The Cloud is For Everyone
If you have any files (photographs, documents, spreadsheets), you should seriously consider using a cloud storage service. The cloud is for everyone!
When people speak of “the cloud,” they mean networks consisting of a large number of connected computers that are normally located in computer warehouses. Rather than being stored on one specific computer, data is shared across these networks, with in-built redundancies: If one computer goes down, the data is still available on another computer.
If we’re using the internet, we’re in the cloud. We often don’t even think about it, just take for granted that we can see our email, log onto Facebook from any computer that is connected to the internet, and our posts, our photographs, everything will just be there for us – stored on some server somewhere in the internet. So there we are, using “the cloud” on a daily basis.
Cloud storage has real advantages for the individual. There are a number of ways that each of us can use it. The most common ones are Dropbox, Microsoft’s OneDrive, Apple’s iCloud and Google Drive – you’ve probably heard of them, as most new laptops come with a certain amount of free storage space, such as OneCloud.
Once you have saved your files to the cloud, you can access them from any computer with internet access – a great advantage! No need to bring documents on USB sticks, or to lug your own laptop around with you. Your sister wants to see those videos you made at Mam’s 60th? No problem. Fellow u-12 coach is interested in your training plan? Just find a computer, go online and call it up. Bingo!
Cloud Mode 1: The cloud as your back-up
The Cloud is a useful place to back up your data and has taken the place of an external hard drive for many people. Maybe you worry about losing your files on your computer – hard-disk crash, theft, or just a failed upgrade to a new operating system can all endanger your things. In this case, using storage on the cloud is a safe and easy way to back them up. You may have to be selective, if you want to store videos or large amounts of photographs – or you may wish to pay and increase your storage space. For many, it will be enough: The free space of 2 Gig, offered by Dropbox, for instance, can hold 480 songs (based on average song length), 1,200 typical photographs, or over 40,000 Word doc pages.
If you need more space in the cloud, you can pay for it. Typically, €2 per month already gets you a sizable increase.
Cloud Mode 2: The cloud is where your data lives – and your applications!
Let’s say you have very little, if any, space to store files on your device (e.g. you have a Chromebook, or a HP Steam netbook). Or you constantly use different computers, like in libraries or internet cafés (maybe you’re travelling a lot).
Google Drive and Microsoft’s OneDrive have online storage AND online applications. That means you can create documents (texts, presentations, spreadsheets…) online, without having to download or own any program. I’ve used Google Drive a lot in different contexts, and it’s very straightforward. While the Microsoft Office suite has a lot more powerful tools, you may only need those in rare circumstances.
And then there were three… Working together online
An additional bonus of cloud storage is the ease with which you can share documents. It’s very important, of course, to choose the right access level! You can let others view files (lowest level), or comment on them, or edit them (highest).
If you are preparing a presentation with others while using Google Drive, for instance, you can edit the same document at the same time. You’ll be able to see who else is working on it right now, and you’ll see their changes on your screen. There is even a chat function so you can discuss what you are doing.
Having sung the praises of cloud storage, I must add a warning, too.
When your data is in the cloud, you don’t have 100% control over it. There are, of course, data protection procedures which especially the larger players like Apple, Google, Dropbox and Microsoft have to abide by. Still, it’s better to familiarise yourself with the situation by actually reading the terms and conditions, and not just checking that box. This includes the question whether third parties might get access, such as the state or the Gardaí.
A very good background article on Cloud Storage was written for Gizmodo by Adam Clark Estes. It’s called “What Is The Cloud – And Where Is It?” and tackles the origins and history of cloud computing as well as security and safety concerns. Overall, Adam too comes down on the side of “life without a hard drive.”
If you’d like to get an idea how often governments ask for user data, you could start with the Google Transparency Report.
So what to choose?
New computers often come with free storage space on the cloud, and you may find it best to go with the package included with yours.
Personally, I started with Dropbox some four years ago, and I love it. Once installed, it looks like an additional drive on your computer, and all files are physically stored on your hard disk as well as synchronised to the internet. You can access your material online, but you can also work on them when there is NO internet. We are so used to having internet access all the time, but being able to do offline editing may still be necessary in a number of other circumstances (for instance, I’m writing this on the train where there is unreliable WiFi access), which is why I like having my files on my laptop. Dropbox automatically synchronises all files when I’m online; when I’m offline, I have a copy of everything on my laptop, the way it was when I last went online and the computer synchronised. You do need to check that your files are always up-to-date, though, because it can happen that you work on an older version.
I also use Google Drive a lot, because it makes collaboration so easy, and because I can use it with students who may not be using the same computer every time we work together. Also, it’s possible to search (Google) images and information straight from within your document – another bonus.
Outlook: Cloudy with a chance of more?
The cloud is here to stay, and it has serious advantages for the everyday user. For safety (backup), ease of access, and collaboration, it beats external hard drives and USB sticks hands-down. If you’re not using it yet, do give it a try!
This blog article is based on my monthly column on all things digital in the Feb 12, 2016 edition of Skerries News.
If you have comments, questions, or suggestions for future columns, you can contact me at Sabine@cccSkerries.com