Online Storage Gets Cloudier

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A number of online services have sprung up which enable users to push data from their PCs (and other devices) onto the ‘net for storage and sharing. These are so-called ‘Cloud’ services – not file-sharing solutions such as Limewire which share a section of your PC’s hard drive with other users across the ‘net – but a remote hard disk to which you can save files as if it were a part of your PC’s own storage. What started as a backup solution enabling copies of important data to be held ‘in the cloud’ – on servers sitting on the internet to you and me – has grown into a means of publication of information, and has spawned a whole, hyped industry busily suggesting that everything can be moved into the cloud. The ultimate ‘thin client’ then – your PC (or slate or moby) becomes a dumb ‘client’ device, accessing its apps and data within the internet, not downloading them to you but accessing, manipulating and saving them within the cloud.

The services frequently come in a free version, providing a minimal amount of online storage which can be grown by spending dosh with the providers. This type of storage can be extremely useful but the services out there are not without their risks and hidden pitfalls.

DropBox

Arguably one of the pioneers of the product, DropBox has attracted a great deal of criticism of late. The service is simple and – for 2GB of storage – absolutely free. The client software seamlessly works with Windows XP and Mac OS X to provide what is seen as another disk drive. Multiple machines will synchronise neatly with the cloud-based files. Users can link/unlink their various machines with their DropBox data store. As a recent user, I found it to be slick, non-technical and especially useful in working with the iPad. It is not encrypted in any way – either in its transport of data between your machine and the cloud, or in its actual storage of data within its own servers so is arguably far from secure or private. This is not always clear to users and attracted a tumult of stroppy comment in recent months. This, coupled with a recent security cock-up has lost them friends. However, what prompted me to leave the service are the changes to Ts&Cs. DropBox are telling me that I give up all rights to my data – including copyright – when I store it within their cloud. In effect, I give them complete rights to re-use my data. Now, I understand the underlying reasons for these new clauses – so that they can permit access via hyperlinks etc. to my data if I so elect and also in providing a basic storage service, they are asking for ‘access’ to the data itself. Sure. Within the limits of providing the service, I do understand their arguments. However, the way they have elected to draft these clauses leaves a fair amount open to interpretation and would require a challenge to be made in court in order to establish whether any action they took was within the need to provide the service. No thanks. Too late when they have nicked my latest manuscript and flogged it to the tabloids (some chance !). Still, if you simply don’t care who may see your data or are tech-savvy enough to encrypt what you store there, DropBox remains worth a look.

MobileMe (soon to be iCloud)

Apple’s offering is about to change with the advent of their iCloud service. MobileMe goes beyond the simple drag-and-drop of DropBox and includes synchronisation of calendar, contacts, bookmarks and even a full IMAP-based Email service. The synchronisation includes a Windows-based client which will sync contacts up with Outlook and any Exchange back-end. The client software under Windows XP is flaky, however, and frequently sends the Windows Debugger into fits. For an annual subscription of £60-ish, you get 10GB of storage plus Email and the other trimmings. This is all about to end, though, as Apple flog its new iCloud service which includes the ability to store all your iTunes data – movies, music et al – in their cloud, or elements of it. It is a neat idea which means that you can start moving significant amounts of data into the cloud, as well as keeping some or all of your precious media library accessible from ‘anywhere’. The demise of MobileMe is not without its attendant casualties and moving to iCloud will mean you lose iDisk – the cloud-based storage component of MobileMe – which seems bonkers. Apple have not been entirely clear on which of the other features will survive so worth watching closely to see what the full service description is when iCloud is released in Q4 of 2011.

Amazon

For my money, Amazon are the real inventors of the ‘cloud’ with their Elastic Compute model for providing online/hosted servers and related services such as storage on a pay-for-what-you-eat basis. Its a great model and, whilst their EC2 (processor) and S3 (storage) charges seem to be a tad on the expensive side, they really have packaged up the whole offering in a coherent manner. They lead the way in providing APIs and related infrastructure to enable the quick and efficient scaling of services – including self-service – by their customers. Neat but not really intended for the end- / home-user.

Futures

It gets murkier and more complex as you look into other providers and players. Offering storage in this way is a great introduction to other services-in-the-cloud so is seen as a wallet-opener by the providers. Amazon is targetting serious developers and service providers with its flexible but costly offering; Dropbox and its followers are for the home user and are limited to cloud storage for the moment. Microsoft as ever are slow to catch up but are in the game yet suffering from their usual schizophrenia with their Azure service (akin to Amazon) and SkyDrive (their Dropbox clone).  In any guise it is a land-grab such as we knew from internet providers of old, but investors need to beware. The services are not as sticky as, say, Facebook or eBay. Customers can move. There is real and innovative competition in cloud services so consumers will start to see choice – with attendant diversity in the services themselves. Yes, these services – unlike their social counterparts – will need to be paid for directly but the benefits should be real. Better features such as in-line encryption, multi-device synchronisation, public picture galleries, free website and email domains etc. will be just the start of the differentiators on offer. A space to be watched.

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