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Examining the Players

Let’s consider a variety of software in each of the two camps: "keep my data mobile" and "keep it backed up".

Mobile Data

First, ways to access anything anywhere.

Flickr

One of "Web 2.0"s glory stories, Flickr was a small company that set out to make uploading, categorizing, and sharing photos incredibly easy. It succeeded so well that Yahoo bought it out a couple of years ago for gobs of money. Thankfully, Flickr remains one of the fastest, easiest, and simplest ways of storing your photos online. Its professional account allows you to use up to 2GB of storage, but there is no reason you can’t start with the basic account and upgrade at a later date if you need to.

Main function

Storing files in an online categorized system.

Cost

From free to $24.95/year. Free account is fully functional, but more limited in storage space and number of albums that can be created.

Pros

For many people, the free account is more than enough. The roughly 200MB of storage lets them keep their precious photos online. If they need more, the upgrade cost is reasonable. Tagging and categorizing photos is very, very easy.

Cons

No capability to batch download files again. So, although they are highly available online, this is not a true backup solution because you can’t get all your photos back in a simple manner.

Good for

Individuals who want to see their photos anywhere, share them with friends and generally have them available "just in case".

Gmail

Released by Google, Gmail became a disruptive force in the Web-based email industry. Before Gmail, typical storage allotments were roughly 20MB, with a maximum attachment size of 2MB. After Gmail, storage of 2GB with maximum attachment sizes of 20MB isn’t unusual at all. Gmail’s simple user interface and no-nonsense design make it a favorite among the technical elite. Many business users shun it as their primary email platform because of lack of contacts, calendaring, and other high-end tools (though rumors continue to swirl that Google is planning to do to calendaring what it did to email). Still, the software is a great way to ensure that your email is findable wherever you are—and its search features are well beyond the current generation of Outlook’s—so finding that email message you are looking for way in the past can be incredibly easy. Many technophiles have their mail server forward all their email to Gmail automatically as a kind of email backup: if something goes wrong, they know a copy will always be available if they need it.

Main function

Web-based email.

Cost

Gmail is completely free.

Pros

The fast interface and fantastic search make it an ideal "mobile" email solution, for those times when you need to answer an email but aren’t at your desk. It’s no Blackberry, but then it isn’t quite as addictive, either.

Cons

There is a complete lack of tools that power users want. There is a mild contacts system, and the recent integration with Gtalk is nice, but the truth is that if you use Gmail you use it only for email.

Good for

Individuals who are either mobile a lot without direct access to their primary inbox or individuals who simply want the peace of mind of knowing that their email is being backed up.

Plaxo

Everyone who has ever switched jobs knows the pain of losing someone’s contact information because the Outlook Contacts folder is no longer available. Contacts are one of those things that you only really miss when they’re gone. Enter Plaxo. Plaxo provides a vast array of services around contacts. Its core service, though, is syncing with your Outlook or Outlook Express, and letting your contacts know when your details change (new job, new cell number, and so on). Plaxo is like a really smart Rolodex that’s always online and always up to date. It isn’t a networking site like LinkedIn, but it is a fantastic way of ensuring that your contacts are always available to you—whether you’re fired, you kill your laptop, or you just need someone’s information while you are away from the office.

Main function

Maintaining an up-to-date contact database.

Cost

From free to $49.95/year. Free account is more than enough for most users. Premium service adds mobile capabilities (find contacts on the go) and more advanced search and backup features.

Pros

Plaxo is an easy way to ensure that your contacts are always available to you, are always up to date, and are never lost.

Cons

Really the only con to Plaxo is that your contacts stay up to date only if they, too, use Plaxo. You can always update them manually, but having it done automagically is so much easier.

Good for

Individuals who need contacts available to them anytime, anywhere. Anyone who never wants to lose a contact entry again.

Del.icio.us

I remember when I first found the Internet in 1993. Even back then, there were "online bookmark" services. Of course, I’m not much of a bookmark kind of guy, so I never used them, but many of my friends did. And everyone acknowledged that nobody ever really got it right. Everything was online all right, but there was never any context to a bookmark. Which is where del.icio.us (pronounced "delicious") comes in.

This little service not only lets you bookmark a page but it also lets you describe it and then tag it (for example, if the page is a recipe for pizza, you might tag it with "pizza" and "recipe"). This tagging enables you to find similar items later. The big innovation is that you can view everyone else’s bookmarks, too. So, if you are looking for more pizza recipes, you just need to expand the tag to a global one or go searching for popular pages tagged "pizza" and "recipe".

So not only can you keep your bookmarks online but your bookmarks actually become useful. They become a gateway to other information you might be interested in. And all for less than the cost of a penny.

Main function

Online bookmarks. "Social bookmarking."

Cost

Del.icio.us is completely free, in spite of being acquired by Yahoo late last year.

Pros

If you, like me, have never used an online bookmarking service, this is likely the one to try. Besides being free, the tagging thing (once you get used to it) is much more powerful than bookmark folders. Organization through chaos, they call it.

Cons

About the only thing missing for people who are hooked on bookmarks is the ability to sync with your IE or FireFox bookmarks. Most people who use del.icio.us get so hooked, though, that they forget why they ever joined.

Good for

Anyone looking to make their bookmarks available online and to add context to them.

Portable Applications

Although not technically a backup solution, an increasing number of people are looking to take not only their data but also their software applications with them. One of these types, Jon Watson likes to say he keeps his "whole life online." Sure, Jon has online storage and he uses Gmail to make sure that his email is available anywhere. But his portable applications are what make him a true mobile god.

Downloaded from PortableApps.com, Jon can fit an entire office suite (Portable OpenOffice.org), a browser (Portable FireFox), an email client (Portable Thunderbird), FTP, IM, and much more on his 500MB thumb drive. So not only does he have his data available anywhere but he also has his applications just the way he likes them—without needing to install anything on anyone’s computer.

Main function

Take your favorite apps with you and you never have to install them on a computer to use them.

Cost

Free.

Pros

For "normal" knowledge workers, these applications might be all you’ll ever need to be productive. Which means that you can work from any PC with an Internet connection just as if it were your own.

Cons

All the Portable Apps are open source. This means you won’t get Portable Microsoft Office 2003 or Portable AutoCAD.

Good for

Those who don’t need to use Microsoft apps at work and are comfortable with the open source variants. The ability to take your entire application suite with you is incredibly powerful.

Online Storage

And now we get to the core of the matter. Has online storage changed in the last 10 years? Has it gotten cost-effective, is it easier to use, and do the companies offer anywhere near enough storage? The short answer is a resounding "yes" to each of these questions! Let’s take a more in-depth look at some of the offerings currently available. (I’ll provide you with a list of other options at the end of the article if these do not meet your personal or business needs.)

Carbonite

David Friend, CEO of Carbonite, is concerned about your data. "Only 2–3% of desktops are currently getting backed up", he says. When asked why, he cites the simple pain of current backup solutions. "It’s just one of those things you put off until tomorrow, then tomorrow, then tomorrow. Until the day your kid pours coffee on your laptop or something."

Carbonite’s solution is a simple one: make sure that all your data is backed up, constantly being updated as you update files, and for it to cost you less than a moustache, never mind an arm and a leg. Although Carbonite’s solution isn’t out of beta testing yet, it is already gaining serious traction because, as David Friend says, "Backups need to be as simple as antivirus. When you install antivirus, you just forget about it until something goes wrong. Backups should be the same way."

Indeed. In addition to being a behind-the-scenes type of backup solution, Carbonite also employs a high level of encryption. This isn’t about data sharing. This is about disaster recovery. That when things go seriously wrong, you don’t worry about losing your data.

Main function

Back up all the data on your PC.

Cost

Varies, depending on storage needs. From roughly $50/year for 10GB of storage and up.

Pros

The solution is easy to use and really is as simple as antivirus. It doesn’t hog bandwidth and after the initial backup (which can sometimes take a few days), it is very quick to keep your files up to date.

Cons

As with any online backup solution, the first backup is the most painful. Although 10GB of data might take only a day or two, 250GB might take as much as 7–10 days. This pain is true of any online backup solution. After that initial pain, as long as you aren’t creating hundreds of gigabytes of data every week, all should run smoothly.

Good for

Any individual or small business looking to ensure a high level of backups at a low cost.

Allmydata

Allmydata is one of the most interesting online storage providers. Unlike other providers that went about building massive storage facilities, Allmydata decided to use the "extra" storage of the entire Internet to its advantage. The first version of its product allowed anyone in the world to, according to CEO Fabrice Grinda, get "huge amounts of free storage at their fingertips." How? Simple: if you wanted 1GB of free online storage, you only had to give Allmydata 10GB of storage on your PC.

With today’s mushrooming home storage sizes (150GB HDDs aren’t at all unusual), this became very attractive.

Using its network of thousands of PCs with multiple terabytes of storage now available to them, Allmydata then launched a paid service. But instead of uploading to its servers, Allmydata encrypts your bits and stores them (redundantly) on thousands of different computers.

According to Grinda, this means that "Not only is your data redundant, and not only can nobody (including us) view your files, but because it is distributed across the Internet, when you need a file back it comes back incredibly fast." This is due entirely to the distributed nature of the application: your bits come from whichever node is online and closest to you instead of just from the centralized servers.

Allmydata is also about to unveil new pricing plans of up to 1TB of storage for as low as $9.99 per month. The software lets you select which files or directories to back up (Grinda suggested "Documents and Settings" would be a good one to start with, or just My Documents), and then sends the files into "the cloud" in the background—staying out of the way while you work.

Main function

Back up all the data on your PC.

Cost

Varies depending on storage needs. From roughly $50/year for 10GB of storage and up.

Pros

The solution is easy to use and really is as simple as antivirus. It doesn’t hog bandwidth and after the initial backup (which can sometimes take a few days), is very quick to keep your files up to date.

Cons

As with any online backup solution, the first backup is the most painful. Although 10GB of data might take only a day or two, 250GB might take as much as 7–10 days. This pain is true of any online backup solution. After that initial pain, as long as you aren’t creating hundreds of gigabytes of data every week, all should run smoothly.

Good for

Any individual or small business looking to ensure a high level of backups at a low cost.

Openomy

Openomy is certainly one of the most unique online storage applications to come out since the bubble burst. Instead of being a storage system for users, it is a storage system for applications. Why, you might ask? Well, according to Ian Sefferman, co-founder of Openomy, it’s because "the more we move services online, the harder our data gets to reach, which is the opposite of the idea of being able to reach our data anytime anywhere."

In many ways, this is true. If you use services such as Flickr, Gmail, del.icio.us, or others, your data is available only via those services. As Sefferman says, "You don’t really own your data when you use these services."

Openomy, then, is an online file system. A user has a profile. Any data that any application that’s tied into Openomy creates or manages is then available to that user. It’s a little bit like "Windows—Online". Developers can work with Openomy’s open APIs to create anything from an online office suite to a Web browser. The data then gets stored on Openomy’s servers, so the user can have access to it from anywhere and so the user owns the data.

Openomy is currently free for the first GB of data, and the team is planning a set of subscription services to add more storage capacity to the mix. At the end of the day, it will likely live or die based on the quality of applications that get built for the system. As with most of the companies we’ve looked at in this piece, it’s an innovative and incredibly interesting approach.

Main function

To serve as an online file system.

Cost

Free for the first gigabyte of data. Subscription fees will come into play beyond that level (though those details aren’t finalized yet).

Pros

The potential to have all your data always available online via online applications is incredibly powerful and tempting. And with Openomy’s APIs, there is no reason why an application such as Outlook couldn’t store PSTs on Openomy—basically letting you have your email wherever you had Outlook.

Cons

Openomy’s biggest strength, its openness, is also its biggest weakness. If no developers sign up, it’s unlikely that a solid suite of tools will be available to users.

Good for

If you are a developer looking for a solid storage option, this is a fantastic way to increase the value proposition of your business. For users, this is still a little green, but it could get very interesting very soon with some developer support.

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