There are many good reasons to keep copies of your computer files in the cloud. There are also many excellent software options that will let you do so. However, choosing the wrong tool for your needs usually ends up a bit like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.

Step one to finding the right tool for you is not making the mistake of thinking cloud storage does the same thing as online backup, or the other way around. That task is made somewhat more confusing due to the fact that sometimes cloud storage is termed “online backup” and online backup is termed “cloud backup.”

Understanding the precise difference between these two oft-confused technologies and what each can do for you is the critical first step to finding the best cloud storage services or best online backup tools for your precise needs.

In this article, we’re going to help you do just that. With that knowledge in hand, you’ll then be able to look at the services detailed in our cloud storage  and online backup libraries with a sharpened point of view, in addition to giving your nerd credibility a nice boost.

Before we dive into what’s different, though, let’s talk about what’s the same: the cloud.  

What is the Cloud, Anyway?

The term “the cloud” itself is as much a marketing buzzword as it is meaningful technical jargon, coined in the mid-90s (probably) by Netscape executives dreaming of a limitless future (remember Netscape?).

In this case, cloud refers to software that runs on a remote network of servers, as opposed to localized on a computer. If that sounds kind of like the Internet, well, that’s because it is: the cloud is software running on the Internet (and more besides: check out our article on cloud terminology for the details).

There are private clouds, owned and used by a single company or household (find out how to setup your own personal cloud storage) and public clouds, which are usually sold as a service. However, both private and public clouds let you access the same software and information from any computer authorized to do so.

As far as public cloud software, there are many different kinds of programs that now work this way, from email applications like Gmail to accounting applications like QuickBooks Online (read our QuickBooks Online review if that whetted your interest). Cloud storage and online backup are two such types of service.

Both cloud storage and online backup work by hosting files in the cloud and let you access those files from different devices, including computers and smartphones, so long as those devices are connected to the Internet.

While the infrastructure may be similar, however, the general behavior of cloud storage and online backup sets them apart and gives them very specific, different, purposes.  

Features of Cloud Storage

We’re probably not going to blow you mind by telling that the goal cloud storage — or online storage, if you prefer — is storage.

In the mid-90s, when a bunch of soon-to-be-extinct Netscape executives were coining a word that wouldn’t become popularized until more than 10 years later, the average home hard drive ran between 400 and 1000 megabytes. That, today, would hold about a weekend’s worth of selfies (or an hour’s worth if you’re a Kardashian).

While the size of hard drives have skyrocketed, the amount of data we own has more than kept pace. On top of that, replacing plodding, mechanical hard-disk drives (HDDs) with the zippy solid-state drives (SSDs) has temporarily increased the price of storage.

Because of that price bump, it’s not uncommon to see laptops with only 256GB of storage built into them. On occasion, you’ll even see otherwise high-end laptops packaged with 128GB of storage. That’s okay, though, and cloud storage is the reason why.

Let’s look at as an example of how cloud storage works: it happens to be one of our personal favorite cloud storage services, as you can read about in our review. In part, that’s because it provides zero-knowledge encryption and a host of other excellent cloud security features.  

It’s also because is one of the best deals in cloud storage, presently costing about $8 a month for 2TB of storage.

That 2TB storage can be used to supplement your hard drive. Meaning that, rather than storing all of your pet pictures and UFO-sighting videos on your laptop, you can store them in the cloud instead.

On top of that, you can access that storage space from just about any browser on any device you own, too. Most cloud storage services, including, also make mobile apps for Android and iOS to access and store data.

Extension of the physical storage capability of your device or devices is the defining and essential feature of any cloud storage solution. Modern solutions — those that have risen above the fray — tend to do a bit more, though, with two features more common than others: sync and share.

Cloud Storage Sync and Share

Sync, short for device synchronization, is a cloud storage feature that lets you edit a file on one device and have those edits reflected on another device in near real-time. The idea is credited to Drew Houston, the founder of Dropbox, who claims to have come up with it after he realized on a bus trip between New York and Boston that he left his USB drive behind.

The basic mechanism behind Drew Houston’s conception, and the basic mechanism used by most cloud storage services offering sync to day, is a “sync folder.”  A sync folder is a folder that looks and behaves pretty much like any other folder on your hard drive, except that files placed in that folder are both stored on your drive and the cloud.

Any device with the cloud storage client installed on it will have this folder installed, too, which is mirrored across all devices connected to your cloud storage space. The cloud is the middleman, passing updates made on computer to the others.  

One of the problems with sync, however, is that it stores files both in the cloud and on your hard drive. That, you may have realized, seems to defeat the essential value proposition of cloud storage that we laid out earlier (storage supplementation).

To account for this, many cloud storage services offer either a separate folder that doesn’t synchronize content or a feature called “selective sync” that lets you turn sync off for content if you don’t want kept both on your hard drive and in the cloud. Some, including, have both.

File sharing refers to simply to the ability to let others view, edit or download files you’ve uploaded to your cloud storage space. A few cloud storage services also let others save their own files to your cloud storage space.

As it is an Internet-based service, the usual mechanism behind cloud storage file sharing is the generation of a URL pointing to the file — or even a folder of files — that you want to share.

You can copy and paste that link to distribute it manually, such as in a Slack channel, or sometimes automatically send it via email or post it to social media. Some services, like pCloud (yes, we have a pCloud review), also let you password protect and add expiry dates to those URLs — or even make them zero knowledge.

That’s all there is to sync and share, really, except to say that there are several business-oriented cloud storage services today that are more built around the productivity and collaborative aspects of those two features than they are around supplementing your hard drive space. They’re called “enterprise file sync and share” services, and you can read about the cream of the crop in our best EFSS buyers’ guide.

Before we get into online backup, it’s also worth a mention that some cloud storage services integrate with software-as-a-service tools like Microsoft Word Online and Google Docs. However, that’s mostly restricted to the bigger names in the market, most notably Dropbox, Google Drive and OneDrive

Features of Online Backup

The vital purpose of cloud storage is to supplement your hard drive; the vital purpose of online backup is to replicate it.

Putting it another way, online backup is about disaster recovery. It’s so that a glass of spilled milk — in this case having disappeared between the cracks of your keyboard — really isn’t worth crying over.

Tipped beverages are just one way to wreak havoc on the files stored on your hard drive, too. Flooding, fires, loss, theft — there are too many ways to count that you can lose your data prior your hard drive inevitably reaching the end of its lifespan.

That lifespan, according to a study conducted by online backup vendor Backblaze, is about 1.5 years for roughly five percent of HDDs. That initial death toll is mostly due to faulty construction. After that, the failure rate levels off to one percent a year for the next three.

Besides that, your hard drive is spinning on borrowed time: SSDs may extend that lifespan considerably, of course, perhaps even decades. However, that’s a lot of glasses of milk (milk is a metaphor for beer, right?) that didn’t get spilled.

Without online backup, assuming your hard drive is still in your possession, you can pay a computer repair shop perhaps hundreds of dollars to try and recover some of your data. You can also try a data recovery tool like one of those mentioned in our best data recovery software reviews.    

Online backup is the better option. Most such tools run continuously to ensure that files are replicated in the cloud almost as soon as they’re created or changed. If you prefer, most also let you set scheduled backups so that your backup can run at night, when the process is less apt to hog system resources.

Carbonite Home is a good example. From within the desktop client, you can tell it backup continuously, once a day or to not backup between certain hours.

Cloud storage solutions don’t have scheduling capabilities, but the bigger reason they’re not really suitable for hard-drive backup is that they also don’t retain your file-system structure because you end up having to put everything into a sync folder.

Online backup services retain your file system structure and let you restore everything back the way it was in case you need to rebuild your hard drive.

Beyond those features, there are a number of others that differentiate one backup solution from another.

Some, like Backblaze, take advantage of the fact that they’re unlimited to simply backup all common file types (read all about unlimited backup in our Backblaze review). There’s little need for you to do much of anything other than install the client to ensure that all of your previous photos, videos, emails and documents are included in your backup plan.

Other online backup services, like Carbonite, require that you manually tag every folder and file you want to protect outside of some folders that are automatically suggested by the software. 

More tech-savvy users will love CloudBerry Backup (read our CloudBerry Backup review), which includes a range of features designed to increase your disaster-recovery options. These features include hybrid backup, NAS backup, disk imaging, file versioning and deleted file retention.

The basic idea is the same for all online backup tools, however, and that’s faithful replication of your hard drive.

Conclusion – Cloud Storage vs Online Backup

Many online backup services, including Carbonite, let you share files. However, usually those capabilities aren’t quite as honed as a good cloud storage service.

Some cloud services go a bit further in blurring the lines between storage and backup. Backup service SpiderOak (read our SpiderOak ONE review), for example, lets you sync any files added to your backup plan. Acronis True Image (read our Acronis True Image review) and IDrive, two more consumer backup services, let you sync files regardless of whether they’re part of your backup plan or not.

For the most part, though, the line between cloud storage and online backup holds true, and your best bet is to pick a cloud storage service if you want storage and an online backup service if you want backup. Or pick both.

Next steps? We’d recommend supplementing your newfound knowledge by checking out our online storage comparison chart. Both articles not only detail key features to look for, but give the best options for each feature. Most of the services we write about let you try them out for free, too, whether it’s 5GB of free cloud storage with or a 30-day trial with Carbonite.  

Questions or comments? Use the comment section below to drop us a line — and thanks for reading.

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18 thoughts on “Cloud Storage vs Online Backup: What’s The Difference?”

  1. I have files I want to saved and backup. However, I do not want the file deleted at anytime, unless I delete it myself. For example, if I have a file that is on my computer and accidentally is deleted by me, I want to make sure I have a file somewhere safely saved and stored? Which is preferred, cloud storage or backup?

  2. Interesting, but consider this scenario: I put my sync folder (in this case I use Dropbox, but am considering switching to Sync) onto my secondary 2TB drive. Then I keep all my date (mostly photos as I am a photographer) in that folder. I also mirror this drive to two external drives, one on my desk, the other in a fireproof box in the closet.

    How different is this from using a Carbonite (which I am also considering)? Other than the fact that many online backup solutions offer to send to a physical HD to quickly restore your data, is it any safer?

    I imagine in the case of a catastrophe that destroys my physical drives (unlikely but possible) then once I am back on a new machine, I can log into my Dropbox or Sync account and download all my synced data. Isn’t that pretty much the same thing?

    Just wondering what your thoughts are on this.

    1. I’d too would like to hear what Joseph and crew think of Lukasz’s situation. It is one I think I fall into as well. All that is of real concern to me on my PC are photos, home movies, and a small smattering of other discrete files that are all in one file folder stack. If my whole PC went down but those are safe or recoverable then I am only mildly inconvenienced. Between Sync’s File Restore and Vault functions (as well as a secondary local copy) it seems like what I care about is safe(er) without the hassle of running both a Sync account and a Backblaze account.

  3. I’m also interested in hearing from the pros about Lukasz’s and Jason’s scenarios. I am a designer/artist with a lot of design files that take up a horrendous amount of disk space. Often times I need to access design files for new designs but don’t want to store them on my hard drive when I can store them remotely. Which is going to be easiest to access them? I’m still confused which is the better way to go. In addition, I prefer to have my files sync from an external HD to the cloud/storage.


      Thanks for the comment, Terry. You can set up sync folders for cloud storage on hard drives, but I don’t believe it works for all providers and I haven’t tested this myself. I’ve been meaning to do so since this question has been coming up a lot lately. I’ll schedule some time to do that and try and put together an article.

  4. There seem to be many services that claim (probably rightly) to do a good job of backing up the data on one’s computer. However there are several questions that are not easily answered:
    -are files preserved in the backup, after accidentally being deleted locally?
    -Is there versioning in case an updated saved file has been badly messed up?
    -How do I recover 500 or more GB of data? Using “high speed” internet in many areas would still take months to download. Does the backup service offer to send all the data on a hard disk?

  5. Is there a cloud sharing and storage solution that has version saving? (Example, I work with older people who have deleted our entire google drive before and want to make sure that it can’t happen again, but I want to be able to use the system for file sharing).

    1. - Chief Editor

      Yup, right here:

  6. I’m finally getting around to backing up my Win 10 PC’s modest data accumulation. My first step was to acquire the Macrium Reflect free program to create a complete PC image on a new solid state portable hard drive and now I want to have a cloud backup as well. As I read many pretty comprehensive reviews on Cloudwards I’m convinced that I’d rather have some security/privacy beyond two-step authentication.

    I have a modest 300 Mb of data, including photo images, and I’m not entirely sure whether I need cloud storage or backup, but, trying to read through several reviews I’m confused more than a bit about how files are uploaded to the cloud. In what I’ve read abput ease of usage, it appears that files must be uploaded one at a time to either a backup or cloud storage service. If that is the case, I have a bit more than 10K in photo images each of which I’d have to upload separately, together with the remainder of my data files.

    I think I understand that, if I have effectively “synced” with a service, changes in individual files on my PC’s hardrive, those changes should fairly quickly be recognized in the cloud versions of the same files. Now, what I’m not remotely sure of: if I add new files to my data (suppose, for example, I add 100 images, i.e., files to my Adobe Lightroom catalog and my wife and create 20 or 30 MS Word files, do those files have to be uploaded individually, file by file?

    Is there not a way to upload, say, all of Documents or Pictures or Music in one motion or activity, and, further, as I make changes or additions to my data, somehow add files to folders (if they even exist in folders form in the cloud) which will then become synced simply in the upload process?

    1. - Chief Editor

      Hi Jim,

      It depends on whether you have sync on or not. If you do, all files in the assigned folders will go into the coud without you doing anything. If you don’t manual upload it is.

  7. This has been so helpful. Concise and well written – very didactic: thank you very much!

  8. If only using online storage (ie Chromebook / Google Drive) do you recommend, and how would you, backup what exists in the cloud?

  9. You don’t discuss security when using cloud backup. Are there cloud backup services that store your local drive backup with encryption? Security like has that encrypts your files before sending it to the cloud backup. If your files in the cloud are just copies of your local files, then they could be compromised in a data breach. You hear about data breaches off large companies and large data centers all the time. Without encryption, I would not feel secure with all my hard drive files in the cloud.

    1. - Chief Editor

      We do, in fact, discuss security oin this article, Bill, and we link to several articles that go into greater depth. Check them out and your questions should be answered.

  10. I have read this article and a couple that were cited in it. Some questions popped up in my mind.
    1. If a cloud back-up service stores your data complete with the file structure of your hard drive, what happens if your computer becomes a brick? I just recently investigated a back-up software which said the back-up cannot be restored to a different computer. I wanted the back-up mainly because I was getting symptoms from my computer that it was getting ready to pack it in.

    2. With a ZK could back-up, the server must have some knowledge of which bits and bytes in their storage belong to you. Even if they are encrypted, how would they be able to tell some government agency that they cannot retrieve your files?

    1. - Chief Editor

      1. Which backup service won’t restore to a different device? Because that sounds just nuts to me… As for which backup to use, they’re often versioned.

      2. Oh, the file will be handed over to law enforcement, it’s just that they’ll have to decode it themselves, which will take a few billion years… ZK in this case means that the service can’t hand over the password as well as the file.

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