Sunday, January 24, 2010

Up in the Clouds

Both my favorite hobby (photography) and work (software project management) rely heavily on digital mobile technology -- storing data on the go, and accessing it from multiple devices.

In the old days, when you just had 1 PC, if you cared about keeping your data backed up, you also had a second storage device of some kind to do that -- floppy discs, a tape drive, or maybe even an external hard drive.

That kind of system was great as long as your house wasn't robbed or destroyed, or you were diligent enough to keep your backup tapes/discs offsite. But honestly, who ever was really that careful! And what if you were off traveling in your RV thousands of miles from home? You wouldn't really want to mail all those floppies or tape drives home every day to keep them stored "offsite", would you?

Fortunately today, the online storage "cloud" has rolled in, giving us some great options to keep our backup data stored online and accessible to multiple laptops, PCs, and even cell phones. So regardless of whether we're home or on the road, we can always keep our data with us.

When traveling in my RV, I still bring along a few external hard drives to keep local copies of data with me (great when you don't have internet connectivity or are limited by cellular data bandwidth caps), but when I've got good unlimited wifi access, I make sure to get copies of these files online for the added protection and access.

About a year ago, I looked long and hard for a "one-stop" online backup service like Mozy, Carbonite, Elephant Drive, and the like. While each had their pros and cons, none of these general backup solutions stood out as particularly easy or cheap to use. I was also concerned about the "all eggs in one basket" risk should the site get hacked or go out of business (which many since have in this recession).

So, I've now turned to multiple online "best of breed" solutions. The benefit here is that each solution offers more features/functionality for the particular data they specialize in, most of the providers are very well-established companies, and I'm reducing my security risks by keeping my data spread out across multiple sites/providers rather than all in one place.

Here are my favorite online data "cloud" solutions at the moment:

Google Docs - This has been my favorite FREE solution the past few years for keeping and editing MSOffice documents online (Word, Excel, and Powerpoint). Google has nicely enhanced their online editing capabilities this year making it one of the most robust "Web 2.0" solutions out there. This month, they've also just released "game changer" functionality-- you can now store ANY file type (up to a whopping 250mb per file). Google gives you the first 1GB for free, and gives a pretty good deal on additional storage space too (20GB is only $5/yr, 80GB is $20/yr, and if you go for 200GB at $50/yr, they'll give you a free Eye-fi SD card).

Previous to this Google Docs upgrade, my "Any File Type" storage solution was Windows Live SkyDrive which provides a generous 25GB of free storage and allows files up to 50 mb each.

While Google Docs and SkyDrive are great "any file type" online storage solutions, if used directly, they are not as fast and easy copying files back and forth to an external USB hard drive. Fortunately, "there's an app for that!"--- the free Gladinet Cloud Desktop (sorry, PC only, no Mac version), creates a pseudo networked drive in Windows Explorer that provides directory/file access to all your Google Docs, Picasa, and SkyDrive files. So now you can drag and drop files to these online providers as easily as to a USB hard drive....all for free!

I keep copies of all my full-res photo images on Flickr. A pro account ($25/yr) lets me upload unlimited JPG files as long as they're under 20 mb each. Would be great to be able to store DNG files too, but alas, they are not currently supported. While I can't stand Flickr's online image management UI, their integration with my primary image management tool (Adobe Lightroom) works great, and I love the ability to view/display my Flickr photo albums (and my Flickr contacts' albums) from my iPhone, my Apple TV, and any internet-connected computer I happen to be at. Browsing through Flickr is also a great way to get your creativity recharged! For those of you who aren't Flickr fans, Google Picasa is also a nice alternative.

I keep copies of my edited HD and iPhone videos on YouTube. While the service is free, it limits your video clips to 10 minutes each. But so far, this hasn't been a problem for me (I don't shoot that much video). Like Flickr, I enjoy being able to access my YouTube videos from my iPhone, AppleTV, and other connected devices. If you don't like YouTube, another option to explore is Vimeo.

I mentioned Evernote in last week's post. This is my main storage location for web clippings, PDFs, free text and handwritten/ink notes, as well as any pictures of text/items that I want to be able to search via OCR later. Evernote gives me unlimited storage for $40/yr, but limits monthly uploads to 500 mb/month (I've never come close to that). While Google Docs also lets you store PDFs and "any file type", I like Evernote's iPhone integration and OCR searching capabilities better, so prefer keeping my PDFs in Evernote.

My email, calendar, and contact address book info is spread out across multiple services (Yahoo, Gmail, Hotmail/Live, and my company's Exchange server). Other than Exchange, that stuff is really a pain to keep stored on local drives, so I find the multiple online services give me the needed redundancy for backup purposes.
One final caution about storing data online-- take extra precautions when storing personal identity info, passwords, financial/tax, and health records. For instance, before scanning and storing a document with my full name and address on it, I'll take a sharpie pen and black out portions of that. The document will still show enough "proof" that it's mine if I need to, say, show a receipt for a warranty claim. But if a hacker (or rogue employee) ever breaks into my online account and gets a hold of these files, they won't be able to steal my identity. I also will sometimes protect a file by first encrypting it locally via TrueCrypt or BitLocker before uploading it online. Every layer of defense you can think of will help protect your personal identity. It's also wise to create "strong" passwords for ALL online accounts you use-- i.e. using some CAPS and numeric digits and making sure passowords are longer than 8 characters.

These online solutions don't eliminate the need to do routine hard drive backups of your primary laptops/PCs, but they do give you additional mobile accessibility and a second layer of backup protection-- both critical to the traveling digital nomad!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Paperless in Paradise

My home office has a large desk with a fairly hefty-sized "all-in-one" Printer/Scanner/Copier taking up the quite a bit of space. The rest of the space, seems to have increasingly been taken up by documents of every size, shape, and form-- expense receipts, bills, warranty documents, owner/user guides, magazine articles, etc.

The piles of paper grew because I absolutely hated the slow, tedious chore of scanning the paper to electronic documents. Submitting expense reports was also a royal pain in the backside because not only did I have to scan all the tiny little receipts, but I also had to then print and sign the final report summary and then scan it to combine with my other electronic scanned pages into a completed report for emailing. So, needless to say, it took hours to do this chore and required both a scanner and a printer. I needed a better and faster solution not only for my home office, but my mobile RV office as well.

Fortunately, I found it!

I've now replaced my big All-in-One Printer/Scanner/Copier with a small, portable, ultra-fast scanner, a pen tablet, and some software solutions that allow me to quickly scan incoming paper and then manage it completely electronically after that. So far, after using the new system 3 months, I've not needed to print anything!

My new paperless solution involves the following:

    • Fujitsu Scansnap S300 Scanner - At $240, it's not cheap, but Fujitsu is the leader at making rock-solid scanners that can duplex scan (both sides at once) incredibly fast. In less than 30 seconds, I can scan a double-sided document and create a PDF document with searchable text. As an added bonus, this scanner folds up small, weighs less than 3 pounds, and can even run fully off of USB power if needed--- the perfect solution for mobile work!

    • Wacom Bamboo Pen Tablet - This little tablet ($54) requires no batteries and runs off of USB power. It allows me to annotate and sign documents that are already in electronic form without printing and re-scanning them. The tablet is also great for electronic artwork and photo editing and is small enough to easily fit inside a laptop bag.

    • PDF-Xchange Viewer - This FREE software allows you to open any PDF file, annotate/draw/sign it, and then re-save it as a PDF. A perfect solution when you need to get your real signature onto an electronic document without having to physically print and hand-sign it. The software also supports custom bitmap "stamps" so I can take one image file of my handwritten signature and stamp/resize it onto PDF files without having to get my pen tablet out. I opted for the Pro version of this software that allows you to also add/delete/move pages of a PDF file among other features. This software, combined with my free PrimoPDF "Print-to-PDF" software, allows me to replicate just about all Adobe Acrobat functionality for less than $35 bucks. WOW!

    • Evernote - My online virtual file cabinet! Not only can I upload all my PDF files for easy access from any internet-connected computer later, but I can also upload and view web page clips, images, audio files, and any other file type as well. Best of all, I can upload and view these from my iPhone as well! While they offer a Free service, I upgraded to the $40/year Premium account to get more online storage and features. I use Evernote every day-- if I'm out shopping and see a product that looks interesting, I can take a photo of it with my iPhone and save it to Evernote for later reference. Alternatively, if I'm grocery shopping and want to buy ingredients for a favorite recipe, I just have to pull up the recipe in Evernote from my iPhone to remember what to buy.

    Scansnap is fully integrated with Evernote, so I can quickly and easily scan any new paper I receive into PDF documents that are accessible and searchable from any internet computer or mobile phone I happen to be at. Here's a little example of how fast this system works:

    My paper file cabinets have now been completely eliminated, and I can now take my entire home office with me anywhere I go!

    Saturday, January 9, 2010

    Change of plans -- staying home this winter

    Well, it's been a while since I posted...sorry about that.

    As I was getting the View packed up for it's big snowbirding adventure, life had other ideas this winter. My mom's health encountered a pretty significant setback in October, so I'm now staying home to help her out for the foreseeable future.

    While certainly not the carefree "fun in the sun" winter I had been hoping for, this winter has not been all doom and gloom. Millie, for one, has been very happy to jump through her snowy backyard and rub noses between the fence posts with the neighbor's new black lab. She's also enjoyed being able to see my mom on just about a daily basis-- she is most definitely a "grandma's dog" and squeals with delight whenever she first sees her.

    I learned how to winterize a motorhome (well, let's hope I learned how to do it right and don't have busted leaky water pipes in the RV this spring!). I also found a great RV storage place just a couple miles from the house. Unlike my T@B that requires no further attention once it's stored for the winter, motor homes need to be "checked in on" about once a month to charge up the batteries, and run gas and fluids through the engine and generator.

    The local storage lot is perfect-- relatively inexpensive, some dumpy-looking RVs in the front of the lot that my nice View can hide behind to deter theft, and it's run by a nice old guy, Roger, who has years of RV'ing experience.

    The only challenge with the storage lot has been learning it's rather unique hours. Roger is old-school-- no website, rusty old sign out front, handwrites his receipts, and doesn't have much of a voice mail system. The first time I went to do my monthly "engine running/battery charging", I arrived just as he was leaving for lunch. He said "no worries, just park your car outside the gate and I'll park my truck at the entrance" (so I could walk around the truck and leave, but the lot would still be secure). That worked out well.

    But the second month's visit went a little differently-- I was doing my Saturday errands and realized in the mid afternoon that I needed to get over to the lot before they closed for the weekend. I arrived a little before 4:00pm and figured I had over 30 minutes to run the engines, etc. It was cold that day, so rather than stop and say hi to Roger first, I just drove right back to my motorhome. As the sun started setting, I saw that it was getting to be 4:30 and likely around closing time, so I locked up the View, got in my car and began to leave the lot.

    Suddenly, I realized I had a big problem--- the front gate was now locked shut, Roger's car was gone, and his office was locked tighter than a drum. I was now locked inside the storage lot for the weekend!!!! Thankfully, I had my iPhone and a nice warm car to sit in. I looked up the non-emergency phone number on my iPhone, and they transferred me to a couple different municipalities until I finally was given to the 911 dispatcher for the county sheriff's office. Within 10 minutes, a squad car arrived and a friendly laughing deputy got out of the car to assess my situation.

    The deputy first tried calling Roger's emergency number, but remember? Roger's old-school--- no cell phone, no pager, no nothing!!! So, next, the deputy called a few more of his buddies (some detectives in unmarked police cars) to come guard me while he went over to Roger's house to try getting him there. 30 minutes later, he returned with a sheriff's Paddy Wagon van but still had not been able to locate Roger. Finally, the deputies decided to call the fire department to see if they could bring their bolt-cutters to cut the padlock and chain around the front gate.

    About 10 minutes later, the biggest hook and ladder firetruck I've ever seen came roaring up to the front of the storage yard and 3 burly firemen jumped out. I now had these guys and their big truck, the Paddy Wagon, a squad car, and a detective's car in front of me--- must have looked like a huge emergency to the people driving past us! But, fortunately, the firemen were great and laughed the whole time. Within a minute they were able to cut the chain and open the gate for me. I thanked everyone profusely and they sent me on my way.

    A couple days later when Roger got back and called me he said I was the first person in his 40+ years of operating the storage lot that had ever managed to get herself locked in! Fortunately, all ended well and we got a good laugh out of it.

    So, even though I'm home this winter, I'm still managing to have a few fun adventures with the RV!

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