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The Cloud, The Drive and Other Things

Once upon a time there was a hard drive. It contained everything you had on your computer: your work, your music, your pictures. It wasn’t very big, but it sure seemed like it at the time. You were warned, of course, to back this up!. But, because you didn’t, whole small businesses were formed recovering data from hard drives that had crashed. Yes, crashed, as in, hit the wall, died, and gave up the data.cloud-158481_1280 Well, obviously, not entirely, as smart people could often recover some or all of the data if the drive wasn’t too horribly dead. It was sometimes possible to take a hard drive out and chill it for a while (literally, in the freezer) and it might give you just enough time to save the data, though certainly not the programs you had purchased and installed. Or, you  (or your friendly neighborhood data recovery company) might run some software on the drive that would recover this data and save it to another drive. But in the really bad old days, neither of these operations were things you could do on your own as we lacked the technical requirements to perform these operations – or the means to move the data from one hard drive to another.

We usually resorted to storing important data on floppy disks; those little squares of plastic that were inserted into a disk drive and onto which data could be written. It took a while, but it was certainly worth the effort, knowing that your information was stored somewhere other than your vulnerable computer. And if you were truly wise, you’d make a couple of copies of this data – because floppy drives themselves were prone to breaking, getting lost, getting erased, and other tragedies.

Along came Zip disks and we felt we had our storage problems licked. So much more storage! Such a relatively fast interface!

Nah. Soon we could write much more data to a CD, much more quickly, and make multiple copies. Carry them from computer to computer because a separate zip drive wasn’t required to read or write the data.photography-731891_1920

Then thumb drives – very convenient, but expensive. Now they’re not. Once they were a few hundred K. Now they are gigabytes.

Better still? External hard drives that fit in the palm of your hand and are terabytes of storage for under $100. They run off USB ports, and don’t required separate power so they are very portable.

But the real secret to storage is The Cloud.

Someday this technology, too, may be pre-empted by something newer, better, faster and bigger – and of course, the cost, originally “free” has been inching up as we become more reliant upon it – but for now it’s hard to see what that might be.

The Cloud is really just a word that derived from the way programmers would illustrate storage when drawing an idea for a program or system – they would literally draw a thing that looked like a cloud to show that here was all the data that would be used, or the source from which data would be drawn for use in various parts of a system. So when a name was needed for online data storage, The Cloud was the perfect choice.

The Cloud is both everywhere, and nowhere. As far as you are concerned, your data is both here – on your computer for you to work with – and “there,” out “there” somewhere. But in truth, it’s housed as 1s and 0s, ons and offs, in a bunch of server farms (big, big installations of servers, or computers that store data and applications) with multiple redundancy (that is, there are many of these farms that house the same data so that if one of them died for some reason – an earth quake, or fire, or power outage – another would be able to provide the same data). It physically exists, as much as any computer data can be said to exist.

The Cloud presents itself to you in many ways: Google Docs/Drive is perhaps one of the earliest versions of The Cloud. For you, Google Docs/Drive is an application with storage. You get a Google Account, you sign on, and your documents, spreadsheets, and slides are available to work on, print, download to local storage, or share with others. You can create and work on documents on your local computer, and then upload them, downloading them as you work on them, or you can simply work on them within the Google Docs platform itself – it has a version of all the major Microsoft Office suite applications (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint) that are completely compatible, so another user can pull the document down into the Office environment and they will display and behave for the most part just as they should. It should be noted that Google Docs was once an application that simply replicated the service performed by Office, and allowed you to store the documents online. Then Drive expanded that to include folders and storage of all kinds of documents, photos, videos – pretty much anything you’d normally store on your local drive. The two work in complete harmony, of course, and I tend to think of them as a single offering, though Drive is certainly useful without Docs, and vice versa.
Dropbox is another popular form of this type of storage – you have a Dropbox folder on your computer, and whatever you put in it is automatically synched with the remote version of that data and shared with whomever you choose to share it with.  Some devices, like cameras, will automatically pull images into a Dropbox account if you have set it up that way, so that every time you attach that camera, it will add any new photos to a specified Dropbox folder. However, Dropbox doesn’t offer the working environment, so you will be opening a given document in a local piece of software – say, Word – then when you save it, the new, updated version of the document will automatically be saved in the Dropbox folder and shared – in its updated version – with other users who have permission. A nice little reminder is displayed on your taskbar when a Dropbox item has been newly updated.

I also use Blogger (another Google application, now) as a form of online storage. Of course, it isn’t going to be useful for much other than writing and some photo storage as it is intended to be a blogging app. But you can access your writing anywhere (making it a form of Cloud) and store huge amounts of work without cost or risk.

The point of it all is, you don’t have to have local storage at all; you can use The Cloud for sharing purposes only; or you can create a hybrid version of local and online storage.

This last appeals to me most, for a few reasons.

Let’s take a quick look at the advantages and disadvantages of locally stored versus cloud stored data.

Accessibility: The Cloud is clearly the winner here – usually. You will have to have an internet connection to access the information. While that isn’t typically a problem, you might be traveling and unable to log on for some reason, or your Internet connection can go down. Whatever the cause, no access means no data. I recall a storm one year that took power out for about ten days. Ten days! I was able to recharge my laptop by driving my car on errands and charging it off the car’s battery, so I was able to continue working in a limited fashion. But Internet was out for quite a while, so had I relied entirely on The Cloud for data, I would have had to find a place where power  – and Internet – were available. On the other hand, dragging an external hard drive (and in my case, as I have seven of them!) knowing which one or more to take with you can be a pain in the neck. So having important documents available anywhere can be a distinct advantage.

Sharability: Again, The Cloud has this one hands down. Sending a document via email, or worse, handing off a thumb drive or disk to share data can be really troublesome, because of the time lost, but also, in terms of version control. Unless you and your team are all really good at naming things properly, and versions aren’t crossing in the mail, you can get into trouble knowing which version is the latest and greatest. Google Docs has a nice little feature that alerts  you when someone else is working on a document that you’re working on.

Security: There’s no reason to believe The Cloud is any more or less secure than your personal computer, given the number of Trojan Horses and other malware we inadvertently download more frequently than we know. The significant difference for me is the mother-lode of information that can be accessed from a cloud as opposed to a personal computer: passwords, account names and numbers, even proprietary or copyright material. However, you can be pretty sure that organizations like Google and Dropbox are taking every possible step to assure security of data – probably much more than you’d be capable of, or have the time for, at home.

Cost: At first, Google Docs were free with your account. Later, Google Drive came online, and remained free. The same was true for Dropbox. However, as people became used to the ease and convenience of document access and sharing, both services began to offer more storage for a minimal cost. And while it truly is minimal, and while I’m certain Google, while not using your data in the particular, is certainly gleaning information in the aggregate and marketing that, will never become extortionately expensive, the more you use the service, particularly for large file storage, like photos and video, the more it will cost you to assure plenty of space at your command.

Nancy Roberts