Living in the Cloud, Part I

A few years ago, I introduced the readers of this column to cloud-based computer services like Salesforce.com, Google Apps and others. These services take something that you typically do with an application on your computer – e.g. word processing with Microsoft Word – and transform it into a service that you can use with any web browser connected to the internet.

In some cases, these services are more or less equivalent to their desktop counterpart and, in many cases, they go beyond them. Salesforce.com, for instance, has grown far beyond what is available in desktop customer relationship management applications like ACT! In other cases, the cloud software is a much simpler version of its shrink-wrapped competitors. While Google Docs will handle your short documents and basic spreadsheets with ease, you probably don’t want to build your 500-page textbook with it.

In all cases, these cloud-based alternatives offer a couple of key advantages over traditional software packages. First, they are accessible anywhere you have an internet connection. You don’t have to be on your computer or, if you have multiple computers – say, a desktop PC at home and a laptop at work – your documents, files, sales leads, and so on, are all available to both your computers at all times, and always in their current, updated version.

Second, these services make it incredibly easy to share things. Need to share a sales forecast with your other team members on the road? Just invite them to share your spreadsheet and all of you can view, comment and even edit the document in real time. Want to send some product image files to a customer and they’re too big for email? Drop them onto a cloud-based file sharing service and your customer can just grab them as easily as copying a file on their computer.

Finally, in many cases these services are either free or cheaper to run than their desktop counterparts. Services like Google Apps offer fully capable free versions, and even Salesforce.com, which is priced on a per-user basis per month, is often less expensive overall to use than an equivalent number of desktop packages because all of the infrastructure you would normally need to support internal software packages – servers, backups, tech support – is no longer required. Salesforce.com takes care of your backups, your upgrades and technical support.

A lot has changed since we last visited the cloud, so the next few columns will address the best services out there – the ones that have not only survived but thrived. Obviously, you’re concerned – as well you should be – about putting important business documents in someone else’s hands, and some business owners are simply allergic to the idea of their valuable files residing anywhere other than their own facility. For the rest of us, cloud services represent a quantum leap in convenience, access and affordability. This month, we’ll take a look at the cloud-based file storage/sharing services that just might make you put those flash drives back in your desk drawer for good.

Dropbox

While it didn’t woo me at first, I’ve grown to love a cloud storage service called Dropbox. For those of you that dig simplicity and ease of use, Dropbox is pretty tough to beat. Install Dropbox on all your computers and you’ve got a storage location right there next to your other drives that just works. Copy stuff to it, it shows up everywhere. Create a link to another folder on your computer, it keeps them all in sync. Need to share files with someone else? Dropbox generates the invitation email automatically and they can see your files just like that.

Dropbox comes with two gigabytes of storage – enough for a ton of documents – for free, and offers some reasonable yearly plans for upgrades to much larger capacities. If you want a bonehead-simple, cost-free method of syncing, storing and sharing files, Dropbox is pretty hard to beat. Honorable mention: If you’re a Mac-centric shop and you don’t mind paying an annual fee, the iDisk feature of Apple’s MobileMe service offers the same type of functionality, although I’ve found it does not perform as well as Dropbox, even on the Mac.

Box.net

If you’re looking for something a little bit more “corporate”, Box.net offers the same kind of storage you get with Dropbox but with a more “we mean business” feel. Box.net has four different service levels and their goal is clearly to earn your monthly subscription business. The service offers integration with a number of other cloud-based systems like Google Apps and a host of “OpenBox” applications that support Box.net’s storage model.

Box.net’s free version is limited to a paltry single gigabyte of storage, but their ten gigabyte pay service is a reasonable ten bucks a month. As you upgrade, you get access to project management tools and other features that appeal to corporate customers that do a lot of file management and collaboration. If you move a ton of files around, Box.net might be the best solution for you.

Skydrive

From a pure bargain standpoint, it’s tough to beat Windows Live Skydrive: 25 gigabytes for free. That’s a monstrous amount of storage for no charge, and Microsoft clearly wants to bring in as many customers as possible by throwing out an offer that’s hard to refuse. If you need massive storage and you’re already sold on Microsoft’s ecosystem – Windows, Live.com, Office, and so on – then Skydrive should be first on your list.

Skydrive and Live.com also integrate with Microsoft’s forthcoming web-based Office suite. That’s right: Microsoft, the king of shrink-wrapped desktop software, has seen its market share encroached by the likes of Google and is now releasing a free, web-based version of Office to compete with Google Apps.

Next month, we’ll talk about cloud-based sharing, project management and collaboration tools, including one that bleeds over between the file storage services discussed here and true real-time, online collaboration: Drop.io (www.drop.io). Check it out if you have time, and I’ll dive into that and a number of other great project collaboration tools next time.

This article also appears in Identity Marketing Magazine. Brent Buford is the CEO of eBlox.