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What Is Cloud Storage, And Should You Keep Photos & Videos There?

Your head's there - should your digital life be too?

While just about everyone has heard of “the cloud” by now, the percentage of people who actually know what it is and understand how they can use it is still relatively small.

According to a recent report from market researcher Ipsos OTX, only 40% of Americans understand cloud services and fewer than 9% are actually using such services.

What Is the Cloud?

Put simply, the cloud is online storage, or servers, you access via the Internet. These servers are used to store digital content – photos, videos, music, documents – as well as software applications.  With the cloud, your content is not stored on your computer’s hard drive, but on the servers of a third party – companies like Google, Apple and Amazon, among others.

Long Island, NY-based IT expert Mike Galke of Spectrum Computing Consulting used webmail as the simplest explanation for everyday use of the cloud. “Webmail is a great example of a way consumers have already been using the ‘cloud’ before the term emerged,” Galke explained. “Web mail services like Gmail or Hotmail are considered ‘in the cloud’ because people are accessing them from multiple devices through basic Internet access.”

He added that cloud computing is best described as any application or service that is hosted and run on servers connected to the Internet that we (consumers) do not have to maintain or support in any way.

Perhaps the example that will resonate best is Facebook. All of those photos, videos and pithy comments that you’ve been uploading to FB via your smartphone or computer are hosted on the social network’s cloud – a huge data center that has no actual connection to your mobile device or PC.

Suddenly not so complicated, right?

Benefits of Cloud Storage: Anywhere Access, Off-Site Security

Storing your photos and videos using a cloud-based service does offer several benefits. First, your files can be accessed from most any Internet-connected device (computer, laptop, tablet and smartphone). If you’re on the road and want to pull up photos of your kids on your smartphone to show a friend, cloud services can make that happen (most have apps for just such an occasion).

This remote access also means that you can easily back-up photos and videos you’re taking with a mobile phone. It also means that should an unexpected disaster strike your home and your computer hard drive – your photos are safely stored “off-site.” Even if your house burned to the ground taking everything with it, every digital file in the cloud would still be secure.

Cloud Storage Cons: Privacy and Security

The aforementioned Ipsos report also said that nearly 40% of respondents don’t feel saving data to a cloud service is as reliable as saving their digital lives to a hard drive. Some of the news surrounding recent privacy breaches in the cloud have undoubtedly factored into this distrust.

Is the cloud secure? The answer is – yes and no. Any online transaction that involves transferring your personal information – such as credit card numbers – to a third party involves the risk of theft. There have been a number of high profile ‘hacks’ where individuals and groups penetrate the defenses of a company’s servers to steal information (mostly credit cards and passwords). There haven’t been any reported cases of theft involving photos, but it remains a possibility. If you have images that are sensitive (or, um, incriminating) in nature, you should keep them offline.

Perhaps a more significant danger, especially in the short term, is that many cloud services popping up today may not be business in five years. Much like the Internet bubble created hundreds of failed Internet companies in the 1990s, the tech market is undergoing a somewhat similar bubble today with numerous companies sprouting up to offer online digital storage. Unlike the initial dot-com bust, today’s new cloud companies at least have a plausible business model – money does change hands – but scale is important and if a cloud service can’t convince thousands of individuals to pay to store their digital life, they’re not long for this world.

That means you’ll need to think carefully before selecting a cloud service to store your digital files (and it should go without saying that you should only store copies of your files in the cloud – always keep a copy of the same content on your computer’s hard drive and an external hard drive as well). Ask yourself – will this company be around in five years? If you can’t answer that question confidently, you shouldn’t entrust them with your digital life.

Cloud Hopping

Here’s a brief look at a few cloud services we think will be around in the next five years:

Amazon’s Cloud Drive is intended to help store music, videos, photos and documents at Amazon.com. The online retail giant offers 5GBs of free online storage. You can purchase up to 1,000 gigabytes of storage for $1,000 per year and can access your content from the service across multiple devices. Your music stored on Amazon doesn’t count against your storage quota.

Google’s Cloud offering includes 1GB free online storage for Google Docs, 1GB free for Picasa, 7GB free for Gmail; streaming music; synchronized docs, contacts, e-mail and calendars and is expandable to 16TB for up to $4,000 per year. Google’s storage policies are in constant flux, however, as they roll out their social networking offering, Google+. If past is any guide, Google may make even more storage available for less in an attempt to win more customers.

Apple’s iCloud includes 5GB of free online storage and synchronization for music, photos, apps, documents, iBooks, contacts, e-mail and calendars. The service will update applications running on Macs, PCs, iPads, iPhones and iPod touch devices. Additional features: iCloud’s Photo Stream will automatically upload to the cloud any photos taken on an Apple device and wirelessly push them to all of your devices and computers.

Windows Live includes 25GB of free storage for files and synchronization for photos and includes the ability to create photo albums and personalized video clips for sharing.

Dropbox includes 2GB free storage, upgradeable to 100GB for $200 per year and offers access to and synchronization of photos, videos, documents, etc.

Make Your Own Cloud

Using the Pogo, you can create your own cloud using a hard drive and an Internet router.

If you like the idea of having remote access to your photos and videos but aren’t sure about the security and privacy issues around the cloud, you can make your own. Some devices, like the Pogo, create your own personal cloud using a hard drive and Internet router. Once it’s connected to both, all your content is accessible from a mobile device or other computers.

“Networked” hard drives can also deliver the same functions. These hard drives connect to an Internet router and have unique IP address allowing users to access the drive’s contents from any web browser. Apps for smartphones and tablets also allow you to view this content on the go.

The beauty of the “build your own” cloud is that you only pay once. You’ll need to ensure you buy a large enough hard drive to store all of your files, but once that expense is done, you’re cost-free. By contrast, Cloud services require a monthly or yearly fee to use. As far as security, an external drive can fail and can get inflicted with viruses, but it’s less likely that someone could find and hack into your drive.

Read More About Protecting Your Photos:
Fine Print on Photo Sites: Are Your Images Safe Online?
Four Steps to Protecting Your Photos and Videos
Make Your Digital Photos & Videos Last Forever
Why You Should Burn Photos to Gold DVDs
What Discs Are Better – Blu-ray, DVD or CD?
The Latest News on Photo & Video Backup & Protection

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