Cloud Storage

cloud iconNo free lunch?

There is when it comes to your data security.

In the dark days before cloud computing, if you wished to back up your stuff, external storage drives were the logical choice of medium.

If you worked on files using more than one computer or tablet you had to ensure that you synchronised your data every time you switched devices.

The quandary

The question when backing up to extra internal or external hard drives is: “Where do I draw the line?” If your main computer’s 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 need at least two and one should be kept at a remote location. That means regular exchanging of drives, a potential loss of data you created since the last backup, and an lot of hassle we could live without.

Do you use more than one computer?

Data management is further complicated if you need to synchronise your files on two or more devices. 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 using imaging software, but the game has changed for your data files: documents, email, photos, and music. There are services popping up all over the place like spring daffodils. Companies are clamouring to back up and synchronise your data files on somebody else’s whopping big hard drive in the “Cloudi.e. on a remote Internet site usually thousands of miles away from your place.

And what’s more, you can take care of a lot (possibly all) of your data without  parting with a cent.

Many services are free for a limited amount of data. In some cases that limited amount is generous. Services like Evernote, Dropbox, and Microsoft’s OneDrive (previously SkyDrive) carry out the task of synchronising automatically. When you switch devices, 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 OneDrive is a valuable extra. Here’s an outline of these services:

DropboxDropbox 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.  As long as you don’t get carried away with lots of big image, 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 devices and the online storage.
  • 2GB of free storage.
    • If you need more: 50GB or 100GB paid storage at US$10 or $20 per month.
  • 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’s Documents folder it’s no big deal.

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 synchronised.

Tablets and smartphones can also be synchronised although, to save storage space, only files that you set as favourites are on your device.

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.

What are you waiting for? Download Dropbox using this referral link from me, and you’ll get an extra 500MB 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 OneDrive

This section is out of date following recent changes by Microsoft. I’ll update it within 24 hours.

Microsoft Live Sync and SkyDrive are now called OneDrive. You get 5GB free space for your synchronized data. Recent changes from the nice folk at Redmond mean that if you’re a Microsoft Office user, you now have access to virtually unlimited storage.

OneDrive 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 – more than double the 2GB provided by DropBox.

I don’t need OneDrive. 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,OneDrive 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 OneDrive

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 OneDrive 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 primarily for online storage and backup. You get that, but you get near-instant search capability for 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.