Monday, December 21, 2015

About Cloud Storage

What do you know about Cloud Storage? Everyone is talking about it, some people are using it, some aren't sure if they are, and as with any major shift in technology or computing, there's a lot of folklore and wives tales swirling around the concept. So let's talk about it straight.

Straight Talk

The questions on everyone's lips are, "Is it safe to use cloud storage," and "how will this change what I do when I save documents and media files," and "which cloud storage choice is best for me?"

In the first place, when we talk about cloud storage, we're actually talking about a place in some company's data center where your data resides. This is in contrast to your own hard drive in your own safe, secure home computer or home office.

But is it safe? Cloud storage seems to put your data out of your reach, and in someone else's control. How can that be good? On the other hand, just how safe is your data on a hard drive at home? Let's tell the truth about that first.



How Secure Is It?

Question: How recently have you backed up your data?

Question: Is your sensitive data stored on an encrypted partition of your hard drive in case the drive (or computer) itself is stolen?

Question: Do you have and maintain monitors that can alert you in the event of a cyber break-in?

There are more cruel questions we could ask here, but the truth is already that for most of us, the answers to these questions are not so great.

So let's be fair. If you are completely confident that your security, backup regimen, safe shutdown regimen, and physical security are all at a high level, then you might have a legitimate concern about a strategy that uses cloud storage. But even then, you'd need to be operating at a very high level to believe that your data was safer than in Box, or Amazon S3.

So for most of us, it is interesting to note that we have many good choices when it comes to cloud storage, and a lot of it is within reach for free.

Let that sink in for a moment. What I'm telling you is that you can store a whole lot of your data online, and that you won't have to pay a cent. Even better, when you discover that you have more than you can freely store, you'll find the prices are not very high to store a great deal more information.

Okay, but wait! If you store the information on an external hard drive, or on a USB memory card, you pay up front, but the data is yours forever, and for free, right? Well, not exactly. You see, if you store your precious data assets on a hard drive, you need to check it periodically, and you probably need a backup in the event your primary storage device fails.

The truth is, you're going to pay someone. Either you pay out a fee to a cloud storage company to keep your data, or you're going to invest time AND money to keep your own secure storage operational. I can tell you that for me, the prospect of never again having to do a hard drive backup, (or worse, a recovery) is completely worth what I'll pay for cloud storage this year.

What Are My Choices?

But you don't have to pay anything to get started, and you may already be using some of these free options.

Google Drive - The king of cloud storage because your account comes with office productivity services (Google Docs) as well as a rich ecosystem of data viewers, utilities, search, and organization similar to what you're probably already using. There is effective document sharing, collaboration, and a desktop sync infrastructure that makes the data transparently part of your on location file system resources.

To say that in another way, Google Drive just becomes part of your computer or mobile device and you can use it however you want. Your free allocation is 12GB (which includes your email if you use gmail) and for a small fee, you can increase it dramatically. If you decide to buy a Chromebook, you'll see your cloud storage balloon up by another 100GB.

Dropbox - Maybe the longest in the game of commodity cloud storage, Dropbox offers 2GB to start and allows you to ramp up to nearly 8GB by taking several actions to create your account. For instance, you can earn storage by completing your profile, joining their Facebook page, posting a Twitter update, and by referring friends. (The thing about referring friends in this context is that when more of your people are using Dropbox, it's easier to collaborate and share files.)

The service comes with a desktop integration just like Google Drive, and it also offers direct integration with Microsoft Office 365.

While it was embraced primarily to allow people to share files, the service can also be used to simply store and secure files. The service has some quirks and could probably be better if they included diagnostics to see what's happening with a file during transfer or sync.  Overall it's a good resource, the pricing is well considered, (free to moderate fees for a whole lot of storage) and it integrates well with working on a laptop or mobile device.

Box - Using what we all learned from watching Dropbox, the folks at Box.com set out to provide a cloud storage service geared more for the complex needs of Enterprise. So the idea of large numbers of users with common shared storage, individual and group management, discretionary access and encryption all led to features that are baked in from the start.

For individual users, Box offers 10GB of storage in the free tier. And much more than that is available for a modest fee. The one challenge with the free tier storage is the 200MB individual file size limitation. This makes it okay for music and for documents, but not so great for HD video. (Typical HD video file sizes can run in the GB range.)

Box integrates at the desktop and with mobile devices. It seems like a good bet for the long run because even if Box falters as a business,  someone will certainly want to acquire the well-heeled user base and will continue or expand the service.

OneDrive & iCloud - I'm lumping these because they are much the same. Microsoft offers cloud storage (OneDrive) and Apple offers storage (iCloud), but both are more suited and tied to your purchases from those companies.  If you are an Office 365 customer, then you'll get OneDrive space as part of the package. If you purchase an iPad or various other Apple products, you'll inherit some iCloud storage with those.

You can trust storage of this type as much as you trust those companies. To the extent that you continue to do business with them, your storage will be reliable. It's not completely clear what will happen if your subscriptions with them lapse, or if the companies get distracted by other shiny technology playgrounds and let the service lapse.

For the short term, these are convenient places to place photos, documents, or other data that you plan to someday plant in durable storage.

Of course, if you're solidly in the Apple or Microsoft families, these storage options might be the very best thing for you. If you live and die by Microsoft Office and Outlook, then you may find OneDrive will eventually evolve to be just what you need in terms of cloud storage.

If you are an all-Apple products fanatic, then iCloud will probably serve you well. Many of the apps you'll use will already be set to readily use the storage. Things like iPhoto and iTunes and the productivity apps are nearly begging to store data in the cloud for you.

Amazon S3 - This is the sleeper in the group. Amazon's AWS offering is designed for companies, but they secretly give you something quite amazing. It's one free year of their AWS suite, part of which includes unlimited data storage in S3. The Simple Scalable Storage (S3) offering allows you to put files into cloud storage and after that first free year, they don't charge you for how much data is sitting in storage, they charge for the number of times you transfer it.

This means that if you pile your comprehensive collection of family vacation photos in there, and all the MP3 tracks you ripped from the family CD collection, and even the unabridged syllabus of holiday and birthday home movies into the storage, it probably won't cost you much. Even if you make visitors look at every shred of media in your storage on a monthly basis, you probably aren't spending anything substantial.

If you have a website and it exposes all of these things through a web browser, you still probably won't pay much unless you generate brisk traffic to your site. (And presumably, if you do generate brisk traffic to your site, presumably it carries commerce sufficient to cover the cost.)

Amazon's AWS services are trickier to use (for now) but the value can be worth the effort, and there's an almost inevitable future of having this service supported for a very long time.  Amazon is serious about Web Services with their AWS offering, and they have a substantial head start over their closest rivals (Microsoft with Azure is closing the gap some, and Google's Cloud Computing service seems solid but lacks the polish and maturity of the other two.) So we expect data in S3 to be there for a very long time.

Summary

You probably already are using some cloud storage if you have a laptop, mobile device, and especially if you have a tablet. Your data can be safely kept in cloud storage if you are thoughtful about what you store there, how well you secure it (by managing your credentials responsibly), and by choosing a vendor whose style matches your preferences and use case.

It's worth the time to establish storage on more than one of these services so that you have some choices, and so that you can work with others when you want to collaborate and share files. (Google Drive and Dropbox have matured the most in this area probably.) Most of them allow you to configure the storage so that it seamlessly appears alongside the local data on your system.

Overall, it's likely that you'll move your data to the cloud eventually, and there's no reason for not getting started now.