Rumble in the cloud: 5 cloud storage services compared

It used to be that when I said "cloud services," people's eyes would glaze over and in minutes they'd be gently snoring. That was then. This is now. While CIOs and CTOs still debate about what role the cloud will have in business, personal cloud services have been slowly easing their way into almost everyone's computing plans.

That's not you you say? You don't use a cloud service? Really? Do you use Dropbox to store files? Do you get your e-mail at Gmail? Are you experimenting with Apple's iCloud? Doing work with Google Apps, Office 365, or Zoho Docs? Congratulations, you're a cloud user. You may be thinking a lot of those are software as a service (SaaS) offerings that mimic traditional client-server computing, and you'd be right. But they're also all cloud services.

[ You might also like: DIY Dropbox alternatives and iCloud data syncing in practice ]

Lately, though, personal cloud services have been moving into the infrastructure as a service (IaaS) realm. It's in IaaS that you find file storage, media serving, and a variety of other ad hoc services for either no or minimal costs. So many of these services have been popping up, and with so many different service offerings, that I thought it was well past time to take an overview of what's what in personal IaaS.

As I do this, I think you should know that these will all be changing very quickly. Indeed, you could argue that they represent not just the future of corporate computing but a vision of tomorrow's personal computing as well. Apple, for example, has made it clear that iCloud will be working hand in glove with its entire family of devices. They're not the only ones to see it that way. Ubuntu, the popular desktop Linux distribution, is integrating cloud services into its operating system, and Google's Chrome operating system is just enough Linux to run on a computer with the Chrome Web browser linking the "desktop" to the cloud.

At the same time, legal hurdles have been overcome to make personal cloud services more inviting. For example, cloud-based music storage lockers now appear to be legal after the decision in EMI vs. MP3tunes. This decision opened the door to legally storing and streaming your music from cloud storage -- not just from MP3tunes itself, but from Apple, Amazon, and Google as well. It also suggests that you'll soon be able to store videos and other digital content in the same way.

Still, today, we have a mis-mash of services. Here's the best of them as of late 2011.

Amazon Cloud Drive/Player

Amazon knows a thing or two about clouds. After all, besides being the biggest online retailer, with Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (aka Amazon EC2), the company also provides the biggest public cloud service.

Cloud Drive isn't for IT departments. It's for you. It provides 5 GB of free storage, and you can use that storage to stream music to up to eight devices. And if you buy your music from Amazon, these tunes can be stored in Amazon Cloud Drive without using any of your allocated storage space. For the moment, Amazon is also offering limitless storage for music from other sources, but there's no telling how long this offer will last.

To both to upload and download music, you'll need to use the Web-based Amazon Cloud Player. There's also an Amazon cloud player that's specific to Android devices.

If you want more storage -- and if you intend on using Amazon to store your music collection, you will -- Amazon offers several tiers of storage, ranging from 20 to 1,000 GB at a price of $1.00 per gigabyte per month. So, for instance, 20 GB will run you $20.

Apple iCloud

iCloud is perhaps the most advanced personal cloud service out there. It comes with 5 GB of free storage. That's more than it sounds like, though: Your Apple-purchased music, apps, books, and TV shows, as well as your Photo Stream, don't count against your storage quota.

Apple's iCloud gives you more than just storage and an online music server; it also includes all of Apple's wireless services. These include contact synchronization (derived from the rapidly nearing its end of life, its own e-mail service, mobile backup, and location awareness. The last translates into a service that can find your missing iPhones and iPads.

Basic iCloud services are available via the Web on any platform. To really use it to its full potential, though, you need to be running a Mac with Lion, a Windows Vista or 7 PC with iTunes 10.5, or an iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch running iOS 5. (Personally, I'm still waiting for Snow Leopard support.)

Additional space is priced at $20 per year for 10 GB, $40 per year for 20 GB, and $100 per year for 50 GB. In addition, Apple's new iTunes Match Service lets you access music you own, no matter how, that has a match in Apple's iTunes library.


I think we all know Dropbox by now. This cloud-based storage service pioneered the personal IaaS cloud service. Unlike the other cloud systems, Dropbox doesn't need a Web browser interface. It will run natively on almost any PC (including Linux machines) or device platform.

That makes Dropbox pretty darn handy, since you can treat it just like any other drive with your favorite file manager. For better or for worse, though, file storage is all DropBox offers. On the other hand, sometimes that's all you need. It lets you easily get to your most important files no matter what PC, tablet, or smartphone you have in hand at any given moment, so it's quite popular.

Dropbox only comes with 2 GB of free storage, but since it's primary for documents and not media, that may be all you need. If you want more, Dropbox charges $9.99 a month for 50 GB and $19.99 for 100 GB. That makes it one of the more expensive services out there.

Google Music

Google is a beta service -- though what isn't, at Google? -- but it's worked well for me. While you can argue that Google offers de facto IaaS style storage with Gmail and Google Docs, Google doesn't offer, despite many rumors, a Gdrive. Darn it!

What Google does offer is a music storage service. Unlike the other services, though, Google doesn't give you a fix amount of storage space. Instead, you can it to store up to 20,000 songs. On the Google Music web page, Google provides a counter to let you know how close you are to hitting your limit. At an estimated 5 MB a song, that works out to about 20 GB of storage. The cost? Nada.

Google Music playback is available via a Web browser on any PC and on Android devices with the Google Music App. You can play your Google Music tracks on any number of PCs and up to eight Android devices. However, you can only listen to them on one PC or device at a time. To upload music, you must use Google Music Manager, which is available for Linux, Mac, and Windows. You will also be able to buy music from the new Google Music Store.

Ubuntu One

You might think that the Ubuntu One service would be for Ubuntu Linux users, or at least Linux users, only. You'd be wrong. This service offers 5 GB of free storage -- and, for a fee, music streaming -- and is available not only on Windows

but also Android and iOS.

The music streaming service, which currently comes with 20 GB of storage, costs $3.99 a month or $39.99 a year. If you need more pure storage space for files and the like over the initial 5 GBs, it's $2.99 per month or $29.99 per year per 20 GB of storage.

Looking to clouds

The services discussed here, while perhaps the best known, are only the tip of the ice-berg. More cloud storage and music locker services are springing up every day. Additional services, such as video lockers, will soon be arriving.

At the same time that all these third party services are popping up, it's clear that both operating system vendors (e.g., Apple and Ubuntu) and major Web service powers (e.g., Google) intend on closely integrating their offerings with cloud services. One of Sun's catchphrases, before the company was gobbled up by Oracle was that "the network is the computer." Today, the phrase would be better rendered as "the cloud is the computer." And, as these personal services show, that computer is just as likely to be your PC just as the one in your office.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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