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Cloud Computing | Feature

Sitting on Cloud Mine

In a mobile world, cloud-based personal-storage services make it easier to manage documents across devices, and to collaborate with peers and students.

If your pockets are so stuffed with student thumb drives that they bulge like a squirrel's cheeks…you know it's time for a change. If the presentation on your desktop bears little resemblance to the version on your laptop…you know it's time for a change. It sounds like the lead-in to a comedy routine, but it's no laughing matter when you realize you've been working on an outdated file for hours. Fortunately, like a good punch line, the answer to the problem is short and sweet: personal cloud storage.

Personal cloud storage or--more specifically--backup and sync services give users the ability to access the latest version of their files from any device with an internet connection, and, in some cases, the ability to share specific files or folders with collaborators, so they too are always working with the most current version. No more thumb drives. No more e-mailing large files as attachments.

Faculty are finding these cloud-storage services useful not only to manage their own work, but also as a collaborative classroom tool. "There are four computer devices I use throughout the day," says David Parry, assistant professor of emerging media at the University of Texas at Dallas, who uses a backup and sync service provided by SpiderOak. He ticks off a list of devices that includes his cell phone, a work laptop, a home desktop machine, and a tablet. "Anytime, anywhere, as long as I have a device with me, I can get my syllabus. All the files I'm working on for the current semester are stored in the cloud and I can just get them from a device, even if I don't have my own device."

A multitude of cloud-based, personal-storage companies have popped up in recent years. No two are alike, but most offer some storage for free, with additional storage available for a fee. SpiderOak, for example, gives users 2 GB free. Choosing among the various cloud-storage options can be tricky, especially since it's a rapidly changing industry sector.

Founded in 2007, Dropbox is probably the granddaddy of backup and sync services, and holds a significant market share. Users download the application for free to each of their devices. Any file stored in a user's Dropbox folder is then accessible, online or offline, on any of those devices, as well as being stored by Dropbox on Amazon's Simple Storage Service (S3). Each time a user hits "save," Dropbox updates the versions on the Amazon servers and on all the other devices. In addition, users can share files with other contributors or team members.

AJ Ostrow, a first-year student in the computer-engineering program at McGill University in Montreal, relies on Dropbox for team- and partner-based projects. During a recent code jam--a 48-hour programming competition--Ostrow and his partner needed to program in parallel to finish their project in time.

"My partner and I were considering ways to sync our files and share them while we were programming. In the end, we decided Dropbox would be the easiest, especially to get the files onto our virtual machine," explains Ostrow. "It replaced a USB drive or subversioning (version control), which would have taken too long. We shared files with code over Dropbox and updated them in real time."

While Ostrow submits most of his schoolwork via McGill’s Blackboard system, he uses Dropbox regularly for programming side projects and to share business plans. "Basically, anything that needs a USB or to be e-mailed as an attachment is easier to handle with Dropbox," he adds.

SpiderOak, SugarSync, Syncplicity, and Wuala are among other storage and sync services that operate in much the same way as Dropbox, including the ability to share files with collaborators. Many of these companies differentiate themselves from Dropbox by emphasizing their security cred, an area where Dropbox is perceived--rightly or wrongly--to be vulnerable.

Security Approaches
Dropbox stores user files in encrypted form, but the encryption takes place only after the user sends the files to the company. "They have the keys," complains Parry. "Theoretically, people at their company have the ability to unlock your file and view the contents."

With some of Dropbox's competitors, on the other hand, files are encrypted on the user's side before being sent. "If somebody on their side gets access to my files, they have meaningless data," explains Parry about his use of SpiderOak. This makes syncing files a little slower and, Parry says, you're out of luck if you forget your password. But it’s a trade-off he’s willing to make. He uses SpiderOak for files containing information about his students, such as grades and letters of recommendation.

Parry now uses Dropbox only for sharing files with students or when he’s working in groups to coauthor papers: "We'll create a group folder and then we'll share those documents, which means we can all edit them."

For its part, Dropbox defends its security setup. In addition to Dropbox’s own security--which includes the use of Secure Sockets Layer and Advanced Encryption Standard 256-bit encryption--files are protected by Amazon's security policies. For users who share Parry’s concern about Dropbox employees accessing their data, the company recommends using TrueCrypt, free software that enables users to encrypt their files before they upload them.

Ostrow at McGill is not worried about security with Dropbox, because he believes cloud systems in general are actually very secure. "It’s not like I have a lot of sensitive information to protect," he says. "If Amazon can save millions of credit cards, then they can hold onto my homework."

Gorillas in Their Midst
Encryption debates aside, these backup and sync services take essentially the same approach, with variations in pricing and storage allowances. Looking ahead, the biggest competitive threat may not come from each other, but from some of the 800-pound gorillas that are elbowing into the space. Apple's iCloud, Amazon’s Cloud Drive, Microsoft’s SkyDrive and Google’s User Managed Storage all have the potential to supersede or eclipse the established sync services. Some of them offer suites of services, ranging from e-mail to calendars, that could make them attractive one-stop sync shops. With iCloud built into every new product, for instance, Apple has made syncing and backup automatic and largely invisible.

There are some drawbacks to each of these heavyweight contenders, however, that may make users pause. ICloud, for example, doesn't mix apples and oranges: It's a product for Apple users and doesn't do collaboration. Google's solution, on the other hand, is high on sharing--a dispersed team can work on Google Docs files simultaneously--but it requires everyone to have a Google account. And to work offline, you have to download the document and then re-upload it to refresh the shared document.

In deciding what type of product to use, perhaps the biggest advantage of the specialized backup and sync services is a trinity of features: They are platform agnostic, they don't require sign-in, and they allow collaborators to share documents quickly and easily. In higher education, these are powerful attributes that, for now anyway, eclipse some of their more vaunted competitors. Whether this will hold true down the road remains to be seen.

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