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Answers to Common Questions about the Cloud

Intro to Cloud ComputingCloud ToolsCloud Computing
At our recent webinar, A Walk in the Cloud, there were lots of great questions about the cloud in general and some specific cloud tools in particular. Here are the answers to some of the most common questions. To learn more about the webinar, I've posted the recording & presentation online and you can find more resources, case studies & examples in our Further Reading handout.

Q: If we already have a server, can we use the cloud for off-site backup? What if we don’t have a server?

Yes. The first option described below is a better fit for servers, though you may want to look specifically for tools that are intended to backup servers rather than PCs. If you don’t have a server then both options can work well, however the second approach has the added bonus of allowing you to share files more easily.

“Essentially, there are two [types of cloud storage]: dedicated backup services and cloud sync services.                  

The former usually comes with a client that's able to watch files or folders (including types of files) and back them up when they change. A popular example of this is Mozy. The downside is that restoring files is more involved; it isn't expected users will restore unless they have to.

Cloud sync services take a different approach, adding a magic folder or drive to your computer, the contents of which are automatically and invisibly synced online. A popular example of this is Dropbox. Some services offer client software that can also watch files and folders anywhere on your hard disk and back them up too, such as that offered by SugarSync. Cloud sync is a more immediate form of backup, and if you create and edit files within the magic folder everything will be backed-up automatically.” - from Choosing Cloud Backup For PCs

Q: Is my data secure in the cloud?

There’s no easy answer for this question. There are many different aspects of security (such as physical security, access to data and protection from hacking and malware) that need to be taken into account. In each case you need to ask not only whether a specific cloud provider is secure, but also if it is more secure than your current solution. In all cases you also need to make sure that basic security practices are being followed - for example unsecure passwords can completely compromise an otherwise secure system.

There’s lots that could be said about cloud security. For some resources to get you started, have a look at the Security section in Further Reading.

Q: Can more than one person edit at the same time in Google Docs? Office 365? Smartsheet?

Google Docs: yes, multiple people can edit one document at the same time and everyone will see each others’ changes in real time.

Office 365: yes, you can edit in the browser with multiple people at the same time. You can also “check out” files so only you can edit it, and check it back in when you’re done.

Smartsheet: yes, but it’s not quite as smooth an experience. When you save your edits it will show you that another use has made a change, and you have to refresh the document to see the changes.

Q: Is there a reason you use Box.net vs. Dropbox? What about SugarSync?

We have used both Dropbox and Box.net at TechSoup Canada. Both Dropbox and Box.net sync your files with the cloud and allow you to share folders with others.

In my opinion, Dropbox is easier to get started with for anyone who is new to these kinds of tools. Setup is very easy - once you’ve downloaded it, it just runs quietly in the background and you can proceed to use it like a normal folder on your computer. Dropbox works on Windows, Mac and Linux.

Box.net provides more features and has more focus on the web (browser) interface. You can put a Box.net folder on your computer to sync with the cloud, but it doesn’t come by default and it’s not currently available for Mac (it’s not difficult but just one extra step). Our two favourite Box.net features are the ability to send anyone a link to your document (which is much easier than sending them the actual document, and ensures that they can always access the most up-to-date version) and the ability to embed your documents in a website (again, it will always show the most up-to-date version). [Note: it’s possible to share a public link with Dropbox, but only if it’s in the Public folder.]

We haven’t tried SugarSync yet but here’s a good comparison with Dropbox.

Q: What is the cost of the cloud tools you are talking about?

Most tools have a free version, however as you start using them you may find this free version limiting. Cloud tools tend to have a range of pricing options (typically paid on a monthly basis) to fit with your needs. Here is the current pricing for some of the tools we mentioned:

Google Apps (including Gmail, Google Docs, etc.): free for individuals and organizations up to 10 people. After that it’s $50/user account/year. A nonprofit discount is available for US nonprofits.

Office 365: $7/user/month for small businesses, no nonprofit discount at the moment.

Smartsheet: starts at $15.95/month. Nonprofit discounts are available.

Dropbox: you can get 2GB for free or upgrade to get more space (starting at $9.99/month for 50GB)

Box.net: you can get 5GB for free for 1 user. Organizations get 500GB for $15/user/month.

Commentaires

There is a great Canadian solution available now

Sync.com (based in Toronto) is offering 12GB of storage free of charge to non-profits. Very similar to Dropbox but files are always stored in Canada.