A Primer on Cloud Storage, Part 4: The Providers

Over the past week or so we’ve gone through an overview of key points to consider before deciding that it’s a good idea to store your data “in the cloud” and some of the things you should look for in a cloud storage provider, including security, types of cloud storage and ways to access it, and sharing, backups, and pricing. With all of that in mind, today we’re going to run down a list of a few cloud storage providers and see how they stack up.

 

Some of these you’ve probably heard of, while others may be new; we’ve divided them into categories to make it easier to understand what they offer, but we’re otherwise simply presenting them alphabetically — these are not intended to be comprehensive reviews, nor is this even a comprehensive list of all of the providers out there.

The Big Boys

At this point, it’s fair to say that the cloud storage market is dominated by five major compnanies, most of which are the usual suspects — Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft — alongside the venerable Dropbox, a company that’s been solely about cloud-based storage from day one. It’s worth noting that all of these providers offer about the same security features — two-factor authentication, and standard encryption on the back-end.

Amazon Drive

Cloud storage may actually not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Amazon, but the company’s Amazon Drive (formerly known as Amazon Cloud Drive) has actually been around for several years. While Amazon promotes it more heavily as a place to store photos and back up files, it’s actually a reasonably well-featured cloud storage service at a very competitive price.

 

In fact, Amazon once offered an unlimited storage plan for a mere $60/year. The company has since rethought that and now only offers 1 TB of storage for that price, but it’s still one of the best deals for active cloud storage you’re going to find, and if you’re an Amazon Prime member, you get unlimited storage of photos for free. A 100 GB option is available for $12/year, or you can sign up and get 5GB for free. Amazon also provides apps for all major platforms, although the apps are more about backing up your data than syncing it bi-directionally. The web interface is also a bit anemic and there are no collaboration or sharing tools beyond photo albums, but you get what you pay for and if all you’re looking for is casual storage for backing up your files and being able to access them from anywhere, it’s worth a look.

Apple iCloud

Apple’s iCloud is kind of the dark horse among cloud-based storage providers, as it’s a solution that’s targeted exclusively at users of Apple devices, and it’s not even really possible to sign up for iCloud storage unless you’re an iPhone, iPad, iPod, or Mac user. The primary purpose of iCloud is to support users of Apple’s devices and provide a cloud-based repository where files, photos, application data, and more can be made available on any of your devices.

 

Apple starts users off with a relatively meager 5GB — regardless of how many Apple devices you own — and if you want more storage you’ll need to pay, although until recently Apple has been second only to Amazon in pricing, offering 2 TB for $10/month or 200 GB for $4/month. For users in the Apple ecosystem, iCloud Drive fits like a glove, ensuring that macOS metadata like tags are synced across all of your machines — and even available on iOS devices — and of course it’s built right into iOS, macOS, and Apple’s Photos app. Apple also has a more limited Windows version of iCloud Drive available to support iPhone users with Windows PCs.

The major downside (other than needing to live in Apple’s walled garden to really benefit from it) is that sharing and collaboration options are fairly limited; Apple has provided the ability to collaborate on its own iWork documents for a while, but it wasn’t until iOS 11 last year that basic link sharing was added for individual files (not folders), and it’s still a bit awkward to use compared to some of the other providers. Apple also provides the ability to recover deleted files for up to 30 days. Two-factor authentication on iCloud is also a bit different from the usual, involving codes sent to a trusted iOS or macOS device rather than the usual SMS or authenticator app options (although SMS is available as a backup method).

Dropbox

Dropbox is probably the best-known name among cloud storage providers, simply because that’s the only thing the company has ever really done, and as a result it’s done it pretty well. It was the first company to provide solid synchronization services, and it continues to be among the most reliable, especially among cross-platform providers.

 

Dropbox has a good web app and fairly solid desktop sync apps and mobile apps, and has recently been stretching its legs into other team collaboration features, such as Dropbox Paper. There’s also support for collaboration on Microsoft Office documents right within Microsoft’s native apps, and of course you can share files and folders either via a link or with other Dropbox users specifically. The sync clients also integrate well with their respective desktop platforms, and the macOS client will even sync metadata. “Extended Version History” provides the ability to recovery older files for up to 30 days, and if you’re willing to pay for a “Professional” account, that increases to 120 days.

The biggest downside here is the price — Dropbox lags well behind the competition on pricing, offering only a paltry 2 GB of free storage, while its prices have remained fairly static at the typical 1 TB for $10/month, which is the company’s lowest-priced plan. It’s worth noting that Dropbox is one of the few providers that supports physical hardware keys for its two-factor authentication.

Google Drive

Google has its fingers in just about everything, so of course there’s also Google Drive, which we would say rivals Dropbox in features, scope, and popularity, while handily beating it on price and integration.

 

Anybody with a Google account (e.g. Gmail, YouTube, etc) gets 15 GB of Google Drive storage for free, and if you want more you can get 100 GB for $2/month or 2 TB for $10/month — a huge price drop that Google debuted only earlier this month, putting it on par with Amazon and Apple. Google also offers much higher amounts of storage if you’re willing to pay for it — $100/month will get you 10 TB — and offers a few other perks, such as unlimited storage of photos of up to 16 megapixels. There is also a full set of collaboration and sharing features, with Google even recently announcing Microsoft Office integration, and Google also still provides its own Docs, Sheets, and Slides web apps. It’s also the most secure solution, with two-factor authentication that not only supports hardware keys, but can be locked down to allow only hardware keys through Google’s Advanced Protection program.

The major downside to Google Drive — besides the concern about feeding the Google machine with all of your data — is Google’s desktop sync clients. While they get the job done, Google has shifted directions in confusing ways, replacing the old “Google Drive” client with “Backup & Sync” and “File Stream” apps that are a bit more awkward to use and figure out. File Stream maps your Google Drive to a network folder on your Mac or Windows PC, and seems to be the direction Google wants to move in, but users looking to keep all of their files locally will need to use the more cumbersome “Backup & Sync” tool.

Microsoft OneDrive

Of course, Microsoft isn’t about to leave its hat out of the ring, and the company’s offers its OneDrive storage service for Microsoft fans and Office 365 users. It’s been known by a few other names over the years — SkyDrive, Windows Live Folders — but it’s more or less the same service it’s always been.

 

There’s not much remarkable about OneDrive — it’s a solid provider that includes all of the features you’d expect, including sharing and collaboration, file backup and versioning, software two-factor authentication, and desktop sync and mobile clients. Much like Apple’s iCloud, OneDrive is tightly integrated into the Windows experience, but unlike Apple, Microsoft doesn’t consider users of competing platforms to be second-class citizens, and offers a solid Mac client, as well as iOS and Android mobile apps.

Microsoft gives users 5 GB out of the gate with OneDrive, and sells 50 GB of storage for $2/month — twice the price of Apple and Google. If you want more storage, however, Microsoft instead has you sign up for Office 365 Personal, which gives you 1 TB for $7/month (or $70/year), but also includes a subscription to all of Microsoft’s Office apps. On raw storage pricing, this means OneDrive is still more expensive than the competition, but you’re getting considerably more for the price.

The Private Solutions

All of the big providers offer standard encryption, but only at the basic level that prevent just anybody from hoovering up your data — there’s nothing that prevents Amazon, Apple, Dropbox, Google, or Microsoft from actually reading your data. Hence, the big providers aren’t going to cut it if your primary concern is privacy and confidentiality. Fortunately, there are a few “zero-knowledge” providers out there that you can consider as alternatives. The technical details of how these work would fill another series of articles, but suffice it to say that each of these providers uses cryptographic technology that ensures that your data is encrypted in such a way that only you can see what’s in your files.

SpiderOak

SpiderOak has been around for several years, and has a long history of taking their customers’ privacy very seriously, and in fact it’s one of the platforms that Edward Snowden specifically recommended by name in an interview a few years ago. In its beginnings, SpiderOak had a very niche sort of “techie” feel to it, but the company has been making strides in recent years to become more of an everyman solution.

 

On the lower-end, SpiderOak’s plans are priced competitively, starting at $5/month for 150 GB up to $12/month (or $129/year) for 2 TB. However, SpiderOak offers a larger plan that you can’t find with most other providers: 5 TB for $25/month. SpiderOak offers sync clients for all major platforms — even Linux — and also offers the ability to securely share files with other people (the magic by which they accomplish this while still ensuring that your files remain encrypted so they can only be seen by you and whoever you’re sharing with is actually very cool, but well beyond the scope of this article).

Shared links can also be set to self-destruct after a specified time frame, so you don’t continue sharing files longer than you need to. Deleted files and historical versions are also retained indefinitely on all plan levels. Oddly, however, SpiderOak lacks support for two-factor authentication right now, and it’s also worth noting that the service is a bit more technical — some of its more advanced features require command-line interactions.

Sync.com

Another more recent “zero knowledge” provider is Sync.com, which aims to be a more accessible solution for the average user than SpiderOak. Sync.com offers up 2 TB of data for $8/month, and provides sync apps for Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android as well as a solid web interface. Like most providers, there’s a 5 GB free plan as well.

 

Sync.com also offers advanced sharing features, allowing you to not only share links to files and folders but also control how long those links are valid for, and even how many times files can be downloaded using them. There’s unlimited version history and backups, and software-based two-factor authentication. There’s even a feature that you can use to request files from multiple users, allowing them to securely upload them into your Sync.com account.

The only real downside to Sync.com’s service is that they’re a relatively new startup — they’ve been around for four years, but that’s a short time compared to their competitors — so users may understandably want to exercise caution before storing all of their data with a provider that doesn’t have a longer track record. And of course when it comes to “zero knowledge,” there’s going to be a degree of trust involved that improves as a company becomes more established, and more widely reviewed.

The only big backup game in town: Backblaze

While there are a dozen smaller startups promising backup services, with the recent demise of CrashPlan, there’s really only established player left in this market — Backblaze. While by the very definition of “cloud storage” every provider technically offers backup services, Backblaze is unique in that this is the company’s entire reason for existence, and as a result it’s able to offer storage prices that the others just can’t match — for $5/month per computer you get unlimited storage.

 

The catch, however, is that this is only used to backup your files. There are no collaboration features, no sharing features, and only a very rudimentary — and relatively slow — interface to access your files over the web or from a mobile app. A background app runs on your Mac or Windows PC that can automatically backup files almost as soon as they’re changed, although you can choose to backup on a fixed schedule if you prefer that approach. Directly connected external drives can be backed up as well, but not network shares — Backblaze is licensed per-computer so you need to buy a license for each computer you want to back up.

Backblaze also offers software-based two-factor authentication, and even offers a mobile app in case you need to pull up a file from your backup while on the go. There’s no direct download feature in the desktop apps; restoring files requires that you either visit the web interface, where you can select files and have them sent to you in a ZIP file, or paying for Backblaze to ship you a USB hard drive containing all of your data. For the privacy-conscious, Backblaze also lets you supply your own private key to encrypt all of your data, which you’ll need to supply in order to restore your files.

Summary

As you can see from this series, there’s actualy a lot to think about when choosing a cloud storage provider, and in addition to all of the tangible factors, there’s also the question of how well it’s going to tie in with all of the services you already use, and of course what your priorities are. An Apple user who just wants a simple place to store their photos and their own documents will likely be best served by iCloud, whereas somebody who is extremely privacy-conscious will lean toward SpiderOak or Sync.com regardless of their choice of desktop or mobile operating system.

At the end of the day, it’s a very subjective decision based on what’s important to you, but it’s our hope that this four-part series has helped you think about what’s important to you when choosing a cloud service provider, thereby allowing you to make a more informed decision.

Cloud Storage series:

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

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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