Livin’ in the Cloud
When it comes to my data, I’m a suspenders and belt kinda’ guy. It can’t be in too many places or have too many layers of security. As with investing one’s hard-earned cash, diversification is critical to success. As such, I have loads of internal backup and security methods that are part of my routine. I ghost a copy of my primary drive in my desktop to an auxiliary drive inside the same machine; I have a Windows Home Server in my house which does a differential backup of my files every few days; and I even sync critical files with a USB memory stick that I can take with me if I need/want to. OK, maybe that’s a couple of sets of suspenders and a belt or two. What can I say?
I’ve been thinking about also syncing and backing up some data to the cloud over the last six months and took the plunge a couple of months ago. I’ve thought about what I really want out of cloud storage and have tried several offerings. I’ll talk about these specifically, but first, a little background on my thinking and what I was looking for.
It seems to me, the when it comes to the storage of data in the cloud, as opposed to the actually use of it, there are three general types of storage solutions – raw file storage, synced/backup file storage, and content-specific storage. Raw cloud-based file storage is simply disk space somewhere on the internet that you can do whatever you want with (think Amazon S3). Synced storage is similar, but it’s usually set up specifically to facilitate the synchronization or backup of data between a PC and disk space similarly elsewhere on the net. Content-specific storage is specifically set up for particular data types like email, photos, music, etc.
When cloud storage is segmented this way, one quickly realizes that all email users have been cloud storage consumers for a while. Whether you use a basic POP or IMAP server for your email or something heavier duty like Exchange or Notes, your email has been in the cloud at least for some period of time. So, you, like me, are already likely a user of cloud storage. This rationalization helped me feel more comfortable about moving my data to someplace unknown.
In the end, I found I was most interested in having storage for backups and syncing to keep multiple computers up to date. Services for the latter often assume the former – a cloud-based synced storage provider often has nice backup capabilities as well. After all, backup is the same storage mechanism without the sync function. I also wanted to expand my specialized storage to include my large photo collection. For this, I wanted a photo-specific site that offered galleries and photo management. These, of course, are not offered by the raw or synced backup folks.
- Amazon S3 – S3 is simply raw storage and it lies underneath many of the other, higher-level cloud storage services out there. There’s no high level interface per se and, as it states clearly on the Amazon AWS site, it’s “intentionally built with a minimal feature set.” At $0.15/GB/Month it isn’t even that cheap compared to some other services – 200GB of backup costs $360. Oh yeah, I can do basic math . . .
- SkyDrive – It’s “integrated” with Microsoft’s unbelievingly confusing array of Windows Live services. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about Microsoft stuff, but this Windows Live thing is hard to understand. It works nicely, but there isn’t any client on the PC side, really. Uploading files is done a handful at a time and there is no syncing. It’s really about sharing files and doesn’t offer any automated backup or syncing. Even for bulk storage, it’s too difficult to use. They offer 25GB of storage for free.
- Live Mesh – I like Live Mesh a lot. Live Mesh is all about synchronization between multiple machines, including Macs (beta) and mobile phones (“soon”) as well as online through a web browser. It works totally behind the scenes, is fast and has the best reporting about what it did and what it’s doing of any service I tried. It also offers features like accessing the desktop of a Live Mesh-connected computer and a nice chatting and feedback facility for sharing and commenting on shared documents. My only problem with Live Mesh was the level of file granularity for syncing. Live Mesh only understand directories, not individual files. Sometimes, you just don’t want the entire directory synced. The initial 5GB of storage is free. It’s still in beta.
- Syncplicity – It’s my favorite of all the sync/backup solutions so far. It makes assumptions about the directories you want to sync or backup and adding different ones is a tad confusing, but once you get it, it’s all a piece of cake. The reporting on what it’s doing isn’t as nice as Live Mesh, but it’s just as seamless and it’s pretty fast (like Live Mesh). Unlike Live Mesh, individual files can be added or removed from a sync tree by right-clicking them (Windows) and just specifying whether or not the file should be included or not. Also, it’s easy to specify whether you want files to be synced with other machines or just backed up. I’m still not completely content with how Syncplicity deals with conflicts. No data is ever lost, but it can be duplicated leaving copies scattered in your directories. Also, I had one really nasty problem with the service. The Syncplicity client was sucking up 10%-50% of the CPU time on my machine – all the time. I sent messages to Syncplicity support and complained about the problem on their forum. Nothing, zero, no response for weeks. In fact, to this day, I’ve gotten no response. I eventually figured the problem out myself. A TrueCrypt encrypted volume in a directory on my machine was screwing the client up. Once removed from the sync tree, the problem was gone. Just horrible service. There is a free 2GB trial and then $99/year for the first 100GB. This is a 50% discount offer that’s been running for a while.
- KeepVault – I tried this out because it integrates nicely with the Windows Home Server Console. I’m using it specifically to back up my server – no desktops included and no synchronization, just backup. It seems to work well, but the initial backup of 150GB of data took about 16 days even when I was not throttling the speed of the connection (a nice option for a server, BTW). Additionally, the backup process stalled about 20 times during the initial backup. Now that it’s only dealing with a handful of files, albeit big ones, at a time, it seems to be working well. Jury’s still out. No trial, but a 30-day money-back guarantee. $180 for 200GB of backup.
- SmugMug – I have 42GB of photos on my server which represent the most cherished of all data I have. At the very least, I needed to backup these files to another physical location. At best, it would be nice if the data could be organized and viewed from that location as well. I looked at many sites, including Flickr (the relative standard in this space) and chose SmugMug. The difference is that SmugMug is aimed at photographers who at least think there is some level of professionalism in their shots. SmugMug’s pages are totally customizable and they understand not to mess with pictures being uploaded (unless you want them to). It’s about the gallery first and about sharing second. Just what I wanted – I’ve never learned how to share well 🙂
There are loads of other services out there including some I considered, but decided not to try on this first pass – DropBox, ZumoDrive, iDrive, Soonr, Jungle Disk, etc. In general, I’m feeling better about having my data somewhere else. The process is easy and, as far as I can tell, secure. Syncing can certainly get better, though, and when there’s a failure, it’s very hard to debug, even if you can detect that it happened in the first place. Sometimes, as with any backup, you don’t know there was a problem until an emergency happens and you really need to restore a file. Not painless, but fairly low barriers to experience. Come on in, the water’s fine . . . so far.