In part one of this blog we established that “the cloud” is any program that stores your data and performs its core functions on remote servers which send that information to whatever device you are using to access it. Cloud applications come in a variety of shapes and sizes from web based applications to actual web based file storage systems. Chances are you already use certain web based applications, as these include email, games you play that you don’t have to download, or any program where you login online without having to install the software on your local machine. Therefore, we are going to focus the remaining two blogs on the options for online storage and collaboration. In this blog we will take a look at some of the free storage options how you can (and can’t) use online storage apps, advantages and limitations of some of the top applications, and security concerns with free apps.
What is Online File Storage?
With the plethora of devices available, it can be tricky to get all of your data into one place, not to mention the frustration that comes with collaborative projects and the resulting umpteen million versions of files produced. In the past, professionals of all kinds have dealt with this in two ways, first through file transfer protocol or FTP. With FTP, you would condense (best known as zipping) a file and upload it to a virtual box on your network, you or a collaborator (who was inside your network and granted access to the ftp protocols) would download the file, unzip it, do what they needed to it, re-zip it and then upload to the ftp server again. Here is the trick though, if you didn’t delete that old version or adequately label the new version, you now have two nearly indistinguishable versions and you and your colleagues are charged with figuring out which one is the most recent. The next wave was a lot easier; we are talking about sharing files via email attachment. The process was a bit simpler, click the add attachment button, upload the file, and hit send. On the other end the person would open the attachment, re-save the file, edit, attach and resend. The problems there were: a. the process was still a bit cumbersome, b. you still have the problem of multiple versions of files that you have to distinguish, c. users quickly run out of space in their email boxes.
With these kinds of barriers to collaboration, in a world that is increasingly moving toward social and collaborative everything, this kind of hassle just to work together on a project wasn’t merely inconvenient it was antithetical to the spirit of a movement. Enter “the cloud”. Programmers felt that there needed to be a way to access data on multiple devices and by multiple people without so much fuss. So they took a cue from email and Software as a Service providers and created programs that would let you store your files on a remote server, and created a web based interfaces where you could access it from any computer. That concept eventually evolved as mobile became dominant and now you can access your files on demand from any internet connected device you are carrying. Many of these services are offered on a limited basis for free, for more advanced features and connectivity you have to purchase a paid version.
This is but a brief summary of the history of cloud computing; for a more detailed look check out this article by Computer Weekly.
How Can I Use This?
There are a myriad of ways you can use cloud storage, from creating an easy to share family photo album (that isn’t open for the whole world to see and comment on) to storing and collaborating on that huge project that will earn you your next promotion, while you ride into work on the train. Most business users will find that the free versions of the cloud storage programs are not adequate for their needs. This is due to the limited storage provided in free versions, as well as the lower security threshold for free storage applications. However, if you are just dipping your toe into the cloud waters, the free versions are a good way to test the benefits before you dive on in and make an investment.
So, What is Out There?
There are many file storage options available to you on the cloud. For business purposes it is best to look at paid solutions that have extra productivity tools, collaboration options, added security, and will allow you to make modifications to the service that will allow you to integrate your own tools. We will discuss these paid options in more detail in part three. There are also free options that you can use personally or as a way of testing the potential benefits of the cloud to your business. Before trying out any cloud applications, it would be prudent to consult with an I.T. professional who is versed in information security and data storage options. A professional will help you understand the technical requirements and potential security risks. If you have sensitive information, exercise caution in storing it on a free cloud solution as that data may not be as secure as it would be in a paid solution which would feature password protection and higher levels of encryption.
Free Services You Can Use
There are many services that offer free cloud storage. The top three are Google Drive, Dropbox, and Box. Each of these services has their own benefits and limitations.
Google Drive: This a new cloud storage solution recently released by Google. It is primarily an extension of Google Docs and offers 5 GB of free storage, and is available on mobile for Android users (the iOS app is in the works but as of right now isn’t available). The most advantageous new feature is a folder on your desktop, which syncs with the online service and any other device you have Google Drive installed in. Another great feature is a search feature that uses OCR to scan your images, so that you don’t have to remember what you called a file as long as you can remember what the image/PDF said. Along with this fairly handy new feature, there are some Google Docs features that make Google Drive a fairly easy to use solution and give it a small edge over Dropbox and Box. Documents that are stored in a Google Docs format can be edited real time by anyone who you give editor permissions. These documents can easily be shared with other users of Google Drive and Google docs and can be emailed to collaborators, that don’t. The paid version will get you more storage, allow Google app integration, and provides additional security options.
Dropbox: Dropbox is perhaps the most popular cloud storage devce on the market; it offers 2 GB of storage with options to earn more free storage up to 18 GB. Dropbox also has a syncing folder that can be added to your desktop and all of your devices. You can easily share files by sending your collaborators a link to your files. You do have to download a file to work on it, but the process for syncing it again is fairly easy and it leaves an original copy of the file so that you can track changes. The mobile interface is easy to use as well and it is easy to update and edit files using the office programs on your phone, and unlike Google Drive the apps are available on both Android and iOS. Paid versions offer more storage, and will also allow you to integrate Google apps. There are also additional collaboration and security features.
The limitations of Dropbox are few but significant. First, is that there is less storage available than other services. You are able to earn extra free storage through referrals, but that takes time and assumes you have friends who either don’t have the cloud already or who are interested in switching to Dropbox. Another limitation is the real time editing features. Since you have to download files you can’t have two people working on the file at the same time, you would have to work on it re-sync it and let the next person work on it. Really, it lacks completely in the realm of effective collaboration, because there isn’t a way for you to even leave notes. There is a workaround for this, you can leave your notes in the email when you send them the link to the file, or you can enable comments on whatever document you are working on.
Box: Box is very similar to Dropbox, but the mobile interface isn’t as smooth and easy to use. It comes with more free storage than Dropbox with 5GB. What makes Dropbox stand out is that even its free version has a collaboration feature. Inside the application you can leave notes for your collaborators. It also allows in app editing via the Zoho editor and e-signing for your documents.
The limitations on the free version are somewhat more than Google Docs and Dropbox. For instance, there is not a desktop sync in the free version, meaning you have to either, drag and drop your files into the your web browser window or you have to upload the files. In addition, the file downloads tend to be a bit slower. And Box has many of the same limitations as the other two. However, if you are looking to upgrade for your business, Box has the best productivity and collaboration features of the three in its paid version, so if you want to use try the free version while getting a feel for the interface you will be using, Box might just be a better option for you.
Regardless of what option you choose, cloud storage provides accessibility to documents and allows ease of collaboration which is at the heart of the modern enterprise. Take a test drive with one of these applications, or try out some of the others you have heard about, but remember to consult with an IT professional about the benefits and potential problems of being on the cloud.