Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.
The internet is everywhere and yet - using it to access your own files isn't as obvious as you might like. I'll look at some options.
Like so many people today I have files and photos scattered on 4 computers and 10 thumb drives. I want to combine them on one easy to use drive and connect that drive to the internet so I have easy access to all my data in one place. Some people say I can do this on a home server. Others say to put it all on your "main" computer and access that computer from the internet. I've also seen websites that you send your data to and they will give you access to it for a fee. I need to make it somewhat secure (understanding nothing is completely secure). What do you suggest?
As you might expect, there are several ways to go about this. They range from simple to somewhat geeky to pretty darned geeky.
And of course which is appropriate for you will vary depending on not only your own level geek-ness (if that's a word), but just how much data you're talking about, and how you might want to access it.
I'll review a few approaches.
I'm not a huge fan of online backup services for backup simply because they're typically impractical for backing up what I believe needs to be backed up (i.e. everything).
On the other hand, if you just want a place to fairly easily throw some files and then later access them from anywhere on the internet, they're not a bad solution. And pretty darned safe to boot.
You sign up for one of the online backup services that include online access to your files. (I believe services like Mozy, Carbonite, Jungle Disk and many more fit the bill.) You establish a folder - or use an external drive if you like - to be backed up, and its contents are copied to your secure online backup service. Now you can access any of those files from any computer by logging into that service's remote access ability.
The downsides to this approach are that you probably do have to spend a little money for the service, there are occasionally size limitations, and that first upload will take a while, depending on your internet connection's speed. The up side, though, is that it's perhaps the simplest approach of all.
Google Docs recently added the ability to upload files of any type - even those not supported by the Google Docs applications themselves. If you have a Google account, typically Gmail, then you have this available to you today.
The pros: it's free, and as secure as your Google account.
The cons: "free" is limited to 1 gigabyte, though you can pay for extra storage, and it's a manual step to upload each file unless you look to a third party application built on top of Google Docs to make it more like a virtual drive or backup system.
This is a relatively new offering from Microsoft competing with Google Docs that gives you 25 gigabytes of storage for free with your Windows Live account. (If you have Hotmail or Messenger, then you have a Windows Live ID.)
Skydrive may not be available globally yet, and appears to be divided into two specific parts: Skydrive for photos, a part of Windows Live Photos in which you can share your photos in addition to keeping some private, and Skydrive for office files, a part of Windows Live Office. While the office portion seems optimized for specific office files such as Word and Excel, it does appear you can upload other files there as well.
Once again this is free, and as secure as your Windows Live account. The downside is that it does appear to be a manual upload, and I'm not seeing any third party apps to make that any easier.
But 25 gigabytes a pretty generous amount of free online storage.
You may have online storage available to you that you didn't even know about courtesy of your ISP.
Many ISPs include a certain amount of storage available via your account with them on which to place files. Typically the intent is that this storage might be used for a simple web site, so it's very likely publicly accessible by default. In most cases, however, it's not terribly difficult to set up some kind of login requirement for at least a portion of the storage.
This starts to venture into the "mildly geeky" realm in that most of these types of storage are accessed by what's called "ftp", one of the oldest internet file transfer protocols around. As a result there are lots of very good tools that are easy to use. Many are free (FileZilla comes to mind, or the FireFTP addon to FireFox) and some even make the ftp connection appear as if it were another drive on your computer. My primary means of uploading files to Ask Leo!, for example, is a tool called "webdrive" that operates in this fashion.
But if it's included, it's free, and many good tools are free. Check with your ISP to see if this is an option you have, and how much space you might have available.
Also "mildly geeky", there is a pretty useful and relatively easy way to make as much data as you like available from your PC at home: set up a "virtual private network" or VPN. In particular, you can use Hamachi to set up a VPN the configuration is fairly painless, and suddenly it's as if your machines at home were on the same local network as whatever machine you're connecting in from. It's very powerful, and I use this extensively while traveling.
There are a few downsides to this approach.
You do need to install Hamachi on all machines that are to participate in the VPN. The connections are secure, and access to your VPN is of course password protected.
More seriously, however, is that you'll be limited by the upload speed of your home internet connection when attempting to access your files. This applies to any approach that provides access to files, machines or servers in your home.
The "problem" is that most internet connections are optimized to provide a faster download connection into your home than they provide for uploading files out of your home. When you access a file remotely you are, in effect, uploading that file from your home to transfer it to your remote location, so that slower speed would apply.
Depending on your home internet connection, how big your files are and how often you plan to use this, this could be a very reasonable option - particularly since you're limited in storage only by whatever you happen to have or are willing to purchase for your home machines.
I believe I'm probably somewhat myopic on this topic. Since I have my own servers that host Ask Leo! and other web sites, I have virtually unlimited internet storage as a side-effect. (Yes, if you're of the extremely geeky variety, any solution that will allow you to put up a publicly accessible web site - shared hosting, cloud servers or dedicated servers - can all be used to provide protected file storage as well - it doesn't really have to be all that expensive either). As a result this isn't something I've looked for in the past.
I'd love to hear from readers what other solutions might apply for the casual user looking to just securely store information in a protected corner of the internet.
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