What use is the cloud

September 9, 2020

Articles | Collections

Using the cloud and a couple of harddrives to sort our files out.


This article follows on from our project on taking better care of our digital selves.

This is the first step in handling our files better.

For the most part, we really only want two things from our files: easy access everywhere, and easy backups. But I also want them to be in one location. All my photos, all my music, all my documents, all my movies, all in one place, rather than scattered across various clouds and streaming services. As it stands, they're easy enough to access, but because my stuff is everywhere, nothing is being backed up anywhere and I have more than once forgotten where exactly a file was across all these things.

This article has three stages. We'll first set up the problem and describe the solution. Then, like those annoying online recipes that include a life history before the ingredients, I'll outline how I did it to illustrate (mistakes and all). Then we'll finish off with a list of things that need to be done in general terms and an endstate so you can go and do it in your own way. Let's begin.

The problem, and the solution

Cloud services like Google Drive and Onedrive seem like they provide these things. You have your files on your computer, in a folder that is kept in sync with a filesystem somewhere else (the cloud) that Google or Microsoft rents to you. Anywhere you have internet access, you have access to these files. Your files are all in one location, if you pay for the storage space or have few enough files to fit into their free tiers. So far so good. But we still have a problem with backups.

If you have synced files between your computer and the cloud, you kind of have a copy in both places for as long as the internet isn't active. But of course, that means you aren't actively syncing, which defeats the purpose. And as soon as you're actively syncing, you lose the benefit—accidently delete a file from your computer and that deletion syncs to the cloud. That said, if you do delete a file, you might have a copy for some period of time in the drive's "bin". In this way, the cloud is certainly better than nothing.

But everyone has a cloud mishap story. It disappeared. You accidentally emptied the "bin". Or most commonly, you overwrote files during a sync. These problems are usually the result of confusing cloud storage with a backup. The files you have in the drive are a mirror of the files on your computer, not a backup. You can't restore files from a mirror because whatever problem you have with the files will be the same in both places.

We can solve this by having the files in the cloud, but ALSO putting them on a seperate harddrive. This is an absolutely adequate solution to the question of file management. Most IT people will tell you to have three copies of your files, one of which is off-site. We're not going to consider the cloud anything by itself, as we've discussed, but if we consider the computer and the cloud together as one item, it can count as the offsite copy. Then we'd ideally have one or two more harddrives around the house with our files on them in case the cloud goes wrong. Better yet if one harddrive is at a friend's place.

My journey

So this is where we start. Consolidate all our files into the cloud. One cloud. For me this happened in two stages:

  1. I first used Google Drive. I have a gmail account, so that means I already have 15GB of free storage. I wasn't interested in paying for more though so I was keeping one harddrive with media files I don't use often at a friend's house as well as a couple more with everything. Now I had access everywhere to most of my stuff, and I was backing my files up (albeit irregularly).
  2. However, I wasn't completely satisfied with with that, because I really wanted all my files in one spot. I don't often look at my photos, but I'd like to be able to when I want without fetching a different harddrive. I also had an issue with my music, which is in iTunes Match. I also want that in my setup. I could pay for more storage, and use an app that allows me to stream my music from my cloud. But I don't want to pay for more storage. I don't want to pay for anything really. Fortunately, I had a student account. Many Universities have access to Office365, and a default storage allocation in Microsoft Onedrive for business of a terabyte. This is absolutely enough to store all my files, including my media files. Plus, there are many apps that allow you to stream your media from the cloud. So I moved everything over to there. Eventually, because I wanted my own email address (something for a later article) I bought my own Office365 for business subscription, because it came with the cheapest storage that met my needs at the time of writing.

This was actually particularly useful because it forced me to do some sorting of my files. I wanted everything in a single folder, with sub-folders per thing in my life. So a folder for books. A folder for finances. A folder for research. A folder for memories. This meant that when I backed up, I just had to drag ONE folder from here to there, and wait for things to finish. No more jumping all over the place to copy all my stuff.

What needs to be done and where we need to end up

So here's what we need to do:

  1. Set up a cloud account. Google Drive, or Onedrive, or Dropbox are all popular solutions. You want something that has a free storage tier that meets the size of your files, or the cheapest storage that does that.
  2. You want to make sure they have a desktop client that allows you to have a single folder that lives on your computer and is being synced to the cloud at all times. I used the folder that Google Drive, or later that Onedrive puts on your computer. Everything I do on my computer, I save into this folder. Nowhere else. Now, to backup, you just drag that single folder to an external harddrive and wait. Easy.
  3. You want at least one, if not two external harddrives. With this comes an additional consideration. You can get two kinds of external harddrives. HDD or SDD. You can look up what those mean, because I'm not a harddrive technician. But the important points for me are: HDD drives are cheaper but slower and because they have a thing that spins inside of them, they're more fragile—drop the harddrive or move it around really violently,and the spinny bit might scratch and you'll lose data. SDD drives are more expensive, but they're faster, often smaller, and they have no spinny bits so they're less likely to break if you drop it or knock it. In addition SSD drives are more robust to our next point:
  4. Lastly, harddrives don't last forever, eventually they fail. With HDD drives, this failure means you lose your data. With SSD drives, this failure might not mean you lose your data, only that you have to go to a specialist to recover it. But no guarantees—you still might lose your data. So we want to check our files every so often because if things are corrupted, we want to get a new harddrive ASAP. That said, it doesn't matter so much if things are corrupted because you have multiple backups (right?). If you're serious about things, you'd just automatically swap these out every three or four years (the start of the danger zone for hard drives) for new ones. I can't, for example, be bothered to check all my files for corruptions very easily, so I'm likely to have corrupted data without knowing about it. Just weigh the cost of roughly ten wines/beers per three years against the cost of losing all your stuff because you have more important things to do than audit all your stuff.

And now we have easily accessible files, backed up both wherever we are and also located off-site, an IT specialists dream. It's all collected in a single folder, so it's easier to keep track of and backup. And if anything goes wrong: our computer is broken or stolen; the cloud has an outage; or our house burns down, we can replace our data by simply copying this one folder from one of our backup locations to wherever we need it to be.

On to the next thing.

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