Archiving your information in the Internet nebula has become the preferred method of data storage.
Free or from $25
Storage was one of the first cloud applications to gain wide acceptance, and with good reason – just like webmail, storing your data in the cloud makes it accessible pretty much anywhere, any time and on any device. It can also be shared with others, for collaborative working.
Most of us are not always connected though,'so cloud storage providers started adding synchronisation tools. That means if you are on a plane or a subway, with no or limited Internet access, you can work with local copies of files, synching the changes back to the cloud when connectivity is re-established.
Now, cloud storage providers are demonstrating just how much more they can do than merely host and sync files. Thanks to application programming interfaces (APIs) and standards such as WebDAV, cloud storage can also be used as if it were local.
One of the more flexible European contenders for the hosting crown is TeamDrive, which earlier this year added Android and iOS mobile clients to its existing line-up of Linux, MacOS and Windows PC clients in its latest more-highly-encrypted TeamDrive 3 incarnation.
Data hosted with TeamDrive is automatically encrypted at the client, so should be secure against eavesdroppers at the server end, and can either reside on TeamDrive's own European cloud or on a WebDAV server. You can even opt to host it yourself in your own data centre or private cloud. And when you invite someone to share your files or a folder, the invitation gets extra RSA-2048 encryption of its own.
Like Dropbox, you can sign up for 2GB of free storage, but getting started with TeamDrive is a little more oblique. It involves creating 'spaces', these are analogous to local folders and can indeed sync to local folders, but as its name implies, TeamDrive is built with the assumption that spaces will be shared and used by multiple people. Each client can connect and sync with an unlimited number of servers, and you can choose which devices and colleagues to invite to each space you create.
As a platform for secure collaboration, TeamDrive 3 is well worth a look. It does require you to install client software, but that is what gives it the security of course.
Dropbox: Free or from $99 a year
Dropbox has proved a very popular contender in the cloud storage market. It is a mature, well-supported and widely accessible platform that is remarkably easy to use, and is open to third-party developers. Users get 2GB for free, can earn up to 8GB more by bringing in new users, and can subscribe for yet more storage.
However, it does face challenges. For example, it suffered a high-profile security failure during 2011, when accounts were accessible without a password for four hours. There have also been allegations that data is not as secure as Dropbox claims it is, and in particular that it could be vulnerable to rogue employees.
In addition, Dropbox and rivals such as Box.Net and SugarSync all host in the USA, which means their customers could be subject to spying from US government agencies using the PATRIOT Act and other US legislation. As a result of this and the relative weakness of US data privacy legislation, some European public institutions are forbidden from hosting personal data in the US.
These concerns have spurred the development of strongly-encrypted cloud storage services hosted outside the US, most notably in Germany.
Those are the down sides. However, we're deling with a robust and usable piece of software here. You can use part of your Dropbox space as a public-facing webserver, with the ability to automatically build thumbnail pages for photo hosting. And its latest client apps can automatically upload new photos from a mobile device to the cloud as they are taken – and then sync them back to your PC, unlike Google's Picasa Sync equivalent.
We tried both the Android version and the beta Windows client – photo upload is also available on Mac OS X, though not yet on iOS or Linux. The Windows version works via Autoplay: if this is enabled, you get a new autoplay option when connecting a camera or storage device, offering to import pictures and videos.
On Android, you tell the app to upload photos, and it happens in the background. Usefully, the app can be set to upload over 3G too, or only when you have a Wi-Fi connection if you need to conserve your 3G bandwidth.
The desktop client has other new features too, such as the ability to upload or download a batch of files in one go – previously, you could only send one at a time. Batch transfers certainly feel significantly faster.
iCloud: Free or from $20 a year
The successor to services such as iDrive and MobileMe, iCloud is an advanced cloud storage service from Apple. As well as file hosting, it can also be used as an online repository for more or less anything that you might want to access from multiple devices – music, photos, ebooks, email, notes, calendar, contact lists and more.
Usefully, while it provides 5GB free per user (with up to 50GB available for purchase), most content bought from iTunes is not counted towards your total. That makes it a lot more practical to back up your music collection online, for example.
As well as MacOS, iCloud can sync data with client programs for Windows and iOS – it can also backup your iPhone or iPad online, allowing you to restore the device without having to connect it to a Mac. Another element of iCloud is Photo Stream, which automatically uploads photos taken on a Photo Stream-enabled device and then synchs them to your other iCloud-connected devices.
The client side of iCloud is a standard part of Apple's latest operating systems, and it is pretty much click-and-play, though in order to sync your contacts you may need to register a me.com email address. On other systems you will need to get to it through iTunes. If you plan to use your iPhone with a Windows PC, we recommend connecting the phone to iCloud first, as we did come across some difficulties linking an iPhone that had already synced to older versions of iTunes via Windows.
To access iCloud from Windows you will need the iCloud Control Panel – this only runs on Vista and higher, not XP, by the way. You may also need to update Safari and iTunes, of course. Still, if you are tied to the Apple ecosystem for your mobile devices and music, iCloud is the obvious route to go.
Windows Live Skydrive: Free
For those wedded to the Windows – and that includes Windows Phone – ecosystem, Microsoft's SkyDrive shows just what is possible using cloud storage as a platform.
As well as opening cloud-stored documents in Microsoft Office on your Windows PC or Mac, integrated support for Office Web Apps means you can create, view and edit Office documents within a web browser too.
SkyDrive also integrates with Hotmail allowing you to save and share emailed documents, with Bing to save search histories, and with your Windows or Mac desktop to synch folders, files and favourites. And it is used by the Windows Live Groups collaboration service as its repository for sharing files and documents within a workgroup.
For now, it is very much web-orientated, at least as far as file management is concerned, but Microsoft says Skydrive will be integrated into Windows from the upcoming version 8 onwards.
Mobile clients are available for Windows Phone of course, and also for the iPhone. It is also one of the most generous free cloud storage providers, with each account receiving 25GB of file space. Certainly, if you are a committed user of Hotmail and other Microsoft online services, this is the cloud storage service for you.