Everyone seems to be moving into the cloud. With Web-based apps and online storage services that give us constant access to the most important data from all of our devices, we have more computing power at our disposal than ever before. Online productivity suites let you work with Office documents on your laptop or smartphone, and keep them perpetually available on the Web for easy access. Cloud streaming services make your entire music library available on any device you have handy, or let you tap into an unlimited supply of free tunes from a personalized online radio station. Web-based phone services allow you to call anyone in the world--with video--for next to nothing, and receive calls on any phone. You can even protect your PC with online antivirus apps.
In this article package, I'll explain the pros and cons of moving aspects of your digital life to the cloud, and I'll discuss the very best free and paid cloud-based services for storage, security, entertainment, communications, finance, productivity, and more. Click the links to the right to get started.
Can You Trust the Cloud?
If you're asking whether you can really trust cloud services with your data, we like the way you think. Regarding any online service with a healthy dose of skepticism will generally serve you well. As with most things in the tech world, cloud services make compromises between security and convenience.
To keep your data secure, you want to protect your files from prying eyes while also preventing them from being lost or inadvertently destroyed. Those two objectives aren't mutually exclusive, but can often seem that way.
If your primary concern is making sure that nobody but you ever sees your data, the cloud may not be for you. While most reputable cloud services offer strong guarantees that your data will be heavily encrypted and that no one inside the company has direct access to your files, you can never be 100 percent certain that something won't go wrong.
At the same time, cloud services run on massive, enterprise-grade server farms with tremendous redundancy, so there's little chance your data will be lost accidentally--the risk is far lower than that of keeping data on your own hard drives. Historically, even when cloud providers go belly up, they often keep the servers active long enough for customers to retrieve or delete their files.
Another compromise involves service reliability. If you depend on a Web-based productivity app, it had better be working when you are. A few high-profile Gmail outages have highlighted this concern in the past year, but it's important to note that the likelihood of your PC's broadband service going down is far greater than the likelihood that a major cloud service will suffer significant downtime.
We suggest this: If your work would be severely disrupted by even a small amount of downtime, pay for premium business-class cloud services that guarantee better than 99 percent uptime. And make sure that any cloud storage you depend on includes syncing to your desktop, so you'll always have access to your files even when you can't get online.
Host Your Own Cloud Storage
Want the benefits of keeping your data available anywhere without having to put all your files on someone else's servers? Cloud-connected network-attached storage devices can give you the best of both worlds.
NAS boxes connect to your home or office network just as any other device does. Plug the NAS box into an open ethernet port on your router, and any computer on your network will be able to see it and use it as an external hard drive that you can then access from your laptop or from iOS or Android devices over the Web. You can configure separate login accounts for most NAS devices, so each member of your family or small business can sign in and copy files over, or use the drive as a backup destination.
For home or small-office users, we like the Buffalo CloudStor for its phenomenally simple setup. Just plug it in and point your Web browser to Buffalo's My CloudStor site to activate it. A minute later, you have 2TB of private cloud storage at your disposal, and no one else touches your drive. The CloudStor will set you back $200 up front, but that's less than services like SugarSync will charge you for an eighth of the storage capacity for one year, and you pay no monthly service fees. The trade-offs for the CloudStor's privacy and low cost, however, are that your data is more vulnerable to loss in the event of a fire or other disaster, and even a simple power outage can knock the device offline.