BYO: Drop your thumbdrive, get your head in the cloud

Can a cloud-based storage system replace the humble USB drive?

The humble USB drive has been a staple piece of tech for people who need to shuffle documents between work and home.

It only took me two very frustrating experiences where I left a USB drive with important documents at home, before I looked for a software solution.

The recent Megaupload case shows data in the cloud can be far from secure, but if you are willing to take the risk for the sake of convenience (which I am) then I would consider a cloud based solution.

There are several different options for cloud storage and cloud file synchronisation services, and each have different levels of functionality and pricing.

I’ve used and paid for the three services below in the past, and one I’ve continued to use to this day.

Dropbox (4 stars) www.dropbox.com

What makes Dropbox such a compelling cloud storage and synchronisation product is its accessibility, freemium feature set, and simplicity of use.

You can sign up for a free Dropbox account which comes with 2GB storage, or pay US$10 a month for 50GB. Team accounts, which offer extended features and come with 1TB of space, cost around US$800 a year but can be used by up to five different users.

Dropbox’s file synchronisation is managed primarily through a downloaded application, which takes up around 15MB of disk space depending on the operating system.

It’s available for Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android. FLOSS fans will be pleased to know that it works natively on many popular Linux distributions, and if your work computer doesn’t allow you to download the Dropbox application, you can still access your files through the Dropbox website.

Dropbox integrates with operating systems smoothly, and leaves a relatively small footprint. On both Windows and Mac, you can right click on files to bring up sharing and syncing options inside the Dropbox folder, and on mobile devices you can choose to download files individually to save you on data charges.

Because of its popularity, Dropbox has been integrated into over 100 third-party applications. I use Quick Office on my Android tablet to directly edit documents I’ve uploaded.

Once you’ve signed up and installed the application, it creates a special folder where you place the files you want to keep synchronised. If you have Dropbox installed on multiple machines, each instance will begin downloading a copy of that file.

The sychronisation process doesn’t use as much data as you would think because after the initial upload, only changes made to the file are uploaded.

I edited a few lines of text on a 40MB PowerPoint presentation, and only around 1MB of data was transferred. I had similar success with large image files, and Word documents, but found Photoshop files and certain ZIP files would synchronise in full.

Dropbox keeps track of the changes you make to documents, and lets you download previous versions. This is handy if your document software doesn’t support versioning natively, and you are constantly making updates. Free users are limited to how far back their versions go, but paid users have access to the entire version history.

Once you’ve uploaded and synchronised your files, you can share them with clients or colleagues in one of two ways.

You can create a shared folder which can be made accessible to other Dropbox users, or if you want to send a permalink, you can drag your file into a Public folder which makes a shareable URL available.

Sadly there is no option to password protect these links, so keep that in mind when you’re sending them out.

A feature which I really appreciated is once you send out a permalink, Dropbox notifies you through an email when the recipient has accessed it. This is invaluable when you’re sending time sensitive documents, and you need a clear paper trail.

One thing to consider before signing up for Dropbox is that it’s less of a file locker service and more a synchronisation service. It’s good to keep a single folder of files synchronised across multiple devices, but if you delete it from the folder, it’s also deleted from the cloud.

Box.com (3.5 stars) www.box.com

Box, which until recently was called Box.net, differentiates itself from Dropbox by offering true file locker services.

Users drag and drop files into a browser-based dashboard, which uploads it to Box’s servers. This file is then accessible for download from any other internet connected device, including through a handful of Box enabled apps for mobile devices.

Files are managed and edited through the dashboard, and sharing is done through permalinks to the hosted file.

Like many other cloud storage services, Box comes in a variety of price ranges which each have progressively better functionalities.

The free version comes with 5GB of storage, but limits users to a maximum file size of 25MB. Unfortunately this version can only be used for non-commercial use, but still retains the ablity to share uploaded files with others.

It’s not until you get to the US$15 per user per month business account, that Box really shows what it is capable of.

The Business account lets you control access levels on individual files or on a folder level, put password protection on files, and gives you analytics on file downloads.

It also lets you synchronise files to your desktop, but doesn’t have quite the same level of functionalities as Dropbox.

Uniquley, Box lets you create documents from inside its dashboards, including Google Docs. This is one of several features that are extended using connections with third-party apps.

Among others, you can connect your Box account to Salesforce.com, Microsoft Office, and Google Docs.

There is even a LinkedIn app which lets you share files uploaded to Box with your Linkedin connections, and gives you access to manage and share files directly from your profile.

A major drawback to Box is its mobile apps. The iOS app works well, but is limited when compared to the website version, and the Android app force closed on me several times.

SugarSync ( 4.5 stars) www.sugarsync.com

SugarSync is not as well known as Dropbox, but I think it has the potential to seriously challenge the incumbent in the cloud synchronisation space.

Like Dropbox, SugarSync lets you copy files across from one machine to another over the internet.

Users install the SugarSync program which creates a folder called ‘Magic Briefcase’ in their documents folder. This is a dedicated folder to automatically sync files with other machines which have SugarSync installed.

What sets SugarSync apart from Dropbox, and is the reason why I use it as my main syncrhonisation software, is its file manager software. SugarSync Manager monitors the status of your files, manages sharing, and is where you manually send files from one device to another.

Inside the Manager you are presented a panel with all the machines which have SugarSync installed, and the files which are available in each folder. Files which have been synced are in black, while those that are still in the process are greyed out. SugarSync lets you synchronise any file on your system, and you can queue them in the order you want them downloaded.

Through the manager you can send people permanent links, which can be password protected. SugarLync also integrates with Outlook, which lets you send files that might be larger than your Exchange server limit.

SugarSync also backs up your files to its servers, and has a feature (which I haven’t tested) which lets you restore all your backed up file to your machine.

A free account comes with 5GB of storage, and has all the features mentioned above or you can pay US$15 month for 100GB (compared to Dropbox’s $20 a month).

Others

Listed below are some of the other services available, but which I haven't tried yet.

Microsoft SkyDrive - 25 GB free, connects with Office and Windows Phone 7 products. Can do desktop sync using Live Mesh.

Amazon Cloud Drive - 5 GB free, using Amazon's extensive server system. Progressively more expensive for more space.

Google Drive - Recently announced service by Google. Details are still sketchy, will have more info when it launches.

Let me know what your favourite service is in the comments section below.

* BYO is a new section in Computerworld that looks at devices and applications that are of interest to business IT users.

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