A Primer On Cloud Storage, Part 2: Storage Types, Data Access, And More

This week we’ve been taking a look at “cloud storage” services — what they are and what sort of things you need to consider when shopping around for a storage provider. In our first article, we looked at what will be the biggest consideration for most people — the security of personal data.

Of course, while security should be the most important factor if you’re looking to store your data on somebody else’s server, it’s far from the only thing there is to think about, and today we’ll examine some of the other factors in choosing a good cloud storage service.

Reliability

One area that’s often overlooked is the reliability of a service. When you’re storing important data outside of your home or office, you want to know that you’ll be able to get at it when you need to. There’s nothing worse than having an important report due or needing to access a critical research paper and not being able to because you can’t get at your cloud storage.

Fortunately, all of the big players have very good track records in this area, although it’s important to note that none of them offer actual guarantees (in the form of Service Level Agreements, or “SLAs”) unless you’re a business customer. In short, while you can look at past performance, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee future results. However, we think it’s generally safe to say that if you’re going with one of the big well-known providers — Google, Microsoft, Apple, or Dropbox — you shouldn’t have any issues with reliability.

However, those are far from the only players in town, and you’ll find all sorts of deals online from smaller companies — some are long-term players with little marketing, while others are startups trying to make a name for themselves and compete with the big boys. Although you can definitely save a few bucks with many of these deals, the reliability of these providers is the biggest “caveat emptor” factor here.

Lastly, there’s another factor you should consider as well when choosing whether you even want to use a cloud storage provider: your own internet connection. It doesn’t matter if you’re using the most reputable provider on the planet with a 100 percent guaranteed uptime SLA if you can’t access your data from your end. If your internet at home is prone to going down often, you may want to rethink the idea of relying on cloud storage at all.

Usability and Accessibility

Another important factor is how you go about actually getting at your data on the cloud storage service. What type of user interfaces are available? Is it entirely web-based, or does the provider offer means for synchronizing files or accessing them from desktop or mobile apps?

Since people have different needs for cloud storage, and use services in different ways, this one is highly subjective — it’s going to depend on what you want to do specifically — but there are still a few good principles to keep in mind.

Types of Storage

Not all cloud storage providers are created equal even in the types of storage they offer, so you’ll definitely want to consider how you’re going to use your cloud storage. Are you looking to have all of your daily working files stored there, or is it simply for backing up your computer in case of an emergency? Or do you simply want a place to store your really old data? Choosing the best provider to fit your specific needs will not only work better, but can save you a few bucks along the way by ensuring you’re paying only for the level of service you actually need.

Active Storage

There are actually two broad forms of cloud storage services available. The first and most poular category are those designed to work as an extension of or replacement for your local storage, giving you the ability to store your files, work on them, and manage them in much the same way as you would through Windows Explorer or Mac Finder.

With an active storage service, you can still choose to keep local copies of all of your files, but — assuming you trust the service not to lose your data — you can just as easily rely on the cloud provider entirely and work from there.

Backup Storage

However, there are also cloud storage services that are designed primarily for backup purposes, providing a place to store your data in case of emergency. These services aren’t designed to let you access your files on a routine basis, but instead just copy everything off your local hard drive to their cloud servers.

With a backup storage service, you still maintain all of the files on your local computer, and run a background app that just copies new and updated files to the cloud either at regular intervals. Backup storage providers usually offer significantly cheaper prices, since they don’t need to provide routine access to your data.

Cold Storage

There’s also another new term that’s starting to come up, particularly among smaller startups: Cold Storage. For all intents and purposes, this is basically just another type of backup storage; as the name implies, it’s a place to put files you don’t regularly need to access, and again is often sold at considerably cheaper prices, making it a great place to archive your old data.

One of the main differences between a backup service and a cold storage service is that backup services are usually intended to mirror your local hard drives — delete a file from your computer, it will eventually be removed from the cloud-based backup as well — whereas cold storage is usually independent of what’s on your computer, letting you effectively upload your old files to a “vault.” Think of cold storage as being roughly equivalent to putting your old data on an external hard drive and storing it in a safe deposit box — you can get the data if you need it, but some time and effort will be required to do so.

Getting at your data

If you’re going to put your data in the cloud, it’s important to consider what your options will be for accessing and managing that data, especially if you’re looking at an active storage provider.

Web Access

Almost all providers offer web-based access to your cloud storage, so the only consideration there is how much you expect to use the web interface, and whether you like it or not. This one is a highly subjective call — we generally prefer more modern interfaces that include features like drag-and-drop, but we know others who want to stay as minimalist as possible to ensure that older browsers will still be fully supported.

Whatever your design preferences, we recommend that you at least make sure that the provider offers the ability to upload, download and preview files through their web interface.

Desktop Access

While there are a number of open standard protocols such as FTP and WebDAV for accessing data directly through Windows Explorer and macOS Finder, very few storage providers offer these methods, choosing instead to provide their own desktop clients.

These have traditionally been “sync” clients — apps that take a folder of files on your computer and automatically mirror them to your cloud storage — although more recently some providers have moved into more traditional “network” clients that map their storage into Windows Explorer or macOS Finder as if it’s a network drive. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, so you’ll again want to consider your specific needs here.

A Sync client is the best way of ensuring that you’ll always have a local copy of everything that’s in the cloud. If you don’t have internet access at home, or you’re on an airplane, or your provider goes down — temporarily or even permanently — your data is still safe. The downside, however, is that this eliminates one of the big benefits of cloud storage — not having to pay for more local storage — since you’ll still need to keep as much space on your computer as you’re storing in the cloud. Many sync clients mitigate this, however, by allowing you to choose only some folders to sync, leaving some stored only in the cloud.

A Network client on the other hand treats your cloud storage as if it’s an external network drive. By default, nothing is stored locally on your computer at all — you simply work on the files directly from the cloud storage provider. This allows you to store as much as you want in the cloud without worrying about buying more local disk space for your computer, but the downside is that you won’t be able to get at it without an internet connection, and unless you have other local backups, you’re trusting the cloud provider entirely for the safety of your data. Note that some network clients do allow you to mark certain files and folders for “offline” access, keeping a local copy on your computer, which is ultimately like the “selective sync” in a sync client taken from the opposite direction.

If you’re using a backup storage provider, there should be a desktop component that you install on your Mac or Windows PC as well, since something has to actually back up the files. These tools generally run in the background, however, and once you’ve set up the desktop component by choosing when and what to backup, you can pretty much ignore it. Cold storage providers often don’t provide desktop clients at all, pointing you to their web portal instead.

Mobile Access

One of the compelling reasons to use a cloud storage provider in the first place is to ensure that you have access to your data while on the go, which these days often has more to do with getting at it from a smartphone or iPad than from a MacBook or PC laptop. Hence you’ll probably also want to consider what mobile clients are availalbe and what kind of features they provide.

For active storage providers, most mobile clients fall into the “network” category, since you likely won’t have enough space on your mobile device to actually sync any real amount of data. However, unlike using a desktop computer, where you access your files thorugh the normal file management tools, mobile apps provide their own file managers, so you’ll definitely want to consider the usability of the mobile interface for your needs. Can you perform full file management features (e.g. copy, move, rename, delete, download, open), or are you limited to just previewing your files? It’s also worth making sure that the mobile client has an “offline” mode, since it’s likely that you’ll want to download files locally while on Wi-Fi to save on cellular data charges.

Note that some backup storage and cold storage providers also have their own mobile apps. These are usually more limited in their capabilities, but they do provide a good way to pull up and view an important file in a pinch.

Summary

In our next part we’ll examine some of the other features to look for in cloud storage providers and then taking a look at some of the companies out there — both big and small — that you may want to consider.

Jesse Hollington

Jesse Hollington

Jesse Hollington is based in Toronto, Canada, where he lives with his daughter, Victoria. He is the author of iPod & iTunes Portable Genius, and works as a senior editor for iLounge.com. Prior to becoming a writer, Jesse ran his own information technology consulting practice and served as an officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force Reserve.

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