What You Need to Know About the Cloud in 2016
This article explores all you need to know about the cloud. We show you definitions and explain what the fuzz is all about. Whether you’re just getting started or looking for a good alternative to your current provider – we’ve got you covered.
7 Mission-Critical Questions to Ask Before Buying Cloud Storage
Table of contents
All About Cloud Storage
Top 5 Cloud Storage Providers
Top 5 Online Backup Providers
What “Cloud” Are You Looking For?
Probably, you’ve found our comparison chart through a search engine looking for the best cloud storage for your files. But are you looking for a Dropbox like service that does file syncing and sharing, or are you more in need of a service to backup files to the cloud such as Backblaze or Crashplan? Before we can give you any recommendation, it’s vital to know your needs. So, let us clarify a couple of those complicated cloud concepts and terms:
Cloud terms explained:*
We help you understand the different cloud terminology so you can be sure to know the difference.
This is the overarching term for online file storage. A common assumption is that it includes file syncing, sharing and collaboration where a local copy is always present on the user’s computer.
Online Backup / Cloud Backup
Cloud backup is also a form of cloud storage, yet without file sync. It focuses primarily on backup, that is creating a copy of your hard drive in the cloud.
Storing files online without having a local copy on a computer. To edit a file it needs to be downloaded from the web or a specific application.
File Sync and Share
Belongs to the cloud storage space and connects a project folder to the cloud so that all files are the same on all connected devices for all users who participate in the share.
One-Click Hosters / Cyberlockers
Purely for online storage purposes and widely used in the illegal file sharing community due to its anonymity.
*This is just a quick overview, below you’ll find more detailed explanation when clicking on the hyperlinks.
Cloud storage is probably the overarching term for all of those services listed in our comparison and reviews. All providers transfer and store data in the cloud which essentially means on computers or servers located all around the world made accessible through the internet.
When people are looking for this term online, they immediately think of Dropbox, Google Drive or OneDrive because those are the services (Dropbox in particular) that coined the term and made file sync and share available to the end-user instead of just businesses.
In very simple terms, a cloud storage provider (the hosting company) installs a client program on a user’s computer. That program then transmits any file a user choses over the internet to the service provider so that those files can be shared and accessed easily on other devices owned by the same user.
That can be a mobile device, a laptop or a desktop with Windows or Macintosh operating system. All changes made to the data that is set to be synced across devices, are updated in real-time on all machines where the cloud software is installed.
Why I’m using it…
Cloud Storage Definition
So, let’s assume a user has three devices: a desktop PC a laptop computer and a mobile device and she installs Dropbox (or any other cloud storage service) on all of them. Then there are in total 4 copies of each file available: one copy on each device and another one in the so called “cloud”.
Saving a file on her laptop will upload the changes to the cloud where algorithms compare the new copy with every other copy on her machines and then decide which one is the most current version. That way, a user can always be sure to work on the correct file at any point in time.
Cloud storage providers can not only sync files but also make them available to another person or even a group of people by sharing. The cloud copy of a file is then available to a third party. Now there are two important concepts to understand: public and private links. With a public link, anybody with that link can access a file or folder, while a private link is only accessible upon invitation and generally requires the invited users to create an account with the cloud storage company. Now, that you understand what cloud storage is and what is does you can already see the endless possibilities:
What Are Cloud Storage Services Used For?
The cloud has a lot of applications. We have gathered a list of things you can do and how the cloud can help you work more efficiently.
No more email attachments
Large email attachments are a pain, it’s hard to know if they actually arrive safely at the recipient. As files can be shared with a public link that link can be then sent via email to a recipient where it can be downloaded.
No more awkward file names like final, final-1, final-final
All file versions of a document, presentation, spreadsheet or any file for that matter are stored in the cloud. All parties that have access to that file or folder will always see the current version no matter who edited it last. What used to be an endless chain of new documents whose filename creativity decreased by each version is now combined into one single file.
Knowing that all files are always there, aka file syncing
No matter if you’re at the airport, in a café, a co-working space, traveling, at the office, at home, all crucial files are always available and you don’t have to remember to transfer them onto a USB thumb drive or even send yourself an email because files are synced through cloud storage software across your (mobile) devices.
Cloud file storage services can serve as a quick backup because multiple versions of a single files is both available in the cloud and on other devices. So if a computer meltdown occurs, having a subscription with a cloud storage service allows for quick restoration of lost files.
Certainly one of the major benefits of services like Dropbox is collaboration with a virtual team spread across different continents. All members of a team can have access to a shared folder and upload and download data, so everybody is on the same page with the project status. Even if somebody on the team makes a mistake, most services offer ‘file versioning’ which means the admin can go back and recover deleted files or even older versions of the same file.
Even though they are called cloud storage providers, with the above mentioned file synchronisation, all files are available offline. So working on a project with a weak or non-existing Internet connection is possible. Once re-connected, changes are uploaded automatically.
Top Cloud Storage Options We Like
Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. You have to look at your requirements carefully and select a service with the help of our comparison chart. These services below are some services our readers and we like a lot.
Sync.com is a fairly new provider on the block. Based in Canada, they rival Dropbox both in ease-of-use and syncing speed. However, they offer something much more valuable: zero-knowledge security. User’s data is encrypted end-to-end, therefore nobody but the user can see the data in the clear. Sync offers mobile apps for both iOS and Android and is available on Mac and Windows alike. Unfortunately, a Linux client is not on the roadmap yet.
- Extremely easy to use, even for the most technically illiterate users.
- High level of security due to end-to-end cloud encryption
- Canada based, no US servers
- Also great for businesses due to granular sharing control and password protection of shared folders.
- Users have reported some syncing problems with McAffee antivirus software
- Mobile clients are a bit too simplistic yet
Justcloud is one of the few services that try to combine both online backup and cloud storage in one single client. Their user interface is very straightforward and users can select what files to backup easily. Files that are backed up can be shared and synced. It’s a good solution for users looking an all-in-one cloud service instead of signing up for multiple accounts. Justcloud comes with a few restrictions (file size limit of 2GB) and some aggressive marketing, but it’s an overall solid performer.
- Easy to setup and forget
- Web interface allows users to preview most common file types
- Available mobile apps allow access to files anywhere
- Free trial is very limited and doesn’t allow for proper testing of the product
- There is no unlimited plan
- Aggressive marketing
$ 8.69 Monthly
$ 74.28 (-29%)
$ 134.64 (-35%)
As the name already suggests, SugarSync is a service focused on file synchronisation and sharing, yet they also allow users to run backup jobs in the background. What’s great about SugarSync is that they allow users to select any folder on a computer to be synced with their cloud, unlike Dropbox where customers need to choose one folder on their machines. SugarSync is available in many different flavors starting from 5 GB for 0 $/month. More expensive than Dropbox but well worth the extra money for the flexiblity.
SugarSync’s online file storage application is available for Windows and Mac and the usual suspects for mobile clients: Android and iOS.
- Syncs any folder on your devices
- Includes automatic backups which are not as sophisticated as a real backup service but it’s something
- Public and private link sharing with granular folder permissions such as read-only. Flexible pricing plans for most user’s needs
- Slower syncing speeds than Dropbox
- More expensive than some of the competitors
- Sometimes there is a delay in syncing when adding a new folder
Free plan limited to 90 days.
$ 7.49 Monthly
$ 74.49 (-17%)
$ 9.99 Monthly
$ 99.99 (-17%)
$ 24.99 Monthly
$ 249.99 (-17%)
$ 55 Monthly
$ 550.00 (-17%)
1 - 3 users. Admins controls. Live phone support. Remote wipe computers.
From the outside Livedrive hasn’t changed much in recent years, their website and plans still look the same as always. However, I have the feeling since they’ve been acquired by J2 Global things are moving for the better: they’ve updated their client software to a more modern look, upload speeds have increased and I’m overall pleased with the experience. It’s one of those providers who combine file sync and share with cloud backups (if you’re willing to whip out the cash for the Pro Suite), but users who are just looking for backup or syncing can choose cheaper plans. Unlike other service Livedrive also allows users to backup NAS drives. If you have a lot of files to sync you’ll love Livedrive’s LAN sync feature that speeds up the process significantly, if all your machines are in the same network. Clients are available for Windows and Mac, and iOS, Android and Windows 8 devices.
- Boasts a lot of features and lets users decide what they actually need
- LAN syncing for faster networks syncs
- Backup edition includes unlimited cloud backups for NAS devices as well
- Easy to setup
- Convoluted interface and too many features and options if you’re looking for a simple solution.
- Automatic backup is at times unreliable
- Fairly expensive if users need both online backup and sync & share.
$ 8 Monthly
$ 84.00 (-13%)
$ 144.00 (-25%)
Backup only. No file syncing, or sharing. 1 computer included in standard plan. $1.50/month for additional machines.
$ 16 Monthly
$ 156.00 (-19%)
$ 288.00 (-25%)
Unlimited backup not included.
$ 25 Monthly
$ 240.00 (-20%)
$ 456.00 (-24%)
5TB Briefcase storage.
$ 50 Monthly
$ 492.00 (-18%)
$ 888.00 (-26%)
3 users included.
$ 160 Monthly
$ 1,596.00 (-17%)
$ 3,000.00 (-22%)
10 users included. Add more users for $11.75$/month.
$ 59.95 Monthly
$ 599.95 (-17%)
$159.95 setup fee
pCloud can be considered one of the newer players on the block and they come in with an interesting pricing. Users can get a massive 20GB of free storage. How long they’ll sustain that is open to debate. We’ve seen too many cloud storage services revert back from overly generous free cloud storage plans as to recommend users to them. But their paid plans are solid.
Customer get 1TB of storage for $7,99 per month and there save a few dollars compared to Dropbox or Google Drive. pCloud allows customers to set it up as a cloud drive which means files stored on pCloud doesn’t need to be locally available on user’s hard drives. Unfortunately, if you’d like to have additional security you need to pay an extra fee for pCloud Crypto.
Business users get 5TB of storage but pricing is not disclosed. pCloud is available for Windows and Mac and good news for Linux users, they can download a client as well. Their mobile apps a a beauty and are available on the iOS and Android app stores.
- Very affordable and reliable cloud storage service with “online hard drive” functionality
- User friendly and easy to setup
- 20GB of free storage
- Additional security only available as an add-on purchase
Other brands to know…
Cloud Storage Advantages & Disadvantages
There are some advantages and disadvantages when using cloud storage providers for your data. Here are some to consider:
- Everywhere access – access files everywhere because they are synced to the cloud and downloaded if connected to the Internet.
- Syncing of application data – application data, such as passwords or settings files can also be synced to the cloud to streamline the app experience on all devices.
- Integrated backup – while not to be confused with a proper online backup, copies of your files are in multiple places which protect them from corruption.
- Send public links – users can create a public link of a file in their syncing folder and share it via messengers or email.
- Auto-upload of photos – using cloud storage apps on a mobile device allows users to automatically upload the camera roll which adds further protection to the most valuable memories.
- Free up hard drive space – with selective sync it is possible to free up hard drive space on your computer, especially with the generous storage quotas users can save gigabytes worth of physical storage.
- Speed issues – transferring larger files over the Internet takes a lot of time. If dealing with video files or large CAD or .psd data then cloud storage may cause headaches.
- Security – One of the major concerns when using cloud storage is security and encryption. Most of the time, it comes down to trust, unless you pick one of our zero-knowledge cloud storage recommendations that encrypt data before it leaves your computer.
- Compatibility – in order to collaborate effectively, people need to sign up for a cloud storage service to share files in the same folder. If collaborating with a few teams some users may have to sign up for multiple cloud storage services.
- All-or-nothing approach – many cloud storage services, such as Dropbox follow an all-or-nothing approach which means that once a folder is shared with a person, she can re-share and delete files of that folder at her discretion.
Free Cloud Storage
Free cloud storage seems to be available in abundance these days, starting from 2GB (Dropbox) and 15GB (Google Drive) to 50GB for MEGA.nz. While free is certainly good enough to try if a service works or not, it comes with a variety of restrictions that users should be aware of. Let tackle the pros and cons of free storage with a side-by-side comparison and show a couple of services that do offer free storage.
- Comes with account restrictions: storage is obviously limited, but so are file versions, amount of files synced, etc.
- Support is very limited, you have to wait longer for your tickets to be answered.
- File size restrictions are very common
- Less security, some services may even transfer files in the clear without any encryption at all.*
- Constant marketing – expect to receive a lot of email trying to convert you into paying customer.
- In some cases files may take longer to upload than for paid users because of bandwidth restrictions in a shared environment.
- No guarantee that free plan will always be free. Notable example is SugarSync who ditched the free plan which annoyed a lot of users.
- Well, it’s free. There are no fees associated to use the software and users can leave anytime.
- There are option to combine several free cloud storage service into one vault with cloud storage manager, Odrive being one example.
- Quick way to share large files without sending enormous email attachments. Can sync basic application settings as well because they don’t need much space.
- Users can sign up completely anonymously, because generally there is no credit card required.
- Free storage space can be increased through referrals**
- Good for students who need to collaborate on a budget on quick projects or presentations.
*note, however, that there are free services that offer excellent encryption for those accounts, such as MEGA, Tresorit, Sync.com, and more.
** this can be a disadvantage as we saw with Copy.com: they allowed users to increase free storage to 200GB and now defaulted.
Enterprise, business or personal use?
Cloud storage services can be used for personal and business use. However, the requirements vastly differ from one another. While on the consumer side easy-of-use and compatibility is the main concern, priorities shift towards privacy and security in a business or enterprise environment.
For example, businesses need more granular control over shared files. They need to be able to set folder permissions on a case by case basis and even control subfolders. That’s only one example. Here is a comparison table that shows the difference between consumer-grade and business/enterprise cloud storage.
Business cloud storage services are generally called Enterprise File Sync and Share (EFSS) vendors because they focus on business collaboration and mobile enablement. Gartner’s magic quadrant for file syncing and sharing vendors compares these services annually and picks the ones that lead the field. While Dropbox for Business is gaining more and more traction, it’s still mainly used by end users.
Popular vendors are Egnyte, who have made the hybrid cloud model popular, and Box, known for their vast array of integrations into third party apps such as Salesforce. Gartner’s analysis classifies Citrix Sharefile as the current market leader of the Enterprise File Sync and Share vendors, however, those are generally more geared towards the enterprise with 10 or more users. If you’re interested in looking at cloud storage options for the small business you can look at our comparison chart.
When using an online backup service computer data is stored in the cloud, but it works differently from cloud storage applications: online backups produce an exact copy of a hard drive and transfer the entire file and folder structure to the online backup service provider. This mirroring process is very convenient because users don’t have to remember to copy and paste important files into a specific folder. Apple users may know this procedure from Time Machine where the entire hard drive is copied onto another drive.
Now, online backup services can run as scheduled jobs once a day, week or month, or continuously in the background, so whenever a file changes it is uploaded to the company’s servers immediately. If your bandwidth and CPU allows this, we always recommend you activate continuous backups.
In recent years, online backup service providers have found their favorite marketing pet peeve pushing forward the word “unlimited” in their marketing copy. What they mean, of course, is they won’t put any restrictions on the files a user uploads that’s within their fair use policy. Savvy users know this advertisement from web hosting services offering unlimited bandwidth. However, fair use policies are usually pretty high in the terabytes range, so average computer users don’t have to worry “running out of space”.
How much online backup space do you need?
Most computer users only need a couple of gigabytes to backup their most important files, however, hard drives are getting cheaper by the month and people amass more digital media than ever before. So planning ahead is a wise choice.
Make sure you to check how much space on your hard drive you currently occupy. You can achieve that by right clicking either on your C: drive, (on Windows) or on your Macintosh hard drive (Get info).
- Further reading: How to choose an online backup service
The safe bet is to go with any unlimited backup service we rate highly, for example Backblaze, Crashplan or Carbonite because you can also backup external hard drives or NAS devices and never have to worry about space issues.
If you require additional features, such as file sync and sharing, you need to pick your online backup provider carefully because not every service has those features. Look at IDrive, Acronis True Image Cloud, Jottacloud, Justcloud or Livedrive for some examples.
Here are some suggestions of online backup services we recommend you check out:
Top 5 Online Backup Options We Like
We know it can get overwhelming choosing the right option. The market is quite saturated with over 50 providers so we show you our five favorites that have shown a high level of performance and cosistency over the last years.
Crashplan has been our top recommended cloud backup service for years because it offers a truly unlimited experiences (if set up correctly). There are virtually no limitations as to how much data you can backup, how many versions you can store or to the file sizes, even a large 10GB Outlook email data base is backed up properly.
So where is the catch? We have experienced rather slow backup speeds from our location in Europe. Customers in the US don’t seem to have this problem. In any case, backing up a large quantity of files always takes time but Crashplan does a fantastic job with a simple set-it-and-forget-it setup approach. Users can choose the family plan which allows to backup up to 5 computers/devices.
Crashplan Review & Comparison: Watch it now!
- Truly unlimited online backup solution
- Highly customizable and includes free local backups as well
- Affordable personal and family plans for multiple computers
- Slow transfers from non-US locations
- Java client feels clunky at times
- No file sharing or syncing options
$ 5.99 Monthly
$ 59.99 (-17%)
Includes 1 computer. 448-bit personal encryption key.
$ 13.99 Monthly
$ 149.99 (-11%)
Same as Individual plan. Best plan for 2-10 computers.
$ 10 Monthly
Includes: Real time dashboard/reporting and user level access. File sharing and syncing available through Shareplan.
IDrive has turned into a hybrid service over the years: starting with only offering cloud backup, they now ventured into the file sharing and syncing game and are doing quite well. Yet consumers should use IDrive for what it was originally made: cloud backups.
IDrive offers end-users a whole host of backup customization options from creating various backup sets, settings granular backups schedules to protecting their backups with a personal encryption key that only the user knows and owns. In our tests uploading a 10GB it wasn’t the fastest solution out there but did perform very well adding all files in a little over an hour. IDrive is not an unlimited service but has very affordable 1TB plans starting from $5 per month.
Interesting: paid subscribers can get 1 physical shipment of their data for free that speeds up the backup/restore process quite significantly.
- Continuous backup mode
- Vast scheduling options and backup set creation
- Includes free shipping once per year of a hard drive
- A lot of features can confuse some consumers
- Macintosh software and features slightly behind the Windows version
Backblaze has been my goto backup service to recommend to the technically less literate part of my family and friends. It is very easy to setup: install the client, start the backup and it backs up everything that’s on your hard drive, except systems and application files. Users can exclude folders or files they don’t want to backup, for example, I always exclude my Downloads folder because anything I store in there I can always re-download.
That saves bandwidth and overall backup time. Backblaze backs up fast – if you allow it to and set the threads to 10. This may however, slow down other network applications for example remote desktop session and the like. Backblaze’s restore process is a little clunky as you can only download zip files from the web client. Overall, users can get Backblaze at a very affordable price for only $5 per month or 50$ per year. This is no brainer in my opinion.
Backblaze Review: No bells and whistles unlimited online backup
- Very easy to use, probably the easiest online backup out there
- Decent uploads speeds from all tested locations (Germany, US, UK)
- No file size, type or storage restrictions
- Very secure backup through private 448-bit encryption key
- External hard drives must be connected every 30 days to be continuously backed up.
- For pro users it’s a little too simplistic
- Support response times could be better
$ 5 Monthly
$ 50.00 (-17%)
$ 90.00 (-25%)
Plan is for one computer.
Carbonite is another decent online backup service, however, the Windows version is vastly superior to the Mac edition: Mac users need to go without external hard drive backups or mirror image backups. If you’re a Windows user, though, Carbonite has a lot to offer and is certainly one of the better solutions out there.
Users who sign up for the prime plan for $149/yr get a free restore to door service where a hard drive is shipped if disaster strikes. Cloud backup is easily setup and works automatically if users don’t feel like selecting files and folders. Carbonite will continuously back up files in the background, if video files should be backed up automatically customers need to pick at the very least the prime plan.
Fortunately, Carbonite got rid of some nasty bandwidth limiting policies and offers users a truly unlimited experience.
- Very secure cloud backup through private encryption keys
- Easy setup process, even for novice users
- Decent client software
- No file sharing and syncing (discontinued since April 2016)
- Sadly, no NAS backups in the personal editions
- Sometimes slow backups, seems to be limited to 10 Mbit/s
$59.99 1 Year
Price is per year per computer. No monthly billing available. Doesn't include external hard drives.
$99.99 1 Year
Includes external hard drive backup. Mirror image backup. Only available for Windows.
$149.99 1 Year
Includes automatic video backup. Courier service. Only available for Windows.
SOS Online Backup
SOS Online Backup is here with an aggressive unlimited pricing: $7,99 per month is pretty good. There are a few caveats that users need to be aware of: on the one hand SOS requires enough free hard drive space for cached files, meaning if you’re backing up 10GB of space SOS Online Backup may require an additional 10GB of space for cached files.
On the other hand, there is no continuous backup option available, users can crank up the schedule to hourly, though. SOS is not the fastest cloud backup services in our test and it took a little warm up time until the connection averaged to about 7Mbit/s. For those users who want to share files, SOS Online Backup has a file sharing option, according to their website that is. In practice, it’s implemented in the worst possible way I’ve ever seen in a backup app. It took me almost 30 minutes to find it.
If you’re looking for a file sharing solutions, please look elsewhere. Backups however work great and the fact that SOS stores unlimited file versions will satisfy most people’s needs. On Cloudwards we recommend people use different apps for backup and cloud storage anyway.
- Great affordable unlimited pricing for up to 5 computer and unlimited mobile devices
- Easy setup process, but don’t rely on the automatic backup selection
- Restores can be executed to a desired folder path
- Mac version weaker than Windows counterpart
- Terrible implementation of file sharing feature which makes me wonder if they actually want people to share files
- Mediocre transfer speed of up 7Mbit/s
$ 4.99 Monthly
$ 44.99 (-25%)
All personal plans include up to 5 PCs & Macs, unlimited mobiles
$ 7.99 Monthly
$ 79.99 (-17%)
$ 9.99 Monthly
$ 99.99 (-17%)
$ 12.99 Monthly
$ 129.99 (-17%)
$ 20.99 Monthly
$ 199.99 (-21%)
$ 39.99 Monthly
$ 399.99 (-17%)
$ 159.99 Monthly
$ 1,599.99 (-17%)
$ 299.99 Monthly
$ 2,999.99 (-17%)
Other brands to know…
- Acronis Cloud
- Norton Online Backup
- Data Deposit Box
- Total Defense
Cloud backup essentially is a synonym to online backup because it describes the exact same thing. In fact, the term cloud backup is becoming more and more popular. It used to be widely used in the business sector only but now everybody understands what is meant by the cloud.
On Cloudwards.net we use those backup terms interchangeably, so we hope this clarifies a few doubts. The list provided in our comparison chart ranks services based on features, reliability, speed, security and customer support. By no means are our rankings an end-all-be-all but instead can serve you as a starting point because you can filter the features based on your requirements.
Cloud Storage Wiki
We’re working on our wiki section to provide newcomer to the cloud an easy way to check up on frequently used terms on vendor websites. Some of these terms are used interchangeably which makes it difficult to determine what they are used for.