Features

Online storage: Cloud cover

27 Jun 2011 by ScottCarey7
Online storage for all your applications and data is far from pie in the sky, says Mark Prigg.

The “cloud” is, according to most big IT firms and experts, the future of computing. It has also become one of the biggest buzzwords in the world of tech, yet the majority of people have no idea what it is.

At its most basic level, it’s simple to understand. Instead of storing files on your machine’s hard drive, you store them on an internet server. This means you can access them from any web-enabled machine, anywhere in the world.

However, these servers aren’t your average box in the back of the office. Amazon, one of the biggest operators of server “farms”, has dozens of data centres around the world, as do Google, IBM, Oracle and many other companies. And they are referred to as farms because on average, each site is vast enough to fit 11.5 football pitches in, and contain hundreds of thousands of separate servers and disc drives – enough to power dozens of huge multinational corporations.

As super-high-speed data connections are plumbed in, it doesn’t matter where the farms are, but they are usually situated in areas where power is cheap and the climate is chilly, to minimise the amount of coolant required (millions of servers need an awful lot of energy and give off an awful lot of heat). Once used only by the world’s biggest firms, it is now possible for individuals and smaller companies to rent space in these server farms for everything from their music collection to their business data.

For travellers, cloud computing can be a lifesaver. When you inevitably have IT issues on the other side of the world, all is not lost – find a net-connected PC or Mac and you’re back almost instantly, with all of your files to hand. For consumers, there’s also a plethora of cloud-based applications to make life easier, with everything from books to photos being stored online.

Cloud computing has also led to a new breed of online services being available. In the consumer space, firms such as Spotify have revolutionised the way millions of people access music by making a vast library of more than 40 million tracks available at the press of a button. Meanwhile, services such as Twitter and Facebook rely on huge amounts of cloud storage and applications to function.

For the average person, one of the most obvious, and straightforward, uses for the cloud is backup. By signing up to services such as Rackspace and Mozy, you can automatically back up your important files to a remote, secure location. If set up properly, it’s simple to operate and cheaper than buying your own hard drive to do the job.

One of the first applications to move into the cloud was email. While services such as Hotmail and Gmail have been popular with consumers for many years, the past 18 months has also seen them move into the corporate space – Google, in particular, has been aggressively targeting firms with its Google Apps service. It also recently unveiled the Chromebook, a low-cost, stripped-down laptop optimised to run its online services, which was set to go on sale last month.

Google is bullish about its prospects, and the growth of cloud services. “Chromebooks are actually a huge leap forward for cloud computing,” said Dave Girouard, president of Google’s enterprise division at the launch of the device. “We’re excited about putting more pieces of the puzzle together. Our aim is to be number one in cloud computing.”

Unsurprisingly, Google doesn’t have things entirely to itself – every major computer firm, from Microsoft to Apple, is firmly focused on the cloud. The former already has a full suite of cloud apps, and Office 365, a cloud-based version of its Office software, is already at an advanced stage. Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer recently called the cloud “a major wave in our industry”.

In June, Apple joined the fray by unveiling its platform, iCloud, which will be available from the autumn and is designed to allow people to sync their devices – be they iPods, iPads or Macs – automatically and easily. The firm hopes to be among the first to offer the cloud system to consumers and, although primarily aimed at users wanting to sync music, applications and documents and store them on Apple’s servers, it is expected to blossom into a full cloud service, complete with online apps.

It’s undoubtedly a market that’s growing fast. According to research company Forrester (forrester.com), the industry is going to increase in value from about US$41 billion in 2011 to US$241 billion in 2020, while other analysts put the figure even higher. But the biggest problem with the cloud is connectivity. Lose it, and you lose everything (albeit only temporarily), so it’s worth bearing in mind that patchy mobile phone signals or wifi connections can cause havoc when working on the move.

However, many of the apps here – Google Docs, for instance – do let you work in “offline mode”, which is a godsend for flights – assuming you download your documents first.

Work in the cloud

Mozy From £4.99 a month mozy.co.uk A neat, easy-to-use solution, Mozy is a small piece of software you download to your machine, then leave running in the background to automatically encrypt and backup your data to the cloud. It really is that simple, and you can choose which files and folders to save, or simply leave the software to do everything. However, it’s not the cheapest option on the market. Dropbox Free for up to 2GB of storage, US$9.99 per month for 50GB dropbox.com  An online hard drive, Dropbox is an incredibly useful service that lets you access files from any device. It’s easy to set up and use, and simply appears as an extra hard drive on your machine. Copy files to it and they are automatically uploaded to Dropbox’s cloud. You can also access Dropbox from a web browser, so it’s the perfect place to upload your presentations. It’s a useful way to share files, and you can have public or password-protected folders. And there’s a well-designed free mobile app for iPhones, iPads, Blackberries and Android handsets. Amazon S3 From US$0.14 per GB amazon.com/s3 Although best-known for its online shopping site, Amazon has slowly but surely come to rule the cloud storage market with its service, known as S3. The success has been astonishing. Although Amazon is tight-lipped about its clients and what they store, it has disclosed that its S3 servers now hold more than 262 billion items for customers, an astonishing figure. For firms looking to move their servers, websites or entire IT infrastructure online, it’s a great first port of call, if a little impenetrable to the non-tech savvy. However, many online backup firms such as Rackspace (rackspace.com) offer straightforward front-ends to Amazon’s servers. Huddle From £10 per month huddle.com Used by organisations as diverse as the NHS and Disney, Huddle lets you collaborate online on projects with people inside and outside your business. You can manage projects, store files, schedule and hold meetings, and communicate through forums and even wikis (online pages anyone can edit). It’s easy to set up, and the user-friendly interface makes this well worth a look. There’s even a free version with 100MB of space for you to try before you buy. However, the service is relatively limited in the features it offers.

Play in the cloud

Spotify From free to £9.99 per month spotify.com One of the poster children of the home cloud revolution, Spotify effectively puts the world’s biggest record collection on to a server and lets you stream songs live. It’s hugely impressive and very high quality. You can set up your own playlists and share them with friends, and view top tens from around the world. To get around one of the biggest issues of the cloud, you can also download music to your computer or phone for offline play (but only at the £9.99 rate). Crucially, the latest version of Spotify’s software also lets you manage the music on your iPod or iPhone, meaning you need not use iTunes software. Spotify is also available on most mobile devices, and even on the latest home stereos using add-on boxes such as those made by Sonos and Logitech. Google Docs and Apps From free google.com Google is arguably the king of the cloud world, thanks to already having a huge server farm running its search operations. And, while everyone is familiar with the vastly popular Gmail email service, Google Docs may come as a surprise to many. In a nutshell, it’s a fully featured alternative to Microsoft Office, but hosted in the cloud. Using a web browser, you can access word processing, spreadsheets and presentation software. You get 1GB of free space on Google’s servers to store your files (with more available from US$5 per year for 20GB), and can easily import and export Word, Excel and Powerpoint files. It’s free for consumers and, crucially, for business users. Google also offers Google Apps (from US$30 per user per year), a full-fat version that lets you run your entire firm’s IT applications via Google. It’s hugely powerful, and even allows you to use your own domain names for its services so existing email addresses can be retained. Prezi Free prezi.com If you’ve been to any high-tech conference in the past six months, the chances are you’ve already seen Prezi in use. An online presentation tool, it lets you create, view and present – all from the cloud. It’s relatively easy to use, and comes with some distinctive features such as the ability to make it appear as though you’re “flying” through a lecture rather than simply switching from slide to slide. For travellers, it’s the perfect tool, as all you need is a web-connected laptop or iPad. The only downside is learning how to use the application. Flickr Free flickr.com While straight backups of your data are all well and good, Flickr goes the extra mile by giving you the perfect online photo album. A slew of security settings let you use the service either as a private online backup for pictures (although you’ll have to pay US$24.95 a year to store more than 200) or as a public library. It’s simple to use, and most photo-editing software lets you upload pictures easily as you take pictures off your camera. You can also upload high-resolution pictures, making this the perfect alternative to filling up your hard drive with holiday snaps. Amazon Kindle Kindle from £111, software free amazon.co.uk While Amazon is a huge player behind the scenes with its vast array of servers, it’s also revolutionised the book publishing industry with the Kindle, putting 600,000 tomes into the cloud for you to download. It’s incredibly simple to use, and a powerful example of how cloud computing can lead to radical new ways of sharing and selling content. Apple iCloud From free apple.com/icloud From our first look at the iCloud, it’s incredibly user-friendly. Being able to buy music on your phone, then seeing it automatically pushed to your iPad or Mac is impressive, and for travellers it could be a real help, as it backs up data automatically, minimising the stress of losing your phone or iPad. However, it is only aimed at owners of Apple products at the moment, and those in the UK will not be able to store their iTunes libraries in the iCloud until 2012.

Backup drives

Although the cloud may be the long-term answer to storage, an external hard drive is still a must-have accessory for many users. One of the best for the frequent flyer is Samsung’s tiny (82mm x 17mm x 111mm) S2 1TB hard drive (£70, amazon.co.uk). The gadget uses a USB3.0 connector so doesn’t need a separate power supply. It’s a great way to move big files between home and office without having to carry a laptop. Another good option for the uber-connected home or small office is NAS (network-attached storage), which is essentially a small server you can leave in a cupboard. It’s accessible from anything hooked up to your network, and appears as a normal external hard drive to computers. Iomega’s 1TB Home Media Network (£145, go.iomega.com) is simple to set up and use, and works well with Macs, PCs and game consoles, which you can use to watch downloaded films and TV shows via your living room TV.
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