. These costs are always recurring (ie, monthly or annually). Meaning your data storage has a perpetual cost, as opposed to more traditional  storage options that have 1 time costs. You are paying for the maintenance of the Provider's servers after all.
  4. Security - How secure is it really to keep your data online? Of course, most providers will claim to have security measures to prevent your files from being viewed or downloaded by unauthorized entities, but is it really fool-proof? If you are comfortable transacting online, whether it's bank transactions or online purchases, then chances are you already confident of the security measures on the world wide web. 

Top Cloud storage options
Ok, are you sold on the idea of using Cloud storage? (or at least trying it, since most providers have free starter plans anyway).
To get you started you have to pick a Cloud Storage Provider. I have made a table to compare some of the most major and popular providers. If you see one you fancy, just click on the link to get started from their own site.

Google Docs1GB at free plan. 1TB at maximum plan, with many other choices in between1GB is free, adding storage size costs roughly $0.25 more per GB annually250mb max file size. Allows batch uploading to save timeGoogle is one of the main proponents behind Cloud storage...and they're not at risk of folding anytime soonComes complete with an online text, spreadsheet and presentation file creator. Capable of viewing of most of the files you upload (office docs, not media). Compatible with iphone, ipad, andrid, and blackberry deviceshttp://docs.google.com
Box.net1GB at free plan. 15gb at business planFrom free to $15/monthAllows drag-drop uploading. Max file sizes range from 25mb at free plan, and 2gb at business planA startup venture capital based in California. Yeah they're big, but still kind of risky, since this is their major, if not only money makerIts great looking and has the slickest user interface. Compatible with the iPhone, iPad and blackberry deviceshttp://www.box.net/
DropBox2GB free. 100GB maximumFrom free to $19.99/monthAutomatic syncing of Dropbox folders, also allows right-click and drag-drop. No file size limit (!)Another startup company funded by external partners. Most options for file uploading. Compatible with iPhone, Ipad, and Android deviceshttps://www.dropbox.com/
MS SkyDrive25GBFree, comes with Windows Live signup (Hotmail, MSN)No batch uploads, need to upload each file individually... Only 50MB max file size can be uploadedIts Microsoft, they will be around. Whether or not they will continue this unpopular service remains to be seenWorks well with MS Officehttp://skydrive.live.com/

Quick guide to the table:

  •  Providers - the name of the Cloud storage provider
  • Storage - the amount of cloud storage they make available to you
  • Cost - the $$$ of using it
  • Uploading - notes on how much data you can upload, how to do it, and what files you can upload. 
  • Risk - This is your precious data after all, how stable are the providers you are entrusting it to?
  • Site - The link to Try the Cloud storage : )

Cloud Storage may seem a like a revolutionary new idea at first, but when you think about, isn't it already interesting that all of our important information is stored in intangible electronic forms anyway? More and more, we are getting rid of physical mediums.Where are our Photo albums? are they all printed and tucked into bookfolders, or are they in our PC? How about our Work documents? Home Movies? or Music collections?
If we can grasp the idea that our important data CANNOT even be grasped anymore, then it's not so hard to imagine the next logical step would be to put them onto the Internet. But in the end, only time will tell if Cloud Storage will be adopted or sink into obscurity. Will Internet connections be faster and more readily available to make this method of storage a more widespread option? Will the Cloud Storage providers improve their services or stagnate? Let's just wait and watch from the clouds

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