Comparison Guide To Cloud Storage Providers
Over the past 20 years, ubiquitous document access has become increasingly critical as digital portfolios have grown to span family, financial, work and school activities. At the same time, concerns about maintaining data safety and security have also escalated. Early services like FTP and peer-to-peer sharing remain popular, but predominantly with more technical users.
Today’s cloud storage provides simple file sharing, but also extends personal workstation file space, integrates document editing, includes real-time backup and document workflow. These services are cheap, fast, easy to use and require very little up front or long-term end user investment. The most time-consuming tasks, notably large backup and restore, can be automated or occur behind the scenes.
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The leaders include pure-play vendors Box, Dropbox and Google, and the two-walled garden approaches from Apple and Microsoft. The latter fall into this category because they offer cloud storage as a byproduct of a more robust offering – Apple began with a device backup service, and Microsoft uses OneDrive as the foundation to Office 365. While Google Drive evolved from Google Docs (and still provides rich document editing), it can be more easily evaluated on its pure storage merits.
Among the offerings there is parity in features, functionality, security and price, but we aim to show where they differ.
What am I getting out of it?
From a practical storage perspective, these services offer a token amount of free space, with upgrades ranging up to paid plans for unlimited storage. For services promoting unlimited storage, limitations occur around file sizes. For example, Box Enterprise caps files at 5GB, whereas Google Drive has a very generous 1TB maximum. Note that “free” is a relative term – to open a free iCloud account, users must have an Apple iOS or Mac OS device.
Google’s top tier of $3600/year for 30TB of anywhere storage is not a lot of money. Personal plans ranging from $100-300/year are extremely reasonable for people interested in backing up computers; sharing files with colleagues, family members and classmates; and using cloud storage to support a small business.
The open (pure-play) cloud storage services allow storing any type, style, and kind of file. All services use Web browser interfaces by default (to create, upload and view files), and all have varying degrees of viewers. Google allows users to preview over 20 file types, Box has a high-fidelity mobile engine and Microsoft allows users to open Office files in their native format without a subscription. These are not replacements for fit-for-purpose presentation tools or AutoCAD, but they suffice for most situations.
Browser drag-and-drop upload is handled so well that it is now an expected feature, and is surprising when not supported. Even Microsoft provides drag-and-drop and right-click support across browsers and platforms, although the real-time feedback lags others (see Dropbox real-time identification).
Desktop synchronization is a powerful feature for users backing up or extending their computers to the Cloud. In this area, Dropbox shines. Other services lag behind either due to business decisions (Box prefers people use the browser to keep real-time file control with administrators), background service system resource spikes or technical gaps.
More than a feature comparison, we looked at the services as three use cases. The first is personal storage, or extending one’s own file system to the cloud. The second is sharing, especially of moderately size to large documents. Sharing was looked at in both a one-to-one and group sharing, with people who had accounts on the service and those who did not.
Finally, the third use case was extensibility, API and SDK. For this, we explored services’ abilities to be a platform or infrastructure backbone to support a small business or gaming-in-the-cloud.
Oh, a note about performance testing. We recognize that readers would be interested in performance, so why didn't we test speed? In our findings, performance varied wildly based on a number of factors related to physical connection and service architecture. First, our primary testing facility was serviced by high-speed cable. As is the case with many cable Internet packages, ours had a 'boost' function which artificially inflates initial download performance, then slows remaining downloads. Second, services vary based on their sync mechanism. Dropbox (and backup service Mozy) perform block- or bit-level replication. This means that once files are initially sent to the Cloud, additional saves only synchronize what actually has changed. This is most apparent on modern-era Office documents, which utilize a standards-based XML data structure. Finally, Dropbox also employs LAN sync, which allows computers running on a physical LAN to sync files locally, rather than downloading updates from the Cloud. Two caveats: updates are still sent to the Cloud, and when installing Dropbox on a new computer (or if the index becomes corrupted), all files must be re-synchronized from the Cloud.