Last week we began series on what to look for in a cloud storage provider, beginning with an overview of security considerations and then moving on to a discussion on the finer points of the types of cloud storage and how to access them. Although we’ve covered most of the important points, there are still a few other things to keep in mind when choosing the best cloud storage provider for your specific needs.
As we mentioned last week, everybody’s needs are different when it comes to cloud storage, but chances are that at one point or another you’ve wanted to share something that was too big to send through traditional e-mail or messaging channels. Although there are still a few companies that address this specific need, they’ve been falling by the wayside as more people simply put all of their key files on cloud storage services. After all, if the file is already in your main cloud storage provider, why upload it to another service just to share it?
So unless you’re looking solely for a backup or cold storage service, we’d strongly recommend keeping the ability to easily share files in mind, in addition to considering exactly how this sharing is done.
Public Sharing: Some providers allow you to share your files publically to anybody who can find your provider’s page. While this is obviously not secure in any way, it can be a handy way to publish work that you’d like to make public without having to set up your own website. In fact, a few providers even allow you to publish a folder of files as if it’s a static website, although this is becoming less common.
Sharing private links: This lets you create a public but obscure URL to share a file or folder. Anybody you send the URL to will have access to whatever you’re sharing — and so will anybody that they send the URL to — so it’s not secure for sensitive personal information, but it has the advantage of letting you share files with friends and colleagues without making them sign up for a user account with your provider. Most storage providers offer private link sharing, but a good one will also provide the ability to actually revoke private links or even set them to automatically expire at a certain point, helping you to ensure that you don’t share anything for a longer time than you need to. You’ll also want to confirm whether private links remain valid if you decide to move a file somewhere else in your cloud storage to avoid inadvertently breaking your shared links.
Sharing private links with a password: This isn’t much different than option two, except that you can require the other user to enter a password you’ve supplied them with. In our opinion, this gives more of an illusion of security than anything else, since if you trust your friends and colleagues to not to share the link with anybody else, you don’t really need to put a password on it, and if you’re concerned about the possibility of them sharing it, there’s nothing to prevent them from giving away the password too. It does offer a tiny bit of additional security in that it prevents somebody from inadvertently getting their hands on the e-mail containing the link — but only if you’re careful not to include the password in the same e-mail.
Sharing with specific users: This is about as secure as sharing features get. Your friends and colleagues will need to have their own account with the service, and will need to log in to that account in order to see the files and folders you’ve shared with them. This also allows you to keep track of specifically who you’re sharing with, and easily remove individual people you don’t want to share your files with anymore.
A good cloud storage service should ideally provide a combination of these options; most of the big ones offer the ability to share private links and share with specific users, allowing you to choose the option that works best for you on a case-by-case basis.
In addition to simply sharing files, does the service offer the ability to collaborate on them? Can users only view what you share with them, or can they also edit files? Can you share folders and allow other users to add more files to them?
While this won’t be important to everybody, if you’re looking for an active cloud storage provider to use for team work, at least some collaboration features will make your life a lot easier.
Backup, Backup, Backup
We’ve already discussed security and reliability at length, and it’s a safe assumption that you can trust that most of the big storage providers have solid data centers and disaster recovery programs, but there’s another important facet to this: Does the cloud storage provider backup your files in a way that allows you to recover specific files?
The cloud provider should certainly be able to restore all of your data in the event that one of their data centers explodes, but what about your ability to recover that critical report that you just accidentally deleted last night? Or that file that your toddler managed to fill with gibberish while playing whack-a-mole on your keyboard?
Ideally, you’ll want to look for a cloud storage provider that not only offers the ability to recover individual files from a “trash can” or other backup service, but also one that provides the ability to restore to previous versions of a file — many providers offer up to 30 days of backups of not only deleted files, but also all of the changes you’ve made to a file. Some only offer this for specific types of files (e.g. Microsoft Word documents), or only on certain plan levels, so you’ll want to read the fine print if this is important to you.
How much is this all going to cost me? Some might consider this last point to be the most important one, but we solidly believe that you get what you pay for, and good services are worth paying for — especially if they’re ones you rely on.
Many of the big cloud storage providers offer some amount of data for free, although in our opinion this is rarely enough for anything more than casual use, and you’ll also want to take a close look at the terms and conditions to see if there are limitations to the free tiers beyond the lowest storage capacity. For instance, some providers don’t offer any kind of backup or file versioning at the free level.
In terms of paying for storage, prices are naturally set based on how much you need, and while it varies widely among smaller providers who are trying to be competitive, as of this writing you should be able to get about two terabytes (2TB) of active storage for around $10/month. Although the price-per-gigabyte of storage has been changing almost annually, the $10/month price seems to be the “sweet spot” for most of the providers — instead of decreasing the monthly price, the trend is to simply increase the amount of storage available at that price. You’ll also want to consider whether the price includes shared storage for your entire family, or whether they’ll need to each pay for their own accounts. Family sharing is something that providers have only recently started doing, and while you can have everybody simply share the same user ID on just about any provider, it’s generally better and safer if each person uses their own account, so the ability to pay for a single large storage bucket and share it among all of your family accounts is definitely a plus worth looking for if you’re in that situation.
If you’re looking for cold storage or backup storage, the prices drop significantly. In fact, there are backup providers who will provide unlimited backup storage for as little as $5/month, since they don’t need to worry about sophisticated client apps, data sharing, or running servers to actually let you use your data.
In the first three parts of the series, we’ve gone over all of the main things you should keep in mind when choosing a cloud storage provider. In our final part, we’ll be using that knowledge to take a quick look at the pros and cons of a few of the cloud storage providers on the market today.