How Remote File Access Works

Remote file access just makes everything so much easier when you get work done at your local coffee shop.
Remote file access just makes everything so much easier when you get work done at your local coffee shop.

Remote file access is pretty much what it sounds like: a service that lets you access your files anywhere, anytime and with whatever device you like, as long as you're connected to the Internet. This is what we invented the Internet for in the first place: to get at, share and collaborate on information at will (even if most of us will use it to share selfies, songs and cat videos).

Ever since we stopped working on mainframes and switched to PCs, we've had to contend with the problem of accessing files from other locations. First, we needed to bring work home with us, or lug disks and word processors to distant conferences. Later, laptops, smartphones and consoles vastly increased the portability of personal data, enabling us to take photos, videos and documents with us on planes or to the local coffee shop -- but we still had to deal with swapping files manually over networks, disks or flash drives, worrying all the while about whether we had the right version.

Internet access seemed like the answer, but the early (and slow) days of Internet connectivity made any but the simplest file transfer untenable. Rather than deal with the hassle, users would snail-mail or hand-deliver piles of disks (a process nicknamed "sneakernet"). Never underestimate the bandwidth of a van full of cartridges speeding across town.

Today, despite ever-ballooning file sizes, bandwidth has opened up enough that we can download gigabyte-sized games in minutes, and smartphones pack enough data throughput to stream movies. The bottleneck has moved from the pipeline to the spigot, opening the way for companies to provide remote file access services.

Larger corporations and universities have offered forms of remote access for years, either run internally or through server collocation facilities. Some use virtual private network (VPN) protocols and programs to gain secure access to office networks over the Internet, or allow access to your desktop remotely -- a boon to IT departments.

The difference between these services and remote file access is one of focus. Everyone, from individual users to small businesses, wants access to their files wherever they are, whether those files contain music, photos, movies, shared projects or a high-concept screenplay about monkey hacktivists. Remote file access gives you that, often for free, and synchronized to ensure you're using the most up-to-date version.

Head in the Clouds

To understand how remote file access works, let's run through a typical experience.

Your service will install a file folder on your computer or device. Any file you drag or copy into that folder is duplicated -- using a secure sockets layer (SSL) and, in some cases, encryption -- onto a server somewhere on the Internet, much in the same way shared documents are stored on an office network. Meanwhile, a background service on your computer or device periodically syncs each of the folder's contents with its duplicate on the Internet server. Thus, any changes you make on one version of the file will be reflected in all versions.

Although once distinct concepts, the line separating "remote file access" from "cloud computing" grows increasingly blurred, both in terms of the services they provide and the way companies market them. We use the term remote file access throughout this article, but the services we describe overlap the two categories somewhat.

Most services allow you to access your remote file folder from devices such as tablets and smartphones. Simply install the necessary app and you're ready to go. In many cases, an additional option to share your photos, videos or other files on the remote file service then appears on your app menus. For example, a Google Drive user with an Android phone who takes a picture will see a Google Drive option on the sharing menu, next to Picasa, Twitter, Facebook and so on. Like your desktop computer, these devices will sync every so often with the file servers, much as they periodically check for new e-mails or texts.

Once your files are on a remote access server, you can share them publicly or with specific people. Implementations vary, but typically a settings menu lets you specify who can see a particular document, which can vary from anyone on the Web, to anyone who has the link, to only specified people. Many services require users to register and make an account (typically free) before they can access the file. You can also specify permissions controlling what viewers or collaborators are allowed to do with the file (like read only, edit).

Some services, like Google Drive and Microsoft SkyDrive, also enable you to create documents online. These are stored on the server, but you can also download them to your computer or device to work on them while offline. The system will sync them with the remote file service once you re-establish Web access.

Remote file access and cloud servers provide powerful tools and convenient file access, but they also introduce security vulnerabilities. These cut two ways: On the one hand, hackers can and will exploit security holes in the servers and on devices that access them; on the other, many users will rankle at security solutions proposed to stop those hackers, particularly digital rights management (DRM). Keep such concerns in mind when choosing a remote file access service -- or deciding if one is right for you in the first place [source: Thomas].

Choosing a Remote File Access Service

The Web is full of one-stop solutions where you can drop your files and let someone else sweat the details, with more coming online all the time. Here are a few of the standouts.

Dropbox is a straightforward service with a long track record. It works on Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems and offers apps that tie into iPhones, iPads, Androids, BlackBerrys and Kindle Fires. Customers begin with 2 gigabytes of storage and can accrue more via customer referrals or purchase up to 500 GB by going pro. A business variant with version control and some team management and collaboration options starts at 1,000 GB (no expansion limit) [sources: Dropbox; Meece].

iCloud offers the inevitable "one nation under Apple" solution for the company's core customers, but PCs running Windows Vista or later can get in on the action too. If your Apple device is fairly new (and if not, what's the matter with you?), then a wizard is probably walking you through the process even as you try to read this article. In addition to providing access to content on all of your devices (particularly iTunes and App Store purchases), iCloud keeps track of where you left off in your iBook or Safari browsing, and can even lock down and help track a stolen device. Users begin with a free 5 GB, but can purchase more space (up to 50 GB as of October 2011). Music, TV shows, apps and books bought through the Apple Store do not count against this limit, but storing non-iTunes music costs extra [sources: Apple; Meece].

Google Drive aims to set users free from any platform entanglements while simultaneously drawing you -- and your data -- deeper into the Googleverse. It works on Windows (Vista or later), Macs (Snow Leopard (10.6) or later) and Android devices (Eclair (2.1) or later), as well as iPhone and iPad (iOS 3.0+) and offers 15 GB free with pay plans expandable to 16 terabytes (that's right – we said terabytes). Like Microsoft's Skydrive (below), Google Drive allows users to create spreadsheets, docs and presentations online, and supports file sharing and collaboration with 30-days' worth of revision tracking. What really sets it apart, though, is access to Google's powerful search capabilities [sources: Google; Meece].

Microsoft SkyDrive leverages its strongest assets as well: namely, the ability to collaborate, with version control, on Word docs, Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations without converting them to an open source or other file format. The service also grants you access to remote computers running Windows, so you can grab photos or stream video from your home computer to your device. Microsoft starts you off with 7 GB free, with options to upgrade to 200 GB [sources: Meece; Microsoft].

Those are just a few of the many options available to you. Take your time and search out the solution that fits your particular needs.

Author's Note: How Remote File Access Works

In light of recent revelations of NSA snooping and rubber-stamp FISA courts, to say nothing of third-party data gathering, I'm very curious to see how these remote data access and cloud servers will play out -- particularly once the RIAA gets involved.

Related Articles


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  • Dropbox. "Dropbox."(Oct. 21, 2013)
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  • Johnston, Casey. "Google Drive Files Can End Up in Ads, Even Though You Still Own Them." Ars Technica. April 25, 2012. (Oct. 21, 2013)
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