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A Quick 'n' Dirty Guide to Keeping Your Data In the Cloud

Cloud Surfing
As many of us have discovered the hard way, backing up your data is not only a smart practice, but a necessity. No matter how careful you are with them, hard drives will eventually fail -- and losing all your personal files is about as fun as getting punched in the ear. While an external drive is great, it doesn't account for all scenarios: What if your home is robbed and the thieves take both the original and the backup? What if your house burns down, gets caught in a tsunami, or incinerated by an alien death ray? What then?

Then, our distinguished readers, you run to The Cloud -- that fluffy space that exists online, and online only. The cloud is a perfect place to back up your data, manage your data storage, share files with friends and coworkers, and access your docs from any Internet-connected computer. We've surfed the cloud and come up with solutions for all your data needs -- allowing you to share files or keep an archive, while saving yourself money, time and that precious data.

Best backup solution:

Backblaze When it comes to automatic online backup, Backblaze is tough to beat. With no back-and-forth file sharing, it has one purpose and no frills; Backblaze's single task is to automatically back up your files, no matter how many of them there may be. Install the application on your Mac or PC, tell it what you want backed up, and indicate how much of your upload bandwidth to use (so it's not clogging your pipes). Depending on your connection, Backblaze will upload several gigabytes of data per day. Once it's done (which could take hours or weeks, depending on your data pile), you can restore whenever you want by downloading a ZIP file, or by having a DVD or USB drive sent to you wherever you are -- for a fee, of course. It stores everything from your computer (except your OS, apps and temporary files) for $5 per month per computer, or a full year for $50.

Alternative: Carbonite and Mozy are excellent backup options, as well. Similar to Backblaze in their single-mindedness, they specialized in unlimited online backup for a flat price. Both offer similar plans: Carbonite has three years of backup for $130, while Mozy has a free, two-gigabyte option for those with minimal storage needs. While all are simple and straightforward, Backblaze edges out its competition in terms of its UI minimalism, support for ten languages and ability to do all of the backup legwork for you.

Versatility and ease of use:

Dropbox is an incredibly easy-to-use service and a Switched staff favorite. Simply install the software on your Mac or PC, and you're all set up for sharing and storing files online. You can automatically sync Windows, Mac and Linux computers, as well as backup your files with 30 days of undo history. (Unlimited undo is available as a paid option.) You can access your files directly from your desktop or by using the Web interface with another computer. Entire folders can live in Dropbox, which functions like a mini hard drive in the cloud. This makes mass uploading stupidly simple; if you want to share an album, Dropbox uploads all the songs and consolidates them neatly, even if it's a mixtape, a single CD or an entire collection of David Bowie's greatest hits. There are even iPhone, iPad, BlackBerry and Android apps for accessing your Dropbox on the go. Sharing files is a cinch; just select 'Share Dropbox Folder' from your computer or phone, type in your collaborator's e-mail and boom -- your files and folders are theirs for the taking.

Alternative: SpiderOak provides a similarly high-quality/dead-easy storage plus a backup solution (Dropbox is more user-friendly, we think). Each offers 2 gigabytes of storage for free each month; Dropbox charges $19.99 per month for 100 gigabytes, while SpiderOak comes in at $10 per month for the same 100 gigabytes. SpiderOak has more of a focus on preserving the privacy of individual users, and could therefore be a better option for those sharing highly sensitive work files. Dropbox, however, provides a more seamless user experience, and its auto-syncing and file sharing between computers makes it more convenient for the average user.

Best online file sharing:

While it shares many of Dropbox's features, SugarSync really excels in its ability to let multiple users work together. Its new multi-user file sync feature lets you automatically get updates to documents you share without having to manually download files. You can make edits to the shared files directly on your computer, and the changes are automatically synced with everyone else who has access. There's no free option (though there is a free 30-day trial), prices range from $4.99 each month (or $49.99 per year) for 30 gigabyte, up to $24.99 per month (or $249.99 for a year) for 250 gigabytes. It's a bit more intimidating than Dropbox for the average user, but there's a wealth of features: mobile phone access (via apps for iPhone, Windows and BlackBerry), and cool features like the ability to stream your music.

Alternative: While Dropbox used to lack some of the real-time sharing options of SugarSync (read: not having to download files to see changes), it has now caught up, allowing multiple users to access the same files from different computers, and the ability to see changes immediately. SugarSync saves the past five versions of every file you're using, while Dropbox saves them for 30 days (and even provides an option to save all earlier versions). They're similar services, and you can't go wrong with either one. For our money, though, Dropbox still comes out ahead in terms of overall simplicity, reliability, and versatility.

For the corporate crowd:

While it offers both personal and small business accounts (one gigabyte and 15 gigabytes of Web storage, respectively), Box.Net's real appeal is for enterprise customers looking for virtually unlimited storage (and who are willing to pay for a secure option). It's a scalable and customizable approach, with comprehensive security and admin controls for sensitive data. Plans vary widely: the free one gigabyte option, a mid-sized $15 per month for three or more users sharing 15 gigabytes of storage, and plans as high as 750 gigabytes for 50 users. Presentation is a bit more professional, and they recommend business users give them a call to best personalize the plan that's right for them. Lots of stats are available to the end user as well, like reports on downloading frequency, who's accessing what, etc. Lastly, custom branding lets you make your company name visible whenever you share content with external partners.

Alternative: Amazon's S3 service is another great option for companies and developers looking to stake out some space online, with plenty of customization available to scale the service for one's business. It's slightly less user-friendly than (i.e., you'll probably need a Web pro on staff to get the most out of it), but a brand-new offer gives you access to five gigabytes free, including features like Amazon Web services.

D.I.Y. cloud storage: Unilium

Yes, there are plenty of companies out there that safely and easily provide you with space on their storage cloud. But with Unilium, you can actually provide your own disks and USB devices to create the space for yourself. If you're a Windows power user, Unilium essentially lets you create your own cloud for $0.10 per gigabyte; and there's no restriction on the types of storage you can combine (i.e., linking multiple hard drives, or combining hard drives with different Amazon S3 accounts). Just remember that you'll require some pretty serious digital DIY know-how to get your personal cloud all nice and fluffy.

Tags: amazon s3, AmazonS3, backblaze,, carbonite, cloud, cloud computing, cloud storage, CloudComputing, CloudStorage, DropBox, features, mozy, spideroak, storage, sugarsync, top, unilium