What is a virtual hard drive?

By: Kate Kershner

Where it all started: the physical hard drive.
Where it all started: the physical hard drive.

As more and more of our lives began to be stored on a computer, tablet or phone that replaced filing cabinets, book cases, rolodexes, photo albums and CD towers, we quickly had to confront the fact that there's only so much space on a device for your work documents when you have such a staggering array of anime that needs digital room to live. One solution is the hard drive. This is the physical place in your computer that holds the hard disk where all the files and information on your machine is digitally stored.

For what seems like forever -- or at least since the advent of personal computing -- this has been a handy and completely sufficient option. For one, we didn't always have that large of a digital footprint; after all, we've only been using computers and digital technology for a short period of time. But as time went on and more of our lives started collecting inside our computers and devices, more space was needed.


Floppy disks and zip disks were short-term solutions. Floppy disks held a minimal amount of info, while zip disks required their own reader. External hard drives entered the game big, loud (from external power) and cumbersome. As FireWire and then USB came into play, however, the external hard drive became a terrific way for both industry and consumer electronics users to easily and quickly back up data or create a separate storage space.

And then? The cloud.

Suddenly, the space for storage seemed almost limitless. The cloud system allowed you to store your data on the company's server and also to access that stored data from any Internet-based device. Not only could all your anime tracts sleep blissfully on the cloud server instead of crowded into your computer's hard drive but you could also get to them from your smartphone. You could even edit them on one machine, knowing the changes would be back up not just to a folder on your desktop but also online, ready to be retrieved if your own hard drive sputtered out.

And that's where we enter the world of virtual hard drives.

What are they good for?

Virtual hard drives take digital data storage to the next level.
Virtual hard drives take digital data storage to the next level.

First, we'll go through what we're talking about when we refer to virtual hard drives. And one important point: The terms "virtual drives," "virtual disks" and "virtual machines" can sometimes be thrown around interchangeably.

Sometimes, a "virtual hard drive" (and all its vocabulary variations) has less to do with a storage server and way more to do with an operating system. Say you had a Mac and needed to run a Windows application (not a far-out option if you had a Mac at home and Windows at work, for instance). By downloading virtual drive software (or using a native program, if your operating system offers it), you basically trick the computer into thinking there's a whole other drive on it. From that drive, you can work with different operating systems. That's not all -- these kinds of virtual drives will also let you encrypt files for extra security and might even allow you to create a file of a CD or DVD so you don't have to physically have the disk in your computer. They can do so much, in fact, that we can't cover all the uses here. Instead, let's just plow ahead to our virtual drive-as cloud storage.


As we saw from the evolution of the hard drive (and external hard drive), we can pretty confidently predict that digital storage space -- and the high demand for it -- is going to keep growing. Think about this: The average storage for a floppy disk was about 1.44 MB. SkyDrive, a virtual hard drive offered by Microsoft, gives away 7GB of storage free and clear. This means you'd have to have roughly 10,000 floppy disks on you to access all your data at any given time.

Creating a robust, intelligent virtual hard drive has become big business. Because after you use up your 7GB, Microsoft (and any other cloud storage server) is going to politely ask you to fork over some money to buy more space as you go. See why Microsoft, Google Drive, Apple iCloud and Amazon Cloud Drive might want to get your business early?

Even though those companies are huge and powerful, they're not necessarily leading the virtual hard drive race. Turns out a little start-up called Dropbox showed up to fight. While it's not winning the race yet, we can say that the service -- at 50 million users -- might've gotten a better place at the starting line, as it has a super easy user interface for sharing, syncing and uploading files.

But are there any dangers in using virtual hard drives?

What AREN'T they good for?

Dropbox is just one of many virtual hard drive services vying for your attention.
Dropbox is just one of many virtual hard drive services vying for your attention.
Screenshot by HowStuffWorks.com

Many Web services that offer a virtual hard drive in the cloud have come under scrutiny for their privacy policies, and you should understand why. Unlike storing all your files on your own computer or a physical external hard drive, with a virtual hard drive, you're uploading your files to a server. This means that, technically, you're not the only one with access to them.

A privacy policy seems like a no-brainer (don't look at my stuff!), but the services actually want to protect themselves against liability in case you're uploading illegal content. And if the government subpoenas them, they'll want to be able to hand over what's needed, which means they might be taking a gander at your files.


How each service states that borders on elegant. Google Drive, for instance, gives a long list of things it has permission to do with your content. Microsoft somewhat sternly notes that, for instance, if you're infringing on copyrights, you're not following the rules and can be kicked off. Dropbox just says you're agreeing to "the permissions we need" to run its services [source: Patel]. Apple's iCloud comes straight out and says it can remove "objectionable" material -- whatever that may be, as the company also gives itself permission to "determine whether Content is appropriate" [source: Patel].

So is your content being monitored? Well, maybe. The beauty of the privacy policies is that you can kind of assume your stuff is being looked at. For instance, how would Microsoft know you're infringing on a copyright or Apple realize your material is "objectionable" if someone wasn't looking at it? Then again, Google implies that -- just like when it scans your e-mail -- it's simply helping along marketing by scanning for words and targeting ads to you. But the company basically has the permissions to do whatever it wants with your content: Google can "use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content" as long as it's for "operating, promoting, and improving our Services, and to develop new ones" [source: Patel].

So while a virtual hard drive might be a terrific option for storage and sharing, do be aware that we're not entirely sure what the Web service is seeing.

Author's Note

As someone who's had a hard drive crash and completely and utterly die in the middle of a 300-page copyediting project -- losing a hundred pages of work for a deadline, not to mention everything else I've ever done -- I'm a pretty big supporter of backing up files. But with the ease of virtual storage and drives comes a price: Your documents are no longer yours but squatters on a server. While virtual hard drives have many advantages, be savvy about how you use them -- and what you use them for.

Related Articles


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