Computers / Tips and Solutions

Cloud Services Explained

You know what annoys my non-tech friends? When I drop a technical term into a conversation and they have no idea what it is. I mentioned hybrid drive the other day in a phone call to my friend Bridget, who lives in France, and I could feel her rolling her eyes and smirking—on my dime, no less. Like they don’t have le tech or whatever it is the French call it. Technologie. Whatever, Bridget.

But I find that happens often. Non-techies don’t want to be bothered with things they don’t understand. My buddy, Lawrence, a pretty tech-savvy guy himself, still thinks that a gnome operates the light in his refrigerator (and secretly encourages him to eat all of the sweets in the fridge, too). My parents, notorious non-techies, ask me to repeat tech information to them several times, because they have selective hearing and can’t understand why the words RAM and cache go together. My mother thinks a RAM cache is a very expensive sheep.

But I am the same way. When I first heard of cloud storage, I thought, great, now I have to buy a new monitor and some pricey-sounding imaginary cloud as well. I dove in, head first, to try to figure out what cloud storage was and how it worked. As it turns out, it can be explained in about fifteen minutes, if you account for eye rolling and snickering time.

"Think of cloud storage as a storage unit that doesn’t physically exist."

We’ve all been subject to cloud computing in one form or another already. If you’ve turned on a computer, entered a search into the Internet, and found search results were returned, then voilà!, as Bridget would say, you have experienced cloud computing. Or to paraphrase a question from my mother, “You mean Amazon doesn’t have a store in my computer?” Yes, mom, Amazon has constructed a miniature brick-and-mortar store inside your HP desktop computer. And when you turn your computer off, all the employees go to sleep.

So what’s the difference between cloud storage and cloud computing? Imagine that you could ditch the software on your computer, as well as your hard drive—all of your productivity software now exists in the cloud. More room is saved on your computer, and someone else is now responsible for maintaining and updating the software (like Adobe Creative Cloud or Microsoft Office 365). That’s cloud computing. Now your computer is running faster, and pretty much running from anywhere there’s an Internet connection. Chromebooks are based on this model—the computer doesn’t really store programs and services, and everything is accessed through the Internet. This allows manufacturers the ability to make cheaper, faster, and less complicated laptops with cleaner operating systems that are not as prone to the software conflicts that come with major operating systems.

And since you didn’t want to spend all that money to upgrade or expand your hard drive, you saved some money. But wait—is cloud computing free? Hardly. You usually pay a monthly fee to access the cloud servers, much like you pay the bank an ATM fee to withdraw your own money.

Large companies love the cloud lately, because it reduces the amount of physical equipment and services they need to provide. Imagine you don’t need to spec out server space or large expensive desktops for each employee—instead, everyone gets a monitor and central system connection, and all the work is stored and accessed through the cloud.

Your computer + cloud storage = instant access, anywhere!

But what is cloud storage? So many companies spring up on a monthly basis that advertise their services for cloud storage all over the Web. Reputable companies like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft all have cloud storage business models. Many computer and laptop makers even offer free GBs of cloud storage as part of your purchase. Cloud storage is a thing, and you’ll have to deal with it at some point, but you still need to know some of the pros and cons of cloud storage.

Think of cloud storage as a storage unit that doesn’t physically exist. Think of it as a cloud where you can store everything on your computer. You used to put all your information and digital files in a hard drive, but you quickly ran out of room, and you didn’t want to buy another drive. So someone came up with the concept of storing your digital data somewhere else, somewhere you could access it at any time, allowing you to 1) save space while 2) making the information more accessible.

"In a day and age where we’re worried about Starbucks having too much of our personal data, the cloud is this ambiguous hangout where people are always trying to break in."

Personal cloud storage benefits for entry-level consumers include reduced wear and tear on your computer's internals, and the ability to access your information from anywhere 24/7/365. But you need to ask yourself what you’re using cloud storage for. Simple hard-drive-based storage has a lower price per gigabyte than cloud storage. Besides straight storage, you can also host a cloud server, which includes storage among its amenities. Why would you host a cloud server? Many people do it for small businesses or for gaming. But if you add up specialties like burst or persistent use (using it occasionally, or always on 24/7), resource monitoring software or VPN (virtual private networks, mostly for downloading bit torrents and other files that require anonymity), then the cost can soar.

So why doesn’t everyone cloud it up? Well, like anything that sounds too good to be true, cloud computing is not a panacea that will solve all storage issues. First of all, the cloud depends on the host company being available 24/6/365. If a cloud server goes down (as Amazon’s did, notoriously, a year ago) then all services for that system go down. There is nothing more frustrating than going to the cloud to get your precious information, and have the cloud tell you, “come back later.”

Also, your information is stored with a third-party company. Think about that. In a day and age where we’re worried about Starbucks having too much of our personal data, the cloud is this ambiguous hangout where people are always trying to break in. Although many cloud service companies claim until they are blue in the interface that they secure your data, it is still susceptible to hacking, outside intrusion, and general malfeasance while in the hands of the host company. But hey, nobody gets their personal data stolen from the Web these days, said no hacker, ever.

But the strongest argument is the price. The cost of storing information on hard drives is measured in something called cost per gigabyte. You determine how much a drive costs, how much information you’ll be storing on it, and then you come up with a number that shows how much you actually pay (price ÷ number of gigabytes = price per GB). For instance, a 2TB drive that costs $100 comes out to about .05 cents per GB (200 ÷ 2000 = 0.5). A cloud storage service like Google Drive costs about $9.99 a month for 1,024GB of data – that comes out to roughly .098 cents per gig. A month. Over the course of a year, that comes out to $120, or roughly 0.11 cents per gigabyte.

A bigger threat to personal cloud storage is new personal cloud storage drives. The WD MyCloud Personal Cloud server can store up to 4TB for around $199—cost per gigabyte .05 cents—and it can perform many of the functions of a cloud server, like 24/7 access (as long as you have power and the Internet running), and even handles other functions, like security permissions and encrypting data. Or you could buy a dedicated personal server, like the 6TB Synology DiskStation BeyondCloud Mirror NAS server, which can provide cloud services and offers RAID mirroring support to back up your data. At $349, the cost per gigabyte is roughly .06 cents.

So there you have it, Bridget. A short and sweet primer on cloud storage, and the pros and cons of using it. If you’re looking to store your French vocabulary tests and attitude, go with a personal server. If you don’t want to be bothered with installing and maintaining new equipment, stay with the cloud.