Here, there, everywhere: 3 personal cloud storage systems

If you don't want to store your important files on Dropbox or Box for security or other reasons, you can create your own cloud storage system.

Cloud storage has become increasingly popular, both for individuals and companies, as a place to stash everything from tax records to family photos. Services such as Dropbox, Box, SugarSync or Google Drive offer the chance to easily store your data and then access it from any of your devices.

But while the services are secure, generally immune to disasters and usually offer several gigabytes of space for free, there are problems. To begin with, when you use a public cloud storage service, you essentially give up control of the data. It's stored on distant servers, often with many copies spread throughout the world. Even if you erase a file, you'll never know if it's truly gone.

And if you need more than the free space allowance, you have to take annual fees into consideration. For example, Dropbox offers 2GB of free storage space (up to 18GB if you refer friends); after that, it costs $99 annually for 100GB, $199 for 200GB and $499 for 500GB.

There are, however, alternatives for individuals that combine the security of personal storage with the convenience of the cloud. Called personal cloud storage, this method combines the best of both worlds by storing files on a local networked drive and allowing you to retain full control over your data, while still making files available just about anywhere you can get online.

Rather than having your data stored on an anonymous server (or series of servers) spread across the globe, it is right next to your router. (On the other hand, you're vulnerable to a personal disaster, like a fire or flood -- so it's a good idea to arrange for off-site backups.) The data is password protected and encrypted, and when you delete something -- whether it's an embarrassing photo or confidential financial document -- you know it's gone.

And once you buy the equipment, there are no annual storage fees -- ever.

To see how this class of personal cloud systems can help put data in its place, I obtained three new devices: the LaCie CloudBox, Western Digital's My Book Live and D-Link's ShareCenter 2-Bay Cloud Storage 2000.

Cloud storage
Three ways to have your own private cloud. From left to right: Western Digital's My Book Live, the LaCie CloudBox and D-Link's ShareCenter 2-Bay Cloud Storage 2000.

Each offers its own mix of ways to connect locally or remotely via computer (and sometimes game consoles). The devices also offer a variety of remote access apps for iOS, Android, BlackBerry and Windows Phone devices. Shop carefully, though, because not all these devices cover every OS.

Although they look quite different, these devices have a lot in common. All are small enough to fit on a bookshelf or otherwise sit out of the way. Each device uses a wired Ethernet connection to connect to a router; none uses Wi-Fi. Finally, they all provide data encryption.

How you access your files differs from device to device, with some offering preview thumbnails of the documents, others only a list of file names. Click and the documents appear on-screen, although there's a lot of variation in how long this step can take. In addition, each of the systems offers a way to share documents, images and videos with others.

I put each cloud device through its paces, checking for how hard it was to set up and how easy it was to access my files remotely. I also did performance testing for how long it takes to send files to the drive and retrieve them on the go.

Whichever one you choose, you can be sure exactly where your bits and bytes are and that -- after the initial purchase -- they're not costing you a penny in rent.

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