If you’ve been paying any attention to the computer community the past few years, you’ve probably heard more than a little bit lately about the ‘cloud’. There’s been all kinds of discussion recently about the cloud and how it will completely alter the face of computing in the future. It’s being described as the biggest change in computer usage since smart phones, or maybe personal computers. But what exactly is this cloud computing, and how do you take advantage of it?
Well, not to get too technically complicated, the basic concept is using network services (most commonly, the Internet) to deliver programs, documents, and other computing resources, rather than storing them locally. (The files are actually stored on other hardware, usually huge servers connected to the network. It’s a bit ironic, I think, that a service with a name as soft and fluffy-sounding as ‘the cloud’ is actually based on thousands, likely millions, of giant, hard as rock computers.) This allows you to access your files and programs from any device with access to that network.
Advantages of Using The Cloud
As you can probably guess from all this, it’s more complicated to use the cloud than to use programs on your own computer/device. You need to have a service providing storage on the cloud (more on those later), network access to your storage program, and a device with programs that allows you to access the cloud storage. Why bother to do all this work, rather than just saving your programs and files on your computer (or other device)? Well, there are several advantages to cloud computing, including:
1. Access Your Files Everywhere, on Any Device: One of the biggest advantages of using the cloud to store your files is that you can then get to your files with any device that has the appropriate cloud program on it. To use a blog example, you can write an article on your desktop, edit it on your laptop, add a few pictures on your tablet, and finally publish it with your cell phone. By putting the file on the cloud, you can save a great deal of trouble transferring the file from one device to another (if such transfers are even possible).
2. Easy Sharing With Others: By the same token, you can allow friends, colleagues, or anyone else, really, to access your files without having to physically hand over a storage device (or depend on the limits of email attachments). This makes it easier to transfer data and other files between people in a work group or as part of another organization, allowing other people to read through, edit, and return your work in a matter of moments.
3. Providing Data Backup: If you’ve ever had a computer be rendered completely unusable before you’ve managed to get all the important files transferred to flash drives (or disks, for those of us who can remember back that far), you’re aware of how important it is to have backups available for all your important files. Having copies of your files on the cloud makes it easy to transfer them to your new computer, or access them as cloud files for your purposes. (I’m actually in the process of doing so myself, getting files from my old computer to my new one.)
4. Potentially Limitless Storage Space: There’s only so much storage space you have on even the most up-to-date computer, and getting more via storage devices or added drives for your computer will still leave you with only so much storage space available (and can get expensive, as well). The cloud storage services will enable you to get hundreds, thousands, even millions of gigabytes of storage space (enough for all the documents, programs, and other files that you could ever imagine), frequently for less money than equivalent physical storage media would cost. As a result, cloud computing also tends to be:
5. Relatively Inexpensive: With the high expense of buying storage through physical media (flash drives, discs, etc.) and the even higher expense of getting computers with high amounts of storage built in, being able to get gigabytes of storage for only a few dollars a month (or take advantage of the free storage offered by every cloud sync service, as noted below) can prove to be a much less expensive way to get the storage you need. This would allow you to get all your work done with an inexpensive computer and an Internet connection, and given how many places offer free Wi-Fi now, you might not even need to pay for the Internet connection. (If you’re willing to go to your local library, you might not even need to pay for a computer, potentially doing all your online work for free.)
This is not to say that cloud services are perfect; as with anything, they have their downsides, as well. You’ll need to have an Internet connection to use them, so losing your connection for any reason will leave you unable to access your files. While you have the potential for infinite storage, each gigabyte of storage over the (relatively small) free initial offering provided by most companies will cost you, on a reoccurring basis (monthly or annually, depending on the particular service). You’ll also have to deal with being able to access your files only as fast as your Internet connection will allow, rather than the effectively instantaneous access provided by storage on your computer or a connected device; this proves particularly annoying when you are dealing with a larger file, such as an audio or video recording.
Finally, there are potential security issues, as having your files on the cloud gives hackers another avenue to access them, and having so much data in one place serves as a pretty tempting target. (Before you rule out cloud storage and other cloud computing entirely, though, remember that most of the companies providing cloud storage are big names in the computing world (Google and Microsoft being among them), and that having their files, or rather their clients’ files, hacked would be devastating to their business. They are undoubtedly going to put a huge amount of time, effort and money into making sure that does not happen, protecting your files as they would their own.)
Whether these factors are enough to negate the benefits of cloud computing is something you will need to decide for yourself. If you opt to try cloud computing, though, you will need to consider some of the
Cloud Sync Services
There are a variety of cloud service providers out there (and seemingly more everyday, as the field rapidly expands). To help you find one that meets your needs, here’s a run through of some of the most popular services:
1. Dropbox: The standard by which all other cloud services are measured (no, literally; many articles compare services to Dropbox in their very titles). It’s also among the easiest to use, with a simple, clean interface. As one of the trailblazers in this field, it does have some disadvantages compared to newer services: you have to keep everything you upload in one file folder, you can’t determine which files are accessible from the various devices you connect to the service, and you can’t sync a folder on your computer to Dropbox. (That is, you can’t have changes made to a file saved in your computer’s hard drive be automatically reflected in the same file saved by Dropbox.) It also falls behind when it comes to the amount of storage offered for free and the pricing for additional storage:
-Free Storage: 2 GB
-Additonal Storage: 50 GB for $9.99/month ($99/year), 100 GB for $19.99/month ($199/year)
2. SugarSync: The best known Dropbox alternative (at least until Google has its way…), it has the advantage of being, like Dropbox, just about everywhere, available on nearly every platform (tablet, smartphone, computer) around. It also offers much more control over your files, giving the option to sync certain files to only some of the systems where you have SugarSync installed and add password protection to files you share publicly. Its level of free storage and price is also better (although, not by too much):
-Free Storage: 5 GB
-Additional Storage: 30 GB for $4.99/month ($49.99/year), 60 GB for $9.99/month ($99.99/year), 100 GB for $14.99/month ($149.99/year)
3. SpiderOak: Less a cloud ‘sync’ service primarily, and more an online backup service that enables you to access files from more than one computer. What’s the difference? With SpiderOak, you need to backup both computers and tell it which folders correspond to each other on each; so if you want to have your document folders to sync on your laptop and desktop, you need to upload both before you can sync them through Spideroak, making the whole process much more complicated. On the plus side, the prices are pretty reasonable (are you noticing a pattern in how I arranged these options?):
-Free Storage: 5 GB
-Additional Storage: Each Additional 100 GB for $10/month ($100/year)
4. Google Drive: You could hardly expect a major web trend to be arising without Google having a part in it, now could you? Their Drive function works in much the same way as Dropbox: the same drag and drop functionality and the same inability to sync folders within the cloud to those on your computer. It stands out with the ability to edit documents and files online, opening more than 30 kinds of files right in the browser. It also is highly integrated with other Google services, allowing you to easily download a file from a Gmail message and upload it onto your Google+ account. The pricing is pretty impressive, as well:
-Free Storage: 5 GB
-Additional Storage: 25 GB for $2.49/month ($29.88/year), 100 GB for $4.99/month ($59.88), 200 GB for $9.99/month ($119.88/year)
5. SkyDrive: Google isn’t the only major corporation looking to get into the cloud sync game; Microsoft has their own service, too. It’s fairly impressive: you can easily upload files created in Microsoft software (that is, Word, Powerpoint, Excel) and edit them in groups (a la Dropbox) or modify them online (as with Google Drive). You are also able to specify whether the links you share with others are public or private, and whether the private links are read-only or can be edited. Perhaps most unique is that you can use the ‘Fetch’ feature to pull files off of a synced computer, even if you haven’t synced that file. All of that with the most generous free storage and best pricing around:
-Free Storage: 7 GB
-Additional Storage: 20 GB for $10/year, 50 GB for $25/year, 100 GB for $50/year
All of this and I’ve only just scratched the surface. There are numerous other cloud sync services out there you could try, and signing up for them will add to the amount of free storage space you can accumulate (although, with the 24 GB of combined free storage these services provide, I don’t know how much more you’d need). You can also get more space on most of these services by inviting friends or similar activities, allowing you to accumulate a sizable amount of storage space online without ever having to break out your wallet, a fairly frugal activity for anyone in need of more computer memory. (Speaking of which, here’s the reference link for my Dropbox account; if you’re considering it, following this link will get me, and you, an extra 500 MB of free storage space.)