The number of “cloud based” file storage providers is increasing all the time. This week, Google has finally entered this busy space with Google Drive, though it is not available to all Google users yet. So, what is the relevance of this in education, and when choosing somewhere to store files online, which one is best? And what are the issues that individuals or schools should be considering?
The problem that the cloud solves
I generally describe cloud based services as technology that’s not in your school, that you don’t have to look after, and sometimes that you don’t even have to pay for. That is certainly true of cloud based storage providers. These allow you to store files, whether documents, videos, presentations, photographs or anything else, in a secure online storage space that you can access from any device, anywhere that you have an Internet connection. And indeed sometimes even if you don’t have an Internet connection.
There are lots of cloud based storage providers. The most popular ones, from my experience, are Dropbox, Microsoft’s SkyDrive, and doubtless now that Google have joined in with Google Drive they will also become popular pretty quickly. All offer an amount of free storage – Dropbox starts with 2Gb, though it can be increased if you invite your friends to use it too, new SkyDrive users get 7Gb (though if you used it before this month it was 25Gb, as long as you log in soon and claim it before it drops to 7Gb), and Google Drive starts at 5Gb. All can be increased for a fee, of which more later.
What to consider
When thinking about using a cloud based storage provider, what should you think about? Security is certainly an important issue. You will need to think about what sort of files you might want to store online, but at the very least you should make sure that your chosen provider will store your files in the EU, or has signed up to the US/EU Safe Harbor framework which provides equivalent levels of reassurance on security and privacy. I have heard objections in the past to using Dropbox for that reason, but they announced in February that they now comply with that framework. Clearly it is up to individual schools to decide whether that level of security is sufficient. Information security is a responsibility held at school level. There is no shortage of guidance and documentation on this from the Information Commissioner’s office, and there is still the guidance on information security produced by my team at Becta in 2008, which contains a lot of good practice, though it is no longer published on the DfE website. A good rule of thumb would be, if in doubt, don’t store any personal data using these services.
A second key factor in deciding is where you need to be able to access your files. I started using Dropbox because it met all of my needs in this area. I needed access on my home computer, my work laptop, my iPad and iPhone. And sharing files with colleagues meant that it also needed to work on Android phones. The fact that it works offline was also important, meaning that I could access folders and files on my laptop even without an Internet connection, provided they had “synced” the last time I was online. At the time this was not easily available using other services, though now it is.
This highlights one of the key difficulties with choosing a particular technology. Things change. All the time. What seems to be the right decision today might not be tomorrow. My approach to this is to make sure there is always an exit strategy. With all of my files on my computer, as well as on my laptop, if (perish the thought) Dropbox stopped trading tomorrow I would not lose any files. Obviously I also have the files backed up elsewhere, but it would not interfere with my work if the Dropbox service wasn’t available.
So what’s on offer?
Dropbox provides 2Gb of free storage, and an additional 250Mb for each friend who signs up following your recommendation. There are also paid upgrade plans, starting with 50Gb for $99 per year. Top level folders can be shared with others, but files in shared folders count towards your storage limit. Dropbox clients are available for Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS (iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch), Android and Blackberry.
Microsoft have recently announced new features for SkyDrive, which now offers 7Gb of storage for free (or 25Gb for people who were using it before April 2012). An additional 50Gb of storage costs £16 per year. It has clients available for Windows, Mac, Windows phone and iOS. It integrates well with Microsoft’s online Office suite, making it simple to create and edit Word, Excel and Powerpoint documents.
Google Drive was announced this week, and will be made available to existing Google users over the next few weeks. It is part of Google Apps, and comes with 5Gb of free storage. Upgrades are available, for example 25Gb at $2.49 per month. If you had previously upgraded your Google storage in order to store more photos on Picasa, you can continue to pay the previous rate (for example $20 per year for 80Gb), but will have to pay the new rates if you change your storage plan. There is a Google Drive app for PC and Mac, and for Android, with an iOS version under development.
Other storage services are available
There are many other online storage services available. The choice, as they say, is yours. I would be interested in any comments on which ones you use in your educational setting, and whether you have found any particular drawbacks or benefits of them. Please add your comments below.