Copyright © 2012 Richard Beaty
Last month I began a new series on consumer applications of the “cloud” … aka, programs and utilities that make use the Internet for specific functions. We started out with: “Cloud Application #1: Online Backup.” This month I’ll talk about cloud solutions for data storage, sharing and file syncing.
Your Hard Drive in the Sky
When you think of computer data storage, you think of a hard drive. The hard drive in your computer makes your data conveniently available to programs that run on that computer. If you want to move data from one computer to another, you can store your data on an external hard drive, a little black box that you can easily move between multiple computers. But for real data portability, nothing beats storing your data on the cloud.
Think of cloud data storage as your “hard drive in the sky.” With a cloud drive account, you have access to your data anytime, anywhere, and from any computer that has Internet access … no physical hard drive required. To get started with cloud data storage you:
- Open an account with any one of a number of companies that offer the service. Many options give you free storage up to a certain limit, after which you can pay for a larger capacity.
- Set up your login with a secure username and password. (See August’s TTT on secure passwords). After all, you don’t want to give the whole world access to your data.
Once you have an account, you can save data to the cloud instead of, or in addition to, saving to your hard drive, and access it later from the same or a different computer.
The mechanism of accessing your cloud storage varies. Most, if not all of them, have a browser-based option. But increasingly, they offer a desktop application that creates a virtual “folder” on your desktop. In this latter case, you can access your cloud drive as conveniently as any folder on your computer. You can browse it with your file explorer or simply open the folder and drag-and-drop files between your computer and the cloud.
Cloud Drive Applications
DATA AVAILABILITY – How can you make use of a cloud drive? My favorite application is just making data available on any computer (in some cases, phone or tablet, too) all the time. At home, I use a desktop computer. When I travel, I take my laptop with me. If there is a file or group of files I may need to access on the road, I make sure that I put it on my cloud drive before I leave home. Then I can work on it from my laptop. When I get home, I can access the updated file directly on the cloud, or drag it back to my desktop for local storage.
DATA SYNCING – Some of the cloud drive applications include the ability to automatically sync files among multiple computers. In this case, if any data is changed on the cloud drive, it will automatically be updated on other computers that are connected to the drive. This is really handy to eliminate the possibility that you end up with different versions of the same file on different computers.
THE NON-NETWORK NETWORK – Hey, here’s an idea. This is really just data syncing, but with a twist you might not have thought of. If you have more than one computer in the house and would like access to some of the same files from each, a network is the usual solution. Networks are pretty easy to set up these days, but for something even easier, sign up for a cloud drive account, and install the drive on each of your computers. Put the files you wish to share in the cloud drive, and presto … there’s your non-network network.
FILE SHARING – Since your data can be accessed from any computer anywhere, cloud drives are ideally suited for sharing data with others. You see a red flag here? Don’t worry; I’ll show you below how to keep some data private and open other files up for sharing.
EMAILING LARGE FILES – Yes, you can transmit a file by attaching it to an email. But, email services limit the size of attached files. Email is also a very s-l-o-w way to transmit a large file. While there are special services designed specifically to allow you to upload a large file and send recipients an email link to download the file (“YouSendIt” comes to mind), to a large extent these services are redundant if you have a cloud drive account. This application is no more than a special file-sharing instance, where you upload the file you wish to transmit to your cloud drive, and send the recipient an email with a link to access the file.
Cloud Drive Security & Privacy
So cloud drives are ideal for making your private data files available so you can access them securely from anywhere; and they are good for sharing data with two or more people. How do you keep your private data private, while making some data available to others?
Every cloud drive option addresses this issue by giving you configuration tools to determine what is private and what is public. The most common way is to have both private and public sub-folders within your cloud drive account. You can put things you want to share in your Shared or Public folder and send your cohorts a link that will give them direct access to the shared file or sub-folder you create for them. Store your personal documents in a folder that is not accessible to the outside.
WHAT ABOUT THAT REALLY, REALLY SENSITIVE DATA – That said, here’s something you should know. The cloud account vendor can, of course, access everything. We’ll assume that your privacy is important to them and they won’t abuse your rights by making frivolous use of this unfettered access to your account. But nonetheless, there are some things I would not want to store on the cloud… like my credit card information to mention just one. After all, bad guys have hacked supposedly secure Websites before, and who’s to say it can’t happen to a cloud drive provider.
Also, providers specifically point out in their privacy policies that they will relinquish your data to authorities if required to do so by law … and they are. So don’t keep incriminating evidence on your cloud drive. 🙂
Top Cloud Drive Providers
There are too many of these to count, but here are what I consider to be the most popular.
GOOGLE DRIVE – (drive.google.com/start) Google’s into everything else. Why not this? Google Drive gives you 5 GB of storage for free. If you need more, you can get 25 GB for $2.50/month and 100 GB for $5/month. There is a downloadable desktop application that will place a virtual folder on your computer, allowing you simple drag-and-drop access to Google Drive. If you are a Mac or iPad user, this probably should be your cloud drive of choice, as it works especially well with the Safari web browser. I have tried Google Drive, but as a PC and MS Office user, I prefer the Microsoft option (below).
Quoting Google: “Google Drive is everywhere you are—on the web, in your home, at the office and on the go. So wherever you are, your stuff is just…there. Ready to go, ready to share. Get started with 5 GB free.”
SKYDRIVE – (skydrive.live.com) Microsoft’s answer to the cloud drive is “SkyDrive.” When they first introduced SkyDrive, it came with a generous 25 GB for free. Then as competitors offering far less free space got into the act, Microsoft realized they didn’t have to be so generous to compete. Now you get 7 GB for free … still a pretty good deal compared to others. At first you had to access SkyDrive through a Web browser unless you had Office 10 (which I didn’t). Now they have their own desktop application that gives you a virtual SkyDrive folder, making SkyDrive operationally equivalent to any drive and folder on your computer. I still have a Google Drive account, but I use SkyDrive more.
Quoting Microsoft: “Store any file on your SkyDrive and it’s automatically available from your phone and computers — no syncing or cables needed. Use your free 7 GB of SkyDrive storage, and you’ll never be without the documents, notes, photos, and videos that matter to you.”
BOX – (box.com) Like Google, Box offers 5 GB of storage for free. But to me, this appears to be more tailored to business than personal use. (Disclaimer: I have not tried this). To access most of its features, you have to sign up for a business account at $15/month per user, with a minimum of 3 users. Box does offer storage expansion for personal users, but at $10 for 25 GB or $20 for 50 GB, this is the most expensive storage upgrade of the sites reviewed here.
Quoting Box: “Access Content from Anywhere- Securely view and share critical content anywhere, on any device. Say Good-bye to Email and FTP – Upload and send big files as big as 25GB quickly with just a link. Easily Collaborate Online – Create project folders where team members share and collaborate on files.”
DROPBOX – (dropbox.com) … not to be confused with BOX. With only 2 GB of free storage, you get the least gratis space of all the four services reviewed here. You can upgrade your storage to 100 GB for $10/month … still a little pricey (Google Drive gives you 100 GB for $5). Like Google Drive and SkyDrive, Dropbox places a virtual folder on your desktop, making file transfer drop-dead simple. The description of Dropbox sounds like it’s strength lies in syncing files among computers, which happens automatically for any file in its folder.
Quoting Dropbox: “Dropbox is a free service that lets you bring all your photos, docs, and videos anywhere. This means that any file you save to your Dropbox will automatically save to all your computers, phones and even the Dropbox website.”
If you are a Google Docs fan or a Mac or iPad user, the best bet is probably Google Drive. Microsoft Office users, I’d say SkyDrive is for you. I actually have accounts on both, but I do use SkyDrive more routinely. Also, even though I haven’t used them, both Box and Dropbox are popular, so you might want to check them out. Regardless of which you pick, if you travel and/or find yourself needing access to your files from more than one computer or device, it’s time you installed your Hard Drive in the Sky.