SkyDrive takes on the online-storage arena

Michael lasky By Michael Lasky

Office 2010 marked Microsoft’s aggressive entrance into the cloud-computing arena, and Sky Drive is a key component of the company’s move to online services.

Part of the new Windows Live service, SkyDrive offers generous — and free — online data storage and simple collaboration. But there are other cloud-based services that provide more features and better options.

With the price of external hard drives in free fall (based on cost-per-megabyte), storing data online could seem inconvenient at best and a threat to your data security at worst. But online-storage sites, both paid and free, offer two advantages attached external hard drives can’t match: safe and secure offsite backups and anytime-anywhere file sharing. Images and documents stored online are accessible 24/7 to anyone with the right password … anywhere there’s an Internet connection.

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Online storage is, in fact, more secure than the external hard drives sitting next to your PC. Unless you religiously lock these drives away, thieves and disgruntled employees could walk off with your entire customer list or business account files. Online storage sites typically use industry-standard backup systems for their storage and employ multiple levels of security including password protection, data encryption on their servers, and Secure Socket Layer encryption between your PC and the cloud.

Most online-storage services offer automated backups, which run unobtrusively in the background and have little or no effect on PC performance. The better services now connect to mobile devices such as iPhones, iPads, and Android devices — an excellent way to quickly back up and share photos and other mobile documents.

The drawbacks to online storage? You must have an active Internet connection, and the cost of data storage is higher than for the personal terabyte drives commonly available today. Free online storage ranges from about 8 to 25 GBs. Paid storage is based on a monthly subscription fee, and storage capacities are potentially unlimited. Also, file-transfer speed between your PC and online storage is much slower than to a local drive, especially for large files.

It’s also possible that an online service could fold, locking you out of your storage vault for all time. But the chances of that happening, compared to odds that your local backup drive will fail, are minuscule. In any case, the golden rule of backup still applies: never to store important files in one place.

If you cancel your fee-based storage account, most storage vendors’ terms of service give them the right to delete your data. Check that any service you use has a one-month grace period after a cancellation, giving you time to remove your data.

I let my paid Mozy account lapse for a nearly a year. But in checking the account while researching this story, I was surprised to find I could still retrieve my files. It’s obviously unwise to trust in lax enforcement, so be sure to remove or delete your online data before canceling an account.

Microsoft’s online storage complements Office

Microsoft may be late to the cloud-computing game, but it has arguably the most integrated suite of online apps, all collected under its Windows Live umbrella. (Google was way ahead of Microsoft with its online apps, but its suite has the typically Spartan Google interface.)

SkyDrive (info page) is the online-storage component of Windows Live, and every Live member gets 25GB of free space. That’s considerably more than competing online-storage sites offer, though it’s not an entirely empty vault. Everything you create with Windows Live apps (e-mail, photos, Word and Excel documents, calendaring data, and such) gets stored there. (See Figure 1.)

Windows live skydrive
Figure 1. Windows Live SkyDrive’s simple interface provides file storage, collaboration, and synchronization.

Where some online-storage services, such as Mozy, focus on automated backups, SkyDrive is rather a place in the Internet cloud to store working files, share files with friends and colleagues, and keep important documents synchronized on your various computing devices.

Collaboration is one of SkyDrive’s potential strengths. Invited participants can read, edit, and comment on documents such as spreadsheets and presentations in real time, using the online Office Live applications.

In practice, however, there might be a few kinks in the system. When I tried saving a local Office 2010 beta-edition document to my online storage, I received obtuse messages — and then Word crashed. Hopefully, this works better in the shipping edition of Office.

Next, I uploaded the file directly from my PC to SkyDrive and tried sharing it with a group of collaborators. Despite following SkyDrive’s help instructions, I had difficulty sending the group an e-mail with a link to the file.

SkyDrive will support file synchronization between PCs as part of the new Windows Essentials which, Microsoft says, will be out soon. As with most online-storage services, you’ll have to download a small app onto each machine to sync your files with other computers.

Drop files into a box and share them instantly

Dropbox.com gives away 2GB of storage for free, but the versatility of the site will likely lure you into spending the U.S. $9.95-a-month to subscribe to 50GB of space. Dropbox’s talents include file synching, sharing, and backup plus access to your documents via an iPhone, iPad, or Android phone. (We use Dropbox in the Windows Secrets office.)

Subscribers download a small app onto each of the PCs they are using; a Dropbox folder then appears on each desktop. Drag one file or a bunch of files to the Dropbox folder, where they’re automatically stored in your online Dropbox vault. (The files are copied to online storage, not moved, so you always have a local copy of your files.)

Dropbox synchronizes files on every PC on which you’ve set up a Dropbox account. Make a change in a presentation on your desktop, and it will be automatically updated on your notebook. You always have the latest copy in all locations. Previous versions of documents are kept for 30 days by Dropbox, giving you fail-safe undos. (See Figure 2.)

DropBox file sharing
Figure 2. Place a Dropbox folder on your PC desktop, and all files in the folder are automatically backed up and synchronized on other PCs. You can even recover deleted files.

Within the Dropbox folder is a Public folder, and it works exactly as its name implies: you can share files placed in the Public folder with anyone. Each document can have its own Internet link. (You cannot, however, link to specific folders in the Public area.)

For true collaborations, you can create a shared folder allowing several people to work together on a set of files. Using an application that supports simultaneous editing, they can see each other’s changes instantly.

Collaborate on documents in the cloud

Box.net is similar to Dropbox but has stronger collaboration tools. The free account gives you 1GB of storage, and no file can be over 25MB. Individuals can pay $9.95 a month for 10GB of storage; business plans offer more features and, in many cases, unlimited storage. Maximum file size is 2GB.

Like Dropbox, Box.net lets you share files with anyone and almost any device that can read the files. You also can view previous versions of documents. Its Collaboration Folders mirror information across any number of Box.net accounts, so the changes you make to a folder’s contents are instantly visible to your collaborators and vice-versa.

Box.net subscribers can conduct group meetings in live time with a discussions thread. A workflow table links to documents and helps group members stay organized as they approve, review, or update files. (See Figure 3.)

Box.net update screen
Figure 3. Box.net’s strong collaboration tools include update summaries that help keep projects on track.

One of Box.net’s more-unusual features is its Profile folder, where you can share your full LinkedIn profile with others.

Make online and local backups simultaneously

Owned by multi national storage facilitator EMC, Mozy focuses primarily on backing up your data. And it does this task well. The service comes in two flavors: MozyHome for individuals and MozyPro for businesses.

Individuals can sign onto the free service and get 2GB of space or pay $4.95 per month for unlimited storage. Mozy’s strength lies in its flexible controls (see Figure 4), which let you set how and when it archives your data.

By default, the customizable software performs automatic backups in the background or at preset times — all with little effect on your PC’s performance. Mozy 2.0 also lets you throttle up faster backups at the cost of some system performance.

Mozy's control panel
Figure 4. Mozy’s strong focus on preserving your data includes controls for scheduling backups, adjusting backup speed, and fine-tuning the archiving process.

But the best feature in Mozy is its ability to simultaneously back up data to its servers and to a local external hard drive attached to your PC.

Mozy is designed to back up and restore your entire hard drive, but you can also cherry-pick selected files and folders to copy to the cloud.

Unlike SkyDrive, Dropbox, and Box.net, Mozy users cannot share files. Nor does it offer an easy way to view uploaded content. To do so, you must start a restore session, download the files you need, and then view them.

You then restore files either through the Mozy desktop software or via the Mozy online portal. The latter choice is a bit of a kludge: for each selected file, it e-mails you a link to a download page.

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WS contributing editor Michael Lasky is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California, who has 20 years of computer-magazine experience, most recently as senior editor at PC World.
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Michael Lasky

About Michael Lasky

WS contributing editor Michael Lasky is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California, who has 20 years of computer-magazine experience, most recently as senior editor at PC World.