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Cloud storage and syncing

The ‘cloud’ is just a word for the online space wherein gigabytes of data is stored. So how does one go about using the cloud? There are several web sites and applications that offer cloud storage services, namely Google Drive, Apple iCloud, Windows Skydrive, NortonZone, Dropbox, etc. The list is nearly endless. Now, upon opening any of these web sites or applications, the page opens to a login page asking for your username and password. Once your register or sign up, your files can be added to the cloud through a simple upload procedure. Most web sites often have dedicated email or image storing while there are those which offer free data storage up to a certain gigabyte of space. Upon exceeding the offered limit, you either have to pay to avail further services, or look elsewhere. Google Docs, YouTube, all email providers, Facebook, Picasa, Flikr, etc., all use cloud storage to let you store your data.

CLOUD STORAGE AND SYNCING

Here we’ll look at how you can go about backing up and syncing with your cloud storage account

The ‘cloud’ is just a word for the online space wherein gigabytes of data is stored. So how does one go about using the cloud? There are several web sites and applications that offer cloud storage services, namely Google Drive, Apple iCloud, Windows Skydrive, NortonZone, Dropbox, etc. The list is nearly endless. Now, upon opening any of these web sites or applications, the page opens to a login page asking for your username and password. Once your register or sign up, your files can be added to the cloud through a simple upload procedure. Most web sites often have dedicated email or image storing while there are those which offer free data storage up to a certain gigabyte of space. Upon exceeding the offered limit, you either have to pay to avail further services, or look elsewhere. Google Docs, YouTube, all email providers, Facebook, Picasa, Flikr, etc., all use cloud storage to let you store your data.

So how exactly is data stored on the web? Space on the web doesn’t magically manifest itself owing to an increased demand. The facilities that provide cloud storage services enable the data uploaded by users to be stored on an off-site storage system maintained by a third party server. For instance, when you upload data onto your Google Drive account, what is happening behind the screens is that the packet of information that you send is being routed to whichever server your user account’s files are on, which usually isn’t the web server that serves you Google Drive’s pages. The Google Drive server (facilitator) you are connected to is acting as a go-between your PC and the storage system, and merely graphically displaying what you have stored, and sending commands to modify as you make changes in the interface.

Cloud storage facilitators depend on hundreds of servers, running round the clock and picking up the slack if one of them fails or falls off the network. Knowing all too well that computers too need maintenance and an occasional cool off, any information you send to the cloud is stored on several systems. Redundancy of systems is absolutely necessary if the facilities intend on providing continuous uptime.

In addition to multiple servers carrying the same data, cloud storage facilities also ensure that the servers that store information use different power supplies, and often, ensure that identical information is never stored on another server in the same datacentre. This arrangement ensures that clients still have access to their information in the event of a power failure, or even an entire datacentre being disabled.

Cloud Storage facilitators have extended their interface to provide the same services on mobile devices, with a version for each operating system. You can now access data stored on the cloud on the go, making you and your smartphone even smarter. Just as any portfolio manager would advise you not to put too many eggs in one basket, diversify your data storage as well. Store the bulk on the hard disks, but make sure your day-to-day essentials are on the cloud.

Security issues

A sudden realisation dawns when you notice your Facebook account containing personalised advertisements. Just how much information does one mouse click contain? This concern is exponential when it concerns storing sensitive data on the cloud. Is the so called off-site location manned by the third party server reliable and secure? Can you access the information on the cloud without other eyes tracking your every click? Can you restrict the recipients of the information on the cloud? These are few of the many concerns that plague users’ minds as they reluctantly opt to store sensitive data on the cloud rather than transfer it to a hard disk. To begin with, let’s go through how the data on the web is secured. Most systems that do manage the data on the web, use a combination of techniques to ensure the security of information.

Firstly, data is encrypted which is the process by which information sent is encoded in such a way that only a user with the encryption key can decode it. Most information is encrypted by symmetric-key or public-key encryption. Symmetric-key encryption techniques have grown outdated, and public-key encryption techniques rule today. A popular implementation of this encryption technique is the Transport Layer Security (TSL) which is now accepted as an industry standard.

In the public-key encryption technique, the key used to decode information is based on a hash value. This hash value that is used is computed from an input number using the hashing algorithm. The hashing algorithm provides a standard to convert an input number to the hash value. It is nearly impossible to extract the original input number from the hash value without knowing what the hashing algorithm does. Public keys use very sophisticated algorithms and large hash values for encrypting, including 40-bit or even 128-bit numbers. Trying to find a particular 128-bit number would be the equivalent of looking for the right grain of sand in the Sahara.

What encryption mainly does is that it assures a safe transit of data. To ensure that data sent is sent from a trustworthy source or the right one, authentication is used. The most common practice of authentication, though there exist several, that is implemented by cloud storage facilities is the requirement of a username and password. It is a simple procedure. When the user is prompted to enter the username and password, it checks the pair entered against the ones in a secure file. If there is a match found, the user is allowed further access.

Authorization allows the user to enlist those people who are authorized to obtain the information that is stored on the cloud. In corporations, due to the hierarchy in place, different employees might be allowed different levels of access to the data on the cloud. For example, a low-level employee who delivers mail might have very limited access to the data on the cloud whereas the head of the division will have extensive access to information.

Though there exist extensive measures of security, concerns still loom large over cloud storage systems. While you can access data on the go without relying on hardware, it is now theoretically available to the world. Testament to this cause for concern is the increasing number of attacks by anonymous hackers on unsuspecting victims, often having their social network accounts wiped out or their passwords changed. This being the least of the violations that one could face, what if sensitive information such as credit card details, passport number, pan card number, etc. stored on the cloud are traced by a hacker? Personal measures can be taken to avoid such a grave situation by changing one’s username and password regularly and storing such sensitive information in a secure location, physically, and not on the web.

Google recently eased a lot of nerves by declaring that it now encrypts all data before copying to disk. Thus, all your data is being decrypted on the fly when it is read by you. This means that none of the thousands of employees who man the data centres where your information might be stored are privy to your unencrypted personal information. The same applies to our Digit Forum, for example: while an administrator can change your password and block your account, he can never know what your password was, which is an ideal form of security, because say, if you use the same password as your email account, no forum admin can ever know what that password is, as it is stored encrypted in the database from the moment you enter it.

Outsourced storage performance is obviously lower than local storage. How much slower depends on the speed of the pipe you’re willing to invest in and obviously the higher the bandwidth, the better the experience, but it can never be as good as a local hard drive.

The government is the other concern for cloud-based storage, as most nations allow court orders to be issued to access any data without first informing the owner / uploader of the data. These anti-terrorism laws can obviously be misused as well, but here the chances of that being you amongst a billion other netizens is remote, and only increases depending on whether you’re involved in suspicious activity. For most of us, this isn’t a concern at all.

Syncing services

Cloud Storage and Syncing applications are slowly becoming popular. They offer an almost exclusive service of cloud based storage and synchronisation of documents across multiple devices. There are a multitude of cloud based sync-store options out there now. Below we have listed few of the popular and powerful cloud sync and store applications along with briefs about their features, strengths and weaknesses.

Google Drive: Whatever comes out from the Google factory immediately draws attention. Google Drive is no exception. While it started as Google Docs, it now has the ability to display more than 30 kinds of files (HD videos, Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, etc.) on your PC. This allows you to open files made on software which may not be installed on the device you’re currently accessing the data from. Google Drive also has an OCR scanning ability which allows the app to scan images for text and enhances the Search Drive option significantly.

For daily use, Google Drive allows you to upload files for storage, as most sync-store apps do, but since Google doesn’t believe in the concept of folders, everything just goes into the same pile, which is a big drawback. Drive comes with a basic document editor that allows you to edit files on the go and has some excellent retention and collaboration features, but there is still no support to do so for multiple accounts. Google Drive’s strengths lie in its excellent support for all Google-based features such as Gmail and Google+. The UI is simple, and navigating is pretty easy. As the Drive is an enhanced version of Google Docs there are brilliant document viewing and editing options. On the flip side, the Drive has limited syncing and streaming options. Sharing a file is irritating and previewing options are limited on some apps. There is 5 GB of free storage and there are applications for most OS platforms on PC’s and mobile devices.

Dropbox: It is probably the most popular cloud based sync-store app around .It is beautifully simple and uncluttered. Anyone who has used Dropbox will tell you that it is extremely user friendly and that is its biggest strength. Sharing a file is a no brainer and a link can be generated in a couple of clicks. Another plus point is the brilliant API that Dropbox is built on. The API results in the generation of multiple applications that utilize Dropbox, increasing support. Dropbox does have a few drawbacks. All files uploaded get stored in a single Dropbox folder which basically reduces its usage as a reliable backup option. Like Google Drive you cannot sync device folders. Also Dropbox’s free storage is on the lower side and additional storage is a tad expensive.

Dropbox’s acquisition of cloud based photo storage giant Snapjoy increased photo viewing support from multiple devices significantly. Dropbox also has a pretty useful Facebook integration allowing users to share files from Dropbox’s cloud to Facebook groups. In all Dropbox is a great option to satisfy your cloud sync need. Syncing customisation options are limited but simplistic UI and settings make it a breeze to use.

SkyDrive: SkyDrive is Microsoft’s offering to the cloud-based sync and store applications. It’s an extremely well-designed application. The UI is also simplistic and overall look and feel of the app is very easy on the eyes. Skydrive has some Google Drive-like features, and you can create and edit documents from within your browser. Skydrive also syncs all the documents created using Microsoft software such as One Note, Word and PowerPoint, as Google Drive does with Google-based documents. SkyDrive gives you the option of multi-folder sync which essentially means that you can select different folders on your PC to sync with Skydrive. This is a big plus point. It also has one of the highest amounts of free storage in the class of cloud based store and sync apps (7 GB). The application also has a nifty fetch feature using which you can access files from a connected home PC.

SkyDrive makes for a powerful application when it comes to syncing your documents and storing them on the cloud. It doesn’t really have a weakness as such, except absence of support from third party applications and the absence of a Linux client.

NortonZone: This offering by Symantec prides itself on security. The app’s tagline is “Finally, file sharing that’s both easy and safe. From the company that protects the world’s most important data — yours.” Norton- Zone is not a bad addition to the multitude of cloud store-sync options out there. It has the usual stock of features like multiple device syncing and link share. NortonZone is high on collaboration and has the options of inviting groups for folder share. Invited people can also comment on shared stuff. NortonZone also has an automatic system to detect virus or malware on uploaded files. NortonZone’s weakness is that it is hardly a dynamic tool. The UI is not great and could really use an upgrade. In all NortonZone is a safe bet, but it does not have enough firepower to shake the share of Dropbox, Google Drive et al.

SugarSync: SugarSync is a highly customisable application, and not only does it allow you to sync multiple folders from your PC, it also allows you to select the devices you want to sync it across. SugarSync also has a near exclusive feature of allowing the user to password protect files. Media Streaming is also available and you can stream entire albums from the cloud. There is 5 GB of free storage on joining. SugarSync, while high on features has a difficult to deal with UI. Navigating and getting things to work is difficult when compared to the simplistic environment of DropBox. There is also no Linux support.

Apple iCloud: iCloud is an Apple product and although not as feature heavy as others it is quite a simple and handy solution to basic cloud storage and syncing. There are quite a few apps that have iCloud support. Not only does every change made on these apps get updated via the cloud on Apple’s server, you have the additional benefit of retaining a previously saved version of your document. iCloud is extremely simple to use. Users must remember that iCloud is a basic application. There is no public sharing facility and the app is largely meant for syncing text documents created on supported apps.

Box: Box is another popular cloud service for storing and syncing data. It is supported by quite a few productivity apps and this is a big benefit. Box mirrors DropBox in the above aspect due to its popular API. Box has some nice features such as feed about document changes, detailed version tracking and integration with Google Docs. Sharing features are elaborate in nature and there are more than enough collaborative features, and it doesn’t have multi-folder sharing capability and that remains its biggest drawback.

Others: Apart from these, there are a number of other apps. Some of them are Insync (closely tied with Google), Mozy Stash (essentially a Dropbox model), Wuala (great security and powerful desktop applications), and Cubby (allows syncing files from two switched on machines). Unlike a tablet/phone/laptop comparison there is no clear winner in the cloud sync app category. The choice largely depends on the need. Google Drive is a great option if your syncing needs are simple and you deal with lot of email based data. SkyDrive has multi folder syncing and that gives you greater flexibility. Plus Skydrive has a beautiful interface and killer looks. SkyDrive and Google Drive also have excellent on the go editing option. Dropbox is usually the preferred option for users with simple storage and syncing need. It has a very user friendly interface and third party support makes it a popular choice.

It is also a dependable option on a number of platforms. If you want larger control of what and where to sync than Sugarsync is a great option. Users might want to look at smaller and less popular apps that offer some neat specific features, like the powerful peer-to-peer sharing ability of Cubby.

Transfer large files online

Most email service providers have a file size limit when it comes to attachments. That limit usually acts as a barrier if the user wants to transfer something big. There is certainly a way to work around this problem. There are certain cloud based services that allow users to transfer large files via internet. Some of these cloudbased services are:

Dropsend: This is a very popular service used for transferring bulky files. Users can send files up to 2GB using the simple web interface provided by Dropsend. The application provides a basic interface that just asks for a from and to email address, and a simple visual security code verification. The free service doesn’t have a storage option, but you can send up to five files in a month. Paid plans can be customized for greater utility. Dropsend ensures security for data transfer and storage with 256-bit AES security.

Ge.tt: Ge.tt is another web-based application that allows registered or anonymous users to transfer large files with minimal fuss. It is a simple application with drag-and-drop option for transfer. There is a real time update on the number of shared files and users that appears as a count on the right end corner of the page which is quite cool. Ge.tt has a 2GB limit for registered users. The service allows real time sharing which means that the content is published or shared as soon as selected and there is no need to wait for uploading. Ge.tt has its own API which allows developers to modify and enhance app utility. Hightail (formerly YouSendIt): This is another attractive option for large file transfer.

Hightail allows you to send large files in a secure manner. The service also gives you the option of sharing folders and allowing restricted access. In addition to the above there are other services provided like file encryption and virtual document sign option. The maximum file size that can be sent in the free version is 50 MB, and that is one of the biggest disadvantages of this service.

WeTransfer: If all you want to do is a transfer a large file online WeTransfer is a brilliant service. The web app is so minimal that there is barely any text or colour in the entire page. Essentially, the service allows you to transfer files up to 2 GB using an extremely simple interface. You can make as many transfers as you want and a file can be sent to as many as 20 people at one time with the free version. The Premium account has some amazing benefits such as an increased file size limit, background personalization, and password protected transfers. WeTransfer is probably the best deal if all you are looking for is a hassle free file transfer.

TransferBigFiles: This is a powerful high capability service. The web site claims that it has the largest transfer bandwidth and as such it allows the user to transfer files as large as 20 GB which is miles ahead of most of the other file transfer applications. The service allows you to send or receive files not only from your desktop but even any personal website or blog. The high bandwidth allows users to upload HD videos from any device. All files uploaded get stored until manually deleted. All these features make TransferBigFiles a loaded application especially when it comes to heavy media files.

This is no way an exhaustive list, but we have covered the most popular. Other options are Mega, Anon files, File Dropper, Mediashare, Jumpshare etc. File transfer applications utilize the power of the cloud to allow for large scale storage and transfer. Users must be keep in mind that these applications offer little or no editing and syncing options and in that sense are different from cloud based sync-store apps.

Cloud storage services

Cloud Storage services are one of the most important and widely talked about offshoots of the cloud computing rise. These services offer a large amount of storage space to back up files online. Some also allow you to sync your backed up data across devices, but essentially, there’s just glorified net-based folders to store your stuff. Here’s a short list of some of the better ones:

JustCloud: JustCloud is probably the leader in the pack of cloud storage services. It has syncing ability across devices and you can access backed up data on the go. It offers an unlimited data storage, for a fee of course. The trial version has little capacity which is quite a letdown. JustCloud has an industry standard security system in place for protection and there is geo redundant storage option for ensuring durability. Other features include file versioning, laptop tracker and customisable back up automation.

Crash plan: Crash plan is a good option for beginners. There is a simple desktop application that allows you to backup files on the service’s remote server or elsewhere (including your cousin or friend’s place, office, and an external hard disk). The service does not have a syncing option and transfer speeds are pretty low. Storage rent is affordable and there is automatic backup option. Restoring is fairly simple like most of the other things to do and this makes Crash plan a great option for novice users.

Carbonite: Carbonite is a relatively old cloud backup service. It has been around for quite some years and offers a stable solution for causal customers. There is an automatic backup and scheduling feature and the user interface is fairly intuitive. Carbonite is pretty much a basic backup tool which is kind of perfect for first time users. You can manually select files to backup or choose the automatic option. A backup tab shows you the progress. Carbonite home also has a mobile app. The service comes in several packages like basic, HomePlus and HomePremier. Carbonite Home lacks syncing and limited bandwidth makes it slow, but still it is an ideal option for a home user with basic backup needs.

LiveDrive: LiveDrive offers unlimited storage at a competitive price. It doesn’t limit the bandwidth at its end which allows you to access really fast backup speeds. Besides the general backup and restore client features, LiveDrive has a neat sync ability and manages file conflicts admirably. The combination of all of the above with military grade ecryption technology might make LiveDrive an overkill for general users, but if you want a featurepacked backup service with the fewest limitations LiveDrive is your answer.

Dos and don’ts of online data backup

Online data backup on the face of it seems like a reliable option. There is whole platoon of services that allow you to store, share and sync files on the cloud. These services also promise you security and reliability, but the truth remains that cloud based services are prone to failures too. The user must keep in mind a few limitations of the cloud and make an informed choice before jumping the bandwagon or following the crowd.

•    For data backup it is advisable to use a full blown cloud storage option rather than a sync-store option such as Dropbox, as file encryption is not its powerful suite. Dropbox, Skydrive etc. can be used to store basic files such as images, documents etc., but when it comes to backup of important and heavy data it is preferable to use Cloud Storage options such as JustCloud and Carbonite.

•    It is almost mandatory to have a fast and reliable internet connection if you are using any cloud-based application since all cloud based apps rely on the internet as a communication and transfer medium. A bad internet connection will seriously hamper cloud based operations and may also cause loss of data during syncing
•    Remember to always have a plan B. Cloud Storage services are not 100 per cent secure. They are still prone to natural disasters, outages and security breaches. It really wouldn’t hurt to have your data backed up on a secondary cloud in addition to your primary cloud backup.

•    Cloud Services ensure maximum security but is also the user’s responsibility to be vigilant from his/her side. Users must set proper authentication rules that define who can access what. Verification methods can be put in for this purpose.

•    Online Cloud Storage is fancy, but a personal hard drive is still the way to backup extremely sensitive data. Also, remember not to share copyrighted files online, or it could land you in trouble.