I get asked this question regularly by students and colleagues alike. Given the complexity of cloud services today, and the increasing competition among cloud service companies (from Amazon.com to iCloud) that question is not easily answered.
If you have just happend upon this piece, you might be asking exactly what is cloud service anyway? Cloud service, at its most basic level, is any service that is provided over the internet. For most of us that translates to cloud storage, a place where users can store files, photos, applications—you name it. It is storage that is off-site and provided by a series of networked servers owned by companies like Amazon, Apple and the like.
In my world of students and eduators, I'll list here some of the services that I find most useful in my day-to-day work and personal life. For some people, the hope might be to find a one-size-fits-all service. For me, I have found the need to use several services for various needs in my life. Some of these services are free; others carry a subscription fee. But here are the essentials.
Dropbox: Whenever I set up a new Mac or idevice, one of the first applications I install is Dropbox. Dropbox has established itself as one of the premier providers of cloud storage. They simply do it right. I use Dropbox to store files—all sorts of files from personal to work related files, application zips, and the like. The only thing that I do not store on Dropbox (though I could) is photos and I will explain why later. Users who sign up for Dropbox service can get a free account that has 2 gigs of storage space. And if you can get your friends and family to sign up, Dropbox increases your storage space up to 16 gigs of free space. Of course there are paid options: as of this writing users can purchase a TB of storage for $99 per year. Not bad.
What I love about Dropbox is that it is stable, dependable and ubiquitous—any platform, and device. It makes sharing files and folders a snap. Oh and yes, one of the reasons why I love this service is that it's easy to share files and folders with others. Within my Dropbox directory, I can set up a folder or directory and choose to share that directory with any one person or a group of people: family, friends, students, coworkers. And we can all access that directory from our own Dropbox account anywhere there is an internet connection.
iCloud: As a Mac user, the Apple iCloud service is another key player in my personal network of cloud services. As a long time Mac user, I have used everything from Applelink to .Mac and MobileMe to Apple's new iCloud, which the company introduced in 2011. iCloud offers users 5 gigs of storage space for free, with paid subscriptions options of 50 GB, 200 GB and a 1TB option that are competative with Dropbox at about $100 per year. One of the benefits of this system is the tiered system with 50 GB at $12 per year. This pricing system makes it attractive, in my opinion, to cash conscious students who may not need the full TB of space provided by Dropbox.
Other benefits of iCloud are it's ability to sync between other Apple devices. I live almost entirely in the Apple ecosystem and this means that my iPhone, iPads, iPods, and computers can all talk to each other and keep my data (calendars, contacts and mail) in sync and up to date across all my devices. iCloud also provides back up services for iOS devices, which adds to my piece of mind.
Most importantly though for me is the integration of iCloud with Apple's Photos app. As a father of five, I have a lot of pictures and videos and while I could store these in many different cloud services, including Dropbox or Google, I choose to store them in iCloud to make them available across all my Apple devices using the integrated Photos app for iOS and the Mac. While some working files are stored in iCloud, I tend to use iCloud primarly for photos and videos. I have purchased the middle tier storage (200 GB) for myself and the 50 GB storage option at $12 per year for my kids, who are connected via Family Share. It is an inexpensive way to make sure that all of our pictures are available on any device at any time.
Google Drive: Popular among students, Google Drive is a great cloud service for the integration of Google Docs, Sheets and Slides (the equivalent of Word, Excel and Powerpoint) along with G-mail and a growing number of other integrated applications. It offers users 15 GB of free storage, more than the others mentioned above. One of its best attributes, for students and educators, is the ease with which groups can collaborate around a particular project in Docs, Sheets or Slides. And like Dropbox, it too is ubiquitous and can function on any platform.
My biggest concern with Google and one of the reaons why I do not use it as much as the others is the issue of privacy. If you are not aware of these issues, why not do a Google search, for Google and Privacy and you'll get more than you ever wanted to know.
That said, Google is a good option for people who are not as concened about privacy issues and simply need the ability to collaborate.
Personal Cloud Service: The File Transporter: Another viable cloud option that I use regularly is the Transporter by Connected Data. One of the downsides to all the above mentioned cloud services is that, in the end, users must entrust their data to third party companies and services (Dropbox, Apple, Google and the like). The Transporter is a personal and private cloud device that allows users to control their own data and the "cloud" in which it lives. With the Transporter, you create and control your own cloud service. When it is plugged in, it is on line and available to your computer or mobile devices. When it is unplugged, it is off line. You're in charge.
The Transporter works like to Dropbox in that users can share files and folders with family, friends or co-workers. Be advised that it is not as ubiquitous as Dropbox. Users have to have an account with Transporter even if they don't have their own device. But the privacy and security of the Transporter is huge, in my opinion.
Add to this the ability to link Transporters, and all of a sudden you can duplicate your drive in another locations. I have two transporters—one at home and one at my office. They are set to mirror each other by default so that if one drive fails or gets destroyed, the data is secure on the other drive.
Transporter is definately a bit costlier than the other options, at least up front. The 1 TB Transporter costs about $250. But this is a one time purchase and the actual drive that is inside the transporter can be replaced easily enough and with little expense, given the current cost of internal hard drives.
Transporter is not the only option for personal private cloud storage. Western Digital makes the MyCloud drive that does essentally the same thing as the Transporter with one important exception. The Transporter has the ability to sync with other Transporters in a way that provides peace of mind in the event of catrostrophy. But the bottom line is that for folks concerned about placing their data with third party services, options like Transporter make the private cloud doable.
A Final Thought: Although users should not confuse Cloud storage with a solid back up strategy, these services certainly add to one's peace of mind knowing that important personal data is located somewhere else besides one's computer's hard drive or mobile device. I have seen many people store all their photos, for example, on their iPhone, with nothing getting pushed up to the cloud. If that phone dies, so will the photos and data on that device. Drives can fail, phones can break, get lost, or stolen. Knowing that I have that data stored in another location gives me that peace of mind that the important stuff is safe. Your milage may vary, but do yourself a favor and invest in some cloud storage.