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Storing and Sharing Files and Other Online Content : Understanding Cloud Storage & Evaluating Online File-Storage and -Sharing Services

8/19/2011 6:19:03 PM
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Understanding Cloud Storage

The first form of web-based data storage we’ll examine is called cloud storage. This is a form of networked data storage where data files are stored on multiple virtual servers.

What Is Cloud Storage?

The servers used for cloud storage are typically hosted by third-party companies who operate large data centers. When you subscribe to a cloud storage service, you lease storage capacity from the cloud storage service. You then have access to the contracted amount of storage space, which you access via the Internet.

What you see looks like a single server or hard disk, but it’s really just a virtual server. In reality, your data may be stored across multiple servers, sometimes spanning multiple locations (or even continents!) that then appear to be a single server in your storage dashboard.

Know that true cloud storage is massive. We’re not talking mere gigabytes and terabytes, as you might find on a desktop PC or web server. Instead, a cloud storage service might offer multiple petabytes of storage.

Note

One terabyte equals 1,000 gigabytes, and 1 petabyte equals 1,000 terabytes.


The best-known cloud storage service today is probably Amazon.com’s Simple Storage Service (S3). Cloud storage is also offers by many other companies, with services either planned or rumored from IBM, Google, and EMC.

Note

I like the way Geoff Tudor, the co-founder of cloud storage provider Nirvanix, describes cloud storage. He compares cloud storage to electrical service: When you turn on a light switch, you don’t know exactly from where each individual electron originates. The same applies to stored data in the cloud—although you might not know where that data is physically stored, all you care about is that you have access to that data.


Why Use Cloud Storage?

Why is cloud storage such a big deal—especially to large companies? There are three primary benefits to cloud storage:

  • Scalability. When you rent cloud storage space, you can opt to use as much or as little space as you need. It’s easy to “flip and switch” and increase your storage space if you suddenly have larger storage needs. You don’t have to buy the additional computers required to house the extra data, but rather can use more of the space available in the cloud (and feel free to use as much space as you need).

  • Reliability. If you’ve ever had your company’s server go down, you know how important it is to have access to backup data. Well, cloud storage can be used as giant online backup drive. Even if you rely on cloud services for your primary data storage, you still have the peace of mind that comes from knowing your data is duplicated on multiple servers.

  • Lower costs. How much do you pay per terabyte of storage? Even with hard disk prices coming down, it’s still cheaper to use the virtual servers in the cloud. Cloud storage services can offer lower storage rates because they more efficiently use the server space they have; space gets reassigned to users almost instantly, on an as-needed basis.

    It’s a lot cheaper to use excess space in the cloud than it is to purchase a new server or hard disk drive.

Risks of Storing Data in the Clouds

Of course, some risk is associated with using cloud storage services. Let’s look at the most talked-about issues:

  • Reliability. Remember when I said cloud storage is more reliable than traditional physical storage? That might not always be the case. What do you do when your cloud service provider has technical problems and either goes offline (which means you can’t access your data) or actually loses stored data? It’s happened before. Amazon had a well-publicized outage of its storage service in February 2008. If a cloud storage service doesn’t have adequate infrastructure or doesn’t maintain multiple backups, your data could be at risk.

  • Security. While all cloud storage providers tout how secure their systems are, there still exists the possibility that high-tech thieves could break into the system and view or steal your sensitive data. It’s almost always less safe to store your data elsewhere than where you have physical control over it.

  • User error. Not all reliability security issues originate with the cloud storage provider. Given that you employ fallible human beings to manage your systems, it’s not inconceivable that someone could inadvertently let a password slip, or enter an incorrect web address. All it takes is one simple mistake to expose your data to unauthorized users or permanently delete data you don’t want to delete.

  • Access problems. Because you’re accessing your data over an Internet connection, you’re in big trouble if that connection goes down—either on your end or with your cloud storage provider. And the connection doesn’t have to go completely down to cause problems; latency in accessing data is an issue with any Internet connection, even the fastest ones. Slow connections, of course, present problems of their own, in terms of time it takes to upload and download files.

With all these caveats in place, it makes sense to back up data in at least two places, and not rely exclusively on the cloud for all your storage needs. Whatever you store in the cloud should also be stored somewhere more accessible, for safety’s sake.

Evaluating Online File-Storage and -Sharing Services

Where online can you store your valuable data? Let’s look at some of the more popular cloud storage services—many of which also offer file-sharing capabilities.

Amazon S3

The Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3) provides unlimited online storage. You access your stored data via a simple web interface. S3 launched in March 2006, making it one of the most established online storage services in today’s market.

Amazon charges fees for the amount of data stored and for the bandwidth used in uploading and downloading that data. In the United States, you pay $0.15 per gigabyte of storage used, plus a data transfer fee that ranges between $0.10 and $0.17 per gigabyte transferred.

One of the selling points for S3 is that it uses the same scalable storage infrastructure that Amazon.com uses to run its own global e-commerce website. You access Amazon S3 by going to aws.amazon.com and clicking the Amazon Simple Storage Service link.

Egnyte

Egnyte (www.egnyte.com) provides online file storage, backup, and sharing. You can easily designate authorized users with whom to share specific files and folders, complete with automatic file versioning.

Access to the Egnyte service is via the simple web interface you see in Figure 1. You set up a virtual online file server that you configure according to your specific needs. You can then designate shared folders and subfolders with different permissions for power users and standard users. Uploading files is as easy as clicking a few buttons. Anything you upload to your shared folders can then be shared with other users you authorize.

Figure 1. Managing uploaded files with Egnyte.

ElephantDrive

ElephantDrive (www.elephantdrive.com) is a user-friendly online file-storage service. They offer three different versions of different-sized users: Home Edition, Pro Edition, and Pro Plus Edition. Each edition has different storage and transfer limits. The Home Edition is priced at an affordable $9.95/month.

Microsoft Office Live Workspace

We first discussed Microsoft Office Live Workspace (workspace.office.live.com) back in “Collaborating on Spreadsheets.” Think of Live Workspace as a specialized cloud storage service; you can use it to store Microsoft Office documents and Office documents only. In addition, you’re limited to the number of documents you can store, typically around 1,000 per user.

The nice thing about Office Live Workspace is that it’s free—although you do need to own the Microsoft Office suite to create your Office documents, of course.

This makes it a great way to store your main or backup copies of your Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents. You can also access your documents from any location, whether you’re in the office, at home, or on the road. What you can’t do, however, is store non-Office documents, which makes it a rather limited data-storage service.

Note

If you want to share live documents and the contents of your computer desktop with a small group of coworkers or friends, check out Microsoft SharedView (connect.microsoft.com/site/sitehome.aspx?SiteID=94). Not a cloud application per se, SharedView is a remote desktop and conferencing system that lets you show and share documents (and chat) with up to 15 people at once. Each participant installs the SharedView software on his or her PC; when you start a session, each client communicates with the others using IM-like technology. (In fact, SharedView works with Windows Live Messenger.) What you don’t get is true collaboration; SharedView is more suited for computer-based dog-and-pony shows. Still, it’s yet another way to share your documents and other work with colleagues over the web.


Mosso

Mosso (www.mosso.com) is a business-ready cloud hosting platform. Both storage and bandwidth scale automatically as needed; you pay on a per-gigabyte basis for what you actually use.

You can use Mosso to host anything from individual files to complete websites. In fact, Mosso let you serve as your own website hosting service, complete with domain registration and client billing services.

myDataBus

The myDataBus service (www.mydatabus.com) is a combination cloud storage and file-sharing service. You can use myDataBus to store your individual files or to share photos, videos, and music with your friends and family. The service also offers group collaboration tools and integration with Facebook, MySpace, LiveJournal, and other similar sites.

Nirvanix

If your storage needs are larger, consider Nirvanix (www.nirvanix.com). Nirvanix is a cloud storage platform optimized for large files and large enterprise-level customers. The Nirvanix Storage Delivery Network intelligently stores, delivers, and processes storage requests in the best network location. Storage is offered on an on-demand, completely scalable basis.

steekR

As you can see in Figure 2, steekR (www.steekr.com) is designed especially for consumers who want to share their documents and media files online. After you’ve uploaded a file, you can share it with anyone in your contact list. You can also opt to make specific files editable by other, or assign them read-only restrictions.

Figure 2. A cloud storage service for home users: steekR.

The basic steekR service, with 1GB of storage, is free. Paid plans, with up to 100GB of storage, are also available.

Windows Live SkyDrive

Now we come to Microsoft’s second cloud storage service. Windows Live SkyDrive (skydrive.live.com) differs from Office Live Online in that you can use it to store any type of file, not just Office files. You get 5GB of free storage, and can easily share your uploaded files with others you authorize via shared or public folders. Personal folders are used for files you want to keep private.

As you can see in Figure 3, uploading and managing your files is accomplished via an easy-to-use graphical dashboard. Just click a folder to view its contents or open an individual file. It’s quick and easy, ideal for home or small business users—including those who want to collaborate over the web with other users.

Figure 3. Managing your uploaded files with Windows Live SkyDrive.
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