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!

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