Cloud storage

cloud icon

No such thing as a free lunch?

There is when it comes to your data security.

Until quite recently, if you wished to back up your valuable data without cashing in the family jewels, extra storage drives were the logical choice of medium.

The quandary

The question when backing up to extra internal or external hard drives is where to draw the line. If your main computer hard drive crashes a backup is invaluable, but if you only have one backup drive it can be stolen in a burglary or destroyed in a fire along with your computer. So for total peace of mind you really need two and one should be kept at a remote location. That means regular exchanging of drives, loss of data created since the last backup, and an administrative hassle we could live without.

Do you use more than one computer?

Data management is further complicated if you need to synchronize your files on two or more computers. There is excellent software for this. Microsoft’s free SyncToy and the excellent SyncBack SE are two very good sync utilities.

But running these programs is yet another job that we can do without. If you flip back and forth between your laptop and desktop, or between home and work, it’s a never ending task.

Enter the cloud

An extra hard drive is invaluable at home or in the office. I wouldn’t be without one for backing up my whole system with imaging software, but recently the game has changed for data files. There are services popping up like spring daffodils all over the place clamouring to back up your data files on somebody else’s hard drive in the “Cloudi.e. on a remote Internet site.

Many of these services are free for a limited amount of data. In some cases that limited amount is very generous. Services like Evernote, Dropbox and Microsoft’s Live Sync carry out the task of synchronizing automatically. When you switch computers, your data are immediately and automatically updated when you connect the computer to the Internet.

They all have strengths and weaknesses so you may need to use 2 or 3 different services for maximum benefit. For my usage Dropbox and Evernote are the most useful but Microsoft’s Sky drive is a valuable extra. Here’s an outline of these services:

Dropbox

Dropbox logo

Dropbox is covered in more detail on this page

The nice folk at Dropbox give you 2GB of free synchronized storage and it’s a no-brainer to use. This is an excellent service and because it’s very easy to manage I use it for all my everyday working files. The nice folk at Dropbox give you 2GB of free storage and it’s a no-brainer to use. As long as you don’t get carried away with lots of big photo, video and music files, 2GB is a lot of space.

Main Positives

  • Set it and forget it. Dropbox works seamlessly in the background without any input from the user.
  • Synchronizes your data automatically between all your computers and the online storage.
  • 2GB of free storage.
    • If you need more: 50GB or 100GB paid storage at US$10 or $20 per month.
  • The big plus for many users: it works with Windows, Mac and Linux.

Main Negatives

  • Less storage than some other free services.
  • It’s restricted to one location on your computer. This annoys some users, but if you just treat it in the same way as Windows XP’s Documents folder it’s no big deal.

It’s great. Get it today!

When you download and install Dropbox it creates its own folder on your computer. By default, in Windows, the folder is created in your Documents folder but you can move it to wherever you wish. The Dropbox folder can be used just like any other: add files and sub-folders to your heart’s content and Dropbox will toil away in the background uploading a copy of those files to their servers.

Every time you subsequently add, delete, or modify files or folders in your DropBox they’re immediately updated on the remote site.

It gets better!

If you use more than one computer you can install Dropbox on each of them, log on to your DropBox account when prompted and it will automatically download your current files and subsequently update them with the latest changes. Thenceforth, whenever any of your Dropbox machines are connected to the web they will automatically be synchronized.

If you don’t have access to your own computer you can log on to your online account at Dropbox’s web site from any web-connected computer in the known universe and access your files. You can use Dropbox on Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, or Linux computers.

What are you waiting for? Download Dropbox using this referral link from JustWondering, and you’ll get an extra 250MB of free storage—and so will I. :o)

And from Redmond, WA

With these Microsoft’s services you need a Windows Live ID, which anyone can sign up for right here. If you already have a Hotmail, Messenger, or Xbox Live account, you already have a Windows Live ID.

Microsoft’s Live Sync

Microsoft Live Sync beta. 5GB of free synchronizable data.

Microsoft’s Live Sync is not as easy to use as DropBox and it’s not as easy to set up. It’s no great mission though. It has one significant advantage over DropBox: you get 5GB of free storage – more than double the 2GB provided by DropBox.

I don’t need Live Sync. DropBox suits me fine in combination with Evernote, but I’m using it to store backups of some data, like my fonts, so that I can test it and keep familiar with it.

Unlike Dropbox, Live Sync allows folders from different locations on your computer to be synced. With DropBox the folders must all be within the main DropBox folder; that doesn’t bother me, but it annoys some users.

Microsoft’s Sky Drive

25GB free! What’s the catch?

Microsoft’s other cloud-based data storage service gives you a massive 25GB of free storage. That’s the good news and I’m not about to complain about 25GB of free backup for my stuff.

The big disadvantage of Sky Drive storage compared with DropBox and Live Sync is that it’s only storage. There’s no way to automatically synchronize those backed up data files with your local files or to automatically update the files when they’re changed locally.

I use it to backup some of my most important data online. My weekly web site backups, my “keeper” photos, my fonts, my blog backup, purchased downloaded programs, old data files which are needed for archive purposes but which aren’t going to be changed and which I don’t need to be searchable for reference.

Evernote logo

Speaking of searchable, enter Evernote.

Evernote

Evernote is the program that stops me switching to Linux.

All data are searchable in Evernote, including text in images.

Advantages

  • Files and text notes can be tagged to aid in searching.
  • Instant search and retrieval of text data.
  • Reads text in images.
  • Outstanding for text, pdf, and image files.
  • No maximum storage limit.
  • Can be installed on Mac, Windows and web-enabled mobile phones: iPhone, Blackberry and Palm Pre.
    • There’s also a third party open source version called Nevernote which works reasonably well on Linux. It’s slow and the search function needs work but it’s getting there.

Disadvantages

  • Maximum 60MB upload of data per month free, 1GB per month for the Premium version.
  • Text within OpenOffice, Word and Excel files is not searchable.
  • Doesn’t link with your local folders. It has it’s own folder hidden in your User files.

Evernote is outstanding

Many computer users have huge quantities of reference data: a digital scrapbook, clippings service, recipe book, filing cabinet and virtual brain. Stuff that you squirrel away because you’re likely to need it one day. Evernote makes saving and retrieving such data easy.

This program is very different from the services we looked at above. It’s raison d’etre is not so primarily for online storage and backup but for near-instant location of your data. You have the advantages of online storage, instant powerful search capability and automatic synchronisation between your computers and the cloud.

I scan magazine articles, newspaper clippings, business cards, web clippings, bank and credit card statements─anything that I may wish to retrieve later. I can search for remembered text or I can add filtering tags to the note at the time I drop it into Evernote.

It’s amazing. Get it here. Get it today.

Other services

There are many other services─paid, free, or both, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. Here are a couple more that I’ve tested:

ADrive offers a massive 50GB free. The free service is very basic but if you just need straight GigaByte horsepower with no automation, it’s a good addition to your armoury.

IDrive offers 2GB free with an extra 10GB if you share your Gmail contacts with them. It can be set to do continuous backups but it isn’t synchronizable.

Springpad offers unlimited storage for web clips and notes which you can access from any browser and many mobile phones. I’m testing it now and it looks promising. It has a very nice interface and I suspect that it will give Evernote a bit of a nudge. It doesn’t yet have a local client but I believe that’s on the way.

Caveat!

Nothing is forever.

Belt and braces

The Microsoft services, Live Sync and Sky Drive, are beta, i.e. they’re experimental. I doubt that anything will go wrong but there’s no guarantee.

The other free services may, or may not, survive indefinitely. Just like your hard drive, cloud storage is fallible. Here in New Zealand in 2010, Air New Zealand’s international and national services were brought to a standstill by Murphy’s law when IBM, their data centre contractor, had their sole backup generator off-line at a very inconvenient moment.

I use Dropbox, Evernote and Sky Drive, because they serve me in different ways, and also because I require duplication and the services are free.

I still have local hard drive backups and I still synchronize my important data between my desktop and my laptop.

Imaging

I also have images of my complete operating system which I update every week or so. When I’ve had Windows meltdowns those images have saved me a lot of time and aggravation over recent years.

Email

Email clients aren’t as easy to handle, particularly for synchronizing more than one computer, as other data. Microsoft’s Oulook for instance stores all it’s data in one big pst file. You make a small change to Outlook by adding a new message or a task and your .pst file─which may contain hundreds of MegaBytes─is changed. If you set it up to synchronize automatically you have a digital traffic jam.

In such cases you have a number of choices:

  • you can use a sync program like SyncToy or SyncBack to copy the data whenever you switch machines;
  • you can set your mail up so that both computers maintain your mail independently of one another;
  • you can, as I do, make life very easy for yourself by using web-based mail. I use Gmail, but HotMail and Yahoo Mail are OK too.
  • or you can use a combination of the above.

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