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Demystifying the cloud

Welcome to the era of ‘cloud’. Over the past couple of years ‘cloud computing’ has been something that almost everyone has heard about, discussed or, if you’re an IT manager, lost sleep over. An interesting fact is that cloud isn’t a new concept but rather something that experienced an awareness-rebirth thanks to the launch and rapid adoption of web-based e-mail services and collaboration tools, social media sites and other web-based services, which require the use of data centers. Web-based e-mail services such as Hotmail and Yahoo Mail were perhaps some of the most frequently used cloud services that consumers used in the 90s but, at that time, the systems running those services didn’t have the geeky, cool name they have now.

In current times the concept of cloud and cloud storage is being driven in the consumer space by the rapid adoption of mobile computing devices such as smartphones and tablets, many of which are used to create, share or access personal content. The need for cloud storage, where data is accessible remotely, arises from the fact that many of these devices have limited amounts of local storage, and, the challenges that arise from managing data across several different computing devices or platforms.

The easiest way to overcome this common challenge is to centralize data on a single storage point with the proviso being that the data is accessible remotely. Moreover this storage point should also offer ample capacity, should be cost effective, should offer data protection and be easy to manage. Keeping these requisites in mind a consumer has two potential options; a personal cloud storage device or a public cloud service.

Today there are several options that fall under the personal and public cloud classifications. On the personal cloud front WD’s My Cloud is one such example whereas in the public cloud space, services such as DropBox, Google Drive, iCloud, Microsoft SkyDrive and others exist. Personal cloud devices and public cloud services both offer remote data access but beyond that, there are several differences that consumers have to consider when choosing between a personal cloud device or a public cloud service.

For a consumer to take full advantage of a public cloud service such as DropBox, an Internet connection that offers high upstream speed is mandatory. This is because the consumer has to upload all of the data to the public cloud service before it becomes accessible across his or her computing devices. In many parts of the world the upstream speed offered by Internet service providers is typically lower than the downstream speed – so whereas you may have a downstream speed of 30Mbits/sec, the upstream speed may only be 10Mbits/sec. So in this case, if a consumer wanted to upload 1GB of content to the public cloud service, it would take nearly 15 minutes. On the flip side, since personal cloud devices connect to your existing network and therefore your computing devices via your router, transferring data to the personal cloud device relies on the abundant bandwidth of your home network, which today is generally Gigabit (1000Gbits/sec) Ethernet. In this case transferring the data would take less than 20 seconds. With a personal cloud the only time you’d need to rely on your Internet connection’s upstream speed is when you need to access the data remotely.

On the topic of data redundancy and protection, personal cloud devices – depending on the device in question – may require you to take the initiative to protect your data by creating a full back-up on a secondary storage device. Alternatively, if you have a personal cloud storage device that offers RAID functionality (these devices feature two or more hard drives), it may need you to decide between several forms of RAID. RAID 5 or RAID 10 are good options that provide a strong degree of data redundancy.

Public cloud service providers, since they rely on data centers that duplicate content several times across other data centers at other physical locations, take ownership of securing your data from loss. Unfortunately, this also has the drawback of lulling consumers into a, sometimes, false sense of security because data stored in data centers can still be lost or destroyed if the service provider suddenly shuts down, is hacked or has a catastrophic infrastructure failure. As a general rule of thumb it’s always wise to have two copies of any data you deem valuable on two separate storage devices, whether you own a personal cloud device or you rely on a public cloud storage service.

Data ownership or rather the lack of data ownership is also something to consider when it comes to public cloud services. The fact is once you’ve uploaded your data to a public cloud, it’s impossible to manage or control what happens to it. What happens if you decide to stop using the service? Does the provider securely wipe or destroy your data? Do they even destroy/delete your data? The issue is you never know what happens to your data.

If you already use a public cloud service or have plans to use one, it’s wise to go through the T&Cs to find out if the cloud storage provider explains exactly what happens to your data once it’s in the cloud or what happens to it if you cancel your subscription or if they go bankrupt. Ideally, you should be able to recover all your data and they should then securely wipe it from their primary and backup systems.

With personal cloud devices, since the device physically sits in your home, your data still belongs to you and is physically present on a medium that you can see and touch. If you were feeling extremely paranoid about any of your data and you wanted to make 100% sure no one got access to it while you were, say, in a meeting or on a holiday, you could simply disconnect the device from your network or physically power it down.

In terms of cost there’s also a difference between personal cloud devices and public cloud services. For instance, services such as DropBox and Google Drive rely on a subscription based model and can cost about US $200 for 2TB per year. Over a five year period this works out to US $1,000. On the flip side a personal cloud device offering 4TB of storage capacity will cost you approximately US $240 as a one-time investment for the device. This would most likely be a single drive personal cloud device, so if you wanted to protect the data on it by backing it up to another storage device, factor in approximately US $350 for two 2TB portable hard drives for backup. Your total, one-time cost here is US $590.

— The writer is the Sales Director for Branded Business at Western Digital Middle East, Africa and India.