Not too long ago it was commonplace for people to have their data sitting on multiple different computers in their home and keeping backups of data between the machines in case one failed. As anyone who lived through that can recall, it was a pain to manage and to keep files in sync, and if one of those computers died, it was a struggle to ensure that you had the latest copies of your data files somewhere among those computers. As a matter of fact, sadly, I know there are still people who manage their data this way today.
I became fed up with that routine about ten years ago and decided to buy a device to run my own networked attached storage (NAS) at my home. It has always worked fine and has saved me from the periodic disk failure. Recently, the batteries in my uninterruptible power supply gave out and coincidentally, the memory in my NAS went bad at the exact same time. While I waited for that new memory module to show up, I had time to reflect on my investment choices for data storage.
I paid about $650 for my NAS and each of the four-500GB disks were about $100. After nearly four years, I decided to upgrade to four-2TB disks which were about $100 each. My new memory module was about $35. Over a period of nearly ten years, I had paid about $1,500 for the hardware. That works out to about $150 per year without the cost of electricity.
Since my NAS was effectively out of service for about three days, it got me thinking that maybe it was time to reconsider putting my data in the cloud. If you are contemplating moving your data to cloud storage, then this is where this blog probably gets a little more interesting.
I consider myself pretty much on top of new technology happenings. So, when I started looking at the current offerings and pricing, I already had a pretty good idea of what was going on in the space. There are a lot of providers offering cloud storage and since I already use services from Google, Amazon, Dropbox and Box.com, I decided to focus my energies on these four. I won’t be comparing options in the Apple iTunes ecosystem as I don’t use any of those devices.
2GB - $0 / mo
1TB - 9.99 / mo
15GB - $0 / mo
100GB - 1.99 / mo
1TB - 9.99 / mo
5GB - $0 / mo (with prime)
5GB - $1 / mo (no prime)
Unlimited - 59.99 / yr
10GB - $0 / mo
100GB - $10 / mo
Unlimited - $15 / mo
The pricing is pretty consistent across each of these providers, with the exception of Amazon’s newly priced unlimited storage plan. The price alone however is not where the comparisons should stop. What I found was that you really need to get into the use cases for each of the types of data you want to store in the cloud. This will allow you to optimize your data access around how you use your data on your different devices.
I have a webserver where I have host my photo gallery to share with friends and family. I have used this photo gallery for nearly fifteen years. The problem in the last few years has been that social media sites have made it terribly easy to upload and share photos. Additionally, the standalone camera is pretty much a thing of the past for non-professional photographers. This has thrown a virtual wrench into how I organize and share my photos in my photo gallery. Getting all the photos off my phone to my personal photo gallery became difficult, so I pretty much stopped doing it. Couple that with the smattering of photos from my wife’s phone, and it just became too annoying to manage. Of course, I do keep a backup of all of the photos on my NAS. As part of evaluating cloud storage options, I wanted to consider the best of the best features to make managing my gallery as easy and painless as possible.
With storage services like Box.com and Dropbox, it is easy enough to install the app and enable auto-upload from the mobile devices to the cloud account and to share a folder with any arbitrary person. This alone isn’t special because I can get the same thing with Google Drive / Google+. Amazon, on the other hand, seems to have an ability to share files, but you can’t share folders. This quickly took Amazon out of all considerations for me in terms of storing and managing my photo gallery.
Google just recently announced that they were going to be exposing photo management from within Google Drive instead of just from Google+. This is great in my opinion, because Google has created a very powerful set of tools within Google+ for managing images. Now that they can be managed from within Google Drive, it opens up more doors for simple and easy management of a photo gallery.
While you can store music in cloud storage, it doesn’t just automatically enable your music to be played through the respectable music players like Amazon Music or Google Play Music. Amazon and Google both require you to load your music into the music storage application in order to make them an official part of your music library and to make them accessible from the nice music apps to stream the music.
Based on the pricing of the music services, Google has a leg up. However, if you don’t care about utilizing these players and just want an easy way to sync your personal music library, then Dropbox and Box.com are equally viable alternatives.
If you are like me and are a real movie lover, then you probably have a sizeable DVD archive. Well, I ripped my movies and put them on my NAS so that I can watch them any time without have to haul out all the DVDs. My NAS has a UPnP media server on it, which enables streaming the videos to other devices. I play those videos on my PS3, Boxee Box, XBOX 360, WD HDTV Live, and directly on Smart TVs. The one limitation in the past that I have had is that devices like Chromecast and Fire TV cannot play videos directly from that NAS media server.
Since I am looking for an alternative storage location for these movies, I still have a way to stream the video to my TV or some streaming-capable device attached to my TV. Using a streamcasting solution is a good option. Streamcasting solutions like AllCast or LocalCast support reading from multiple different cloud storage services and can stream to nearly any DLNA-capable device. I personally tested this out and had pretty good, although mixed, results depending on the combination of source, destination and streamcasting software I used. That being said, I was able to get files to stream out of Google Drive, Google+, and Dropbox to my Chromecast, Fire TV and directly to my Smart TV. There were some issues with certain file formats when going straight to the Smart TV, but that wasn’t a big deal to me. I was not able to find a solution for streamcasting videos out of Amazon Cloud Drive or Box.com.
The nice benefit with these storage options is that if you travel much and want to download your videos to your tablet or other devices, it is rather easy to open the app on your device and pick the videos you want to download for offline viewing. It’s pretty much the same experience you would expect from offline viewing of UltraViolet movies.
General Data Files
If you are a Windows or Mac user, the syncing applications from all of these providers work pretty well. Since I am a Linux desktop user, I get just about the worst user experience possible across all of these platforms. Dropbox is the exception; if you are on Linux, the only solution that works great is Dropbox.
Dropbox is certainly the one that excels the most on the Linux platform. Box.com offers WebDAV support, which does offer a convenient level of integration, but with a different set of benefits than native file syncing. Grive (Google Drive for Linux) is an open source tool to sync folders in Linux with Google Drive, but it is nowhere near the quality of the other syncing applications. Then of course, Amazon leaves Linux users in the cold, by having basically no support beyond the traditional web browser, which of course is the one commonality among all of the options.
How you use the general data files you want to store in the cloud is rather important to the use case. The types of files in this category for me cover a wide range, from documents, presentations, PDFs, and spreadsheets to shell scripts. Because I have things like shell scripts, I prefer as native an experience as possible with the cloud storage. I want important scripts to be somewhere that is easily accessible to me from the command line, and unfortunately a WebDAV interface isn’t really sufficient for that. This leaves Dropbox and a somewhat crippled Grive application.
The final important piece for this category is sharing. I need to be able to easily share files or entire folders with other people. This is an area that Dropbox and Box.com excel. Google isn’t far behind from an ease of use perspective, and it is really hard to tell where Amazon stands, as their cloud drive options are probably the least mature of all the offerings.
If you feel like there is a lot to consider for cloud storage options, then you are right.
Based on the pricing alone, Amazon’s Cloud Drive is far and away the best value. Of course, that doesn’t mean much unless you will be able to appropriately leverage their cloud offering for all your use cases. Amazon actually falls short, in my opinion, from a functionally useful perspective on pretty much every use case. This is very disappointing to me, because a one-stop shop tends to make it easier to manage.
While some of these cloud storage providers do a great job in certain areas, it really comes down to your use case and how you want to manage your data. My use cases may be similar to yours, but you should really consider how you prefer to organize and manage your data. I prefer Google for many different use cases, but it doesn’t make them the best or only option. General data file management is great from both Dropbox and Box.com, and for most people, all of these options can work very well.
The final consideration here is with respect to cost. Don’t be afraid to use multiple storage options. The combined prices for multiple cloud storage options can still fall below the annual cost of operating your own NAS device in your home. Don’t be afraid to keep your eye on the competition and certainly don’t be afraid to switch if one becomes better than another. Things have moved very quickly in the cloud storage space in the last two years, and I don’t expect them to slow down for quite a while.
Are there cloud storage providers that you use that you want to share with others? Please share experiences that might help others make their decisions below.