Should I move my hard disk to the cloud?

Is your data better off in the cloud than on a hard disk drive like this one?
Photodisc/Thinkstock

Whether you have a terabyte worth of vacation photos or a host of sensitive documents sitting on your computer, you want to keep your data safe, secure and accessible. A big part of achieving these goals is choosing where your data will live. Should you rely on your computer's hard drive? Is an external hard drive for backup purposes necessary? Or should you shift all your data to the cloud?

Cloud storage has been making headlines for a few years now. The concept is pretty simple. You access the service through an Internet-connected device, pulling up whichever files you need at the time. Those files reside on servers that could potentially be thousands of miles or kilometers away.

There are dozens of companies that offer some form of cloud storage. Some even allot users a certain amount of storage space for free. With all the competition in the market, customers can shop around for the deal that makes the most sense for them. All of this is good news for people interested in cloud storage, but is it actually a good idea?

Let's take a look at the pros and cons of cloud storage and why backing up your data is critical.

Silver Linings in Clouds

Perhaps the most attractive feature of cloud storage is that it gives you lots of options when it comes to retrieving your data. Typically, cloud storage services require that you create a password-protected account with a unique user name. Logging into the service through a desktop program, smartphone app or Web browser gives you access to your files.

That means you don't have to keep track of various drives or devices. You can open a file on one computer, make some changes and save it to the cloud. Later, you can access the new version of the file on a different computer by logging into the cloud service. There's no need to e-mail files or save them to a physical medium like a flash drive.

Another positive feature of cloud computers is that any reputable service will ensure redundancy by storing your data on multiple servers. That way, should one server suffer a failure, you'll still be able to access your personal files without interruption. Most cloud networks have computers that take on the task of making sure every server holding your data has the latest version of the file.

Have you ever lost a digital file or had a hard drive go bad? It can be a stressful experience. You may have to bring a hard drive or computer to a data retrieval specialist and even then you may not get everything back. That's why backing up your data is important. It creates redundancy -- should one drive fail, you can still access the data on another system. Whether you prefer cloud storage or an external drive in your possession, consider backing up your data. It has the potential to prevent a huge headache.

Storing your data in the cloud also protects your information in case something should happen to your physical machine. Disasters like floods or fires could destroy all your information. A good cloud storage network will house servers in a secure location with failsafe systems in place to protect the machines.

Stormy Clouds

Is your data better off in the cloud than on a hard disk drive like this one?
Is your data better off in the cloud than on a hard disk drive like this one?
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

There are some drawbacks to cloud storage as well. Cloud storage is a business and businesses can fail. If the cloud storage system you use has financial trouble, you may find yourself in the position of retrieving all your data in a short amount of time before the service goes offline. It also means trusting that the failing business will take every measure to ensure all customer data gets wiped out before selling off assets -- you wouldn't want your personal files to end up on a server sold to some other company.

If you're concerned about privacy, it's also good to look into how your data could be used by the service. This means reading the terms of service -- that long document that people often skim over before clicking on "Agree." It's possible some cloud storage services could send you targeted advertising based upon the files you save within the system. It may be that no human being is reading your information, but for some people the thought of a system mining files for advertising purposes is a deal breaker.

One question you should ask before diving into a cloud storage service is "Who owns my data?" Again, reading the terms of service is crucial. Some services may indicate that the service effectively owns anything you store on its servers. While it's clear that you own your data when you store it on a local hard drive, the same may not be true when you use cloud storage.

There's also the issue of data security. A good cloud storage service will encrypt all data. Ideally, the data will remain unusable even should a hacker gain access to it. It's safe to bet that the larger cloud service companies employ security measures far more strict than the average computer owner. But it's also true that these companies are bigger targets than the typical user.

One last drawback is that you need an Internet connection to access your files. If you happen to be in a place that has limited or no access to the Internet or should your Internet service fail, your data will remain out of reach. The same is true if there is a catastrophic failure at the cloud service facility -- should the data center lose power or connectivity, your data will be out of reach.

Remember, it's in the cloud storage service's best interest to make sure connectivity and security are as strong as possible. But it remains true that you need to take these factors into consideration before making a move to the cloud.

Ultimately, the important note to take away from this is that you should backup your data. Don't store all your digital information on a single device -- devices fail and you may lose something important or irreplaceable. A balance of local and cloud storage can be a great solution. Just be sure to research the cloud storage services you're considering to make sure they're a good fit!

Author's Note

I use a combination of local and cloud storage to store my files. I have an external hard drive that my iMac uses as a backup every week. I use cloud storage for many of my personal projects. I even have a dozen or so thumb drives I use to store photos, videos and other files. Keeping track of all the various forms of storage is in itself complicated but it helps keep my data safe through redundancy.

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Sources

  • Baylor University. "Cloud Services." (Sept. 4, 2012) http://www.baylor.edu/its/index.php?id=86451
  • Lata, Mike. "Google Drive, Dropbox, iCloud: Data Privacy in the Public Cloud." TrainSignal. May 8, 2012 (Sep 4, 2012) http://www.trainsignal.com/blog/public-cloud-storage-privacy
  • Srivastava, Mandira. "Cloud Computing – The Risks and Benefits of Cloud Storage." Smallbiz Technology. Sept. 12, 2011. (Sept. 4, 2012) http://www.smallbiztechnology.com/archive/2011/09/cloud-computing-the-risks-and-benefits-of-cloud-storage.html/
  • Vaas, Lisa. "Cloud Storage Security Isn't as Solid as Vendors Want You to Believe." eWeek. May 15, 2012. (Sept. 4, 2012). http://www.eweek.com/c/a/Security/Cloud-Storage-Security-Isnt-as-Solid-as-Vendors-Want-You-to-Believe-248889/