Cloud storage explained

10 years ago, if you mentioned “the cloud” to me I would have looked up at the sky. If that’s your first reaction to the phrase, don’t worry! “The cloud” is one of the most-used and least-explained tech terms right now. Let’s put it in plain English.

What is cloud storage?

Since computers were invented, data has been stored on physical media (punch cards, floppy disks, thumb drives, etc.). When you want to transfer data from one computer to another, you physically carry your storage media from one computer to the other.

For example, I start writing a report on my work computer, save it to a thumb drive, and then plug the thumb drive into my computer at home to finish editing the report. That’s how most of us are used to doing things.

Cloud storage
This is what “the cloud” might look like — if it were an actual cloud. (But really, this is a pretty good illustration of how data is stored in a remote location and can be accessed by multiple devices.)

When people refer to “the cloud,” what they generally are talking about is data being stored in a server (i.e. a specialized computer) that’s connected to the Internet. This means any computer connected to the Internet can have access to that data, even at the same time.

So in practice, I would start my report at work, save it to the cloud, then log in and edit it from my home computer. When I’m finished, I can download a copy to store it on my computer if I want. Notice that in this situation I don’t have to physically carry anything home with me. The document is stored on a hard drive that’s connected to the Internet, and the hard drive is owned and maintained by the company providing the service (such as Dropbox).

Benefits of cloud storage

Cloud storage has been exploding in popularity. The services that are most well-known include Google Drive, Dropbox, Microsoft’s OneDrive, and Apple’s iCloud Drive. (I’ll compare these in detail next week to help you figure out which might work best for you.)

Google, in fact, makes a line of inexpensive computers (Chromebooks) with relatively tiny hard drives, specifically because they expect that users will store almost all their data on Google Drive.

As I mentioned, I can download or edit my document in the cloud from any computer with Internet access. I can give other people permission to access it, also from any computer with Internet access.

Google Drive collaboration
Joe, Min Lee, and Mario editing a document at the same time, from different locations (in Google Drive)

This allows for another major benefit of cloud storage: multiple people can edit a document at the same time, collaborating in real time and seeing each other’s changes as they happen.

Until now, I’ve been discussing cloud storage in relation to computers. Perhaps you’re thinking, Why shouldn’t I just use a thumb drive? Every computer has a USB port.

That’s true, but more and more people are creating and using data on devices like smartphones (taking photos, for example). Many of these portable devices don’t have USB ports, so cloud storage allows people to access and share data much more easily than they would otherwise.

For example, if I kept all my photos on my phone, it would quickly run out of storage space. But if I upload the photos to a cloud storage service, I can access all of them anytime my phone has Internet access. Plus, I can also view them from any other device I use.

Are you starting to see the benefits?

Disadvantages of cloud storage

Of course, there are downsides to cloud storage compared to saving your stuff on your hard drive. Let’s touch on the main ones.

First, and this is the one that keeps me from using cloud storage more, most companies that offer cloud storage charge a monthly or yearly subscription. The cost depends on how much storage space you choose. Typically a small amount of storage is free, such as 5GB on iCloud Drive. This is enough space for a lot of text documents. But if you add in music or photos, that space will be eaten up quickly. And then you’ll pay for the higher storage amounts. (Again, I’ll give more details next week.)

Thumb drives and external hard drives aren’t free either, and you’ll have to weigh the upfront cost of buying that type of storage compared to the subscription cost of cloud storage. I’ve become very used to having my files stored in a drive I physically own, and it’s hard to get used to the idea of paying regularly for the storage.

Second, data you store in the cloud is physically stored in some remote location, not on your desk. This means you’re trusting that your data will be available when you want and won’t just disappear. Also, it means that someone can potentially hack into your account and steal your files.

For the record, I bet every cloud storage company backs up their customers’ data better than you back up your own computer. As for hackers, it seems that hacking situations are caused more often by people using easy-to-guess passwords or reusing passwords from other accounts, than by companies using poor security on their end.

Either way, I wouldn’t  keep personal/confidential files in cloud storage, and I would make sure that my most important files are also stored on a hard drive I own.

Third, data stored in the cloud is only accessible to you when you have Internet access. Internet access is growing, and some devices like smartphones are connected even when you travel. But keep in mind that what you put in the cloud can only be accessed when your device is Internet-connected.

You should use cloud storage, but which provider?

I think cloud storage will continue to be used even more often in the future. It will be especially helpful for those who own multiple devices and want to share files between them.

I’ll help break down the differences between the major cloud storage providers in next week’s post, so stay tuned! Until then, I hope this overview helped you understand what exactly cloud storage is. If you have any questions about it, please ask them below. I’d love to hear from you!

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