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.

Online Backup Services

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 may have online storage available to you that you didn't even know about courtesy of your ISP."

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

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.

Windows Live Skydrive

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.

Your ISP

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.

From Home

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.

Other Ideas?

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.

Article C4378 - July 24, 2010 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

20 Comments
Mike
July 25, 2010 1:44 AM

I agree Hamachi is very powerful and convenient. There is also another option, called Teamviewer, which does basically the same thing. You can install it as a service on your home computer, set a password, and then you can access it from anywhere. It can be used for file transfer and remote control.
The advantage is that Teamviewer doesn't need to be installed on the computer you're using. The disadvantage seems to me to be a slightly lower connection speed (than when I use Hamachi).

John
July 26, 2010 10:26 AM

SOS Online is a basic but feature-rich option.
You backup your files, keep them safe, and have access to them. You also have access to previous versions. I am a learner in this field and have a basic website dealing with online backup. There are many links there to follow for those interested. Running an office online is also a definite option now. I think.
Thanks,
JLB
(http://www.online-data-backup-info.com/)

Eric
July 27, 2010 8:24 AM

Use NAS - Network Attached Storage:

An NAS provides space for your backups at home and while traveling you can access your files from any internet connection. Security is inherent in the NAS software. Since internet access to the NAS is provided with a browser even an iPad can access the files.

Ron, Chandler, AZ
July 27, 2010 8:53 AM

One thing I didn't notice in your evaluation of the several approaches, is the requirement to always have your computer online, if you choose to base your system on your home computer.

Lee Klein
July 27, 2010 9:17 AM

A great, easy alternative is to use Pogoplug and connect an external hard drive to it. Put the files that you want to share on the hard drive. Then you can share these files via the Pogoplug web site and your friends can download from your external hard drive. I love mine!

Tom Knibbs
July 27, 2010 10:24 AM

I've found LogMeIn Pro2 version is an excellent option for accessing any files on a home network. Secure, easy to use file manager type interface.

Chuck
July 27, 2010 11:01 AM

I use SugarSync (www.sugarsync.com), which is proving to be an EXCELLENT solution for my many multiple gigs. Secure, private, shareable, many features.

John
July 27, 2010 11:05 AM

I have been using Drop Box. I have a free 2 GB folder in the cloud. It automatically syncs with a Drop Box folder on each of my computers. I do zero work, do not have to initiate back ups etc. It is the exact answer that this poster is looking for. It is also a backup of my working files in another physical location. All my files are also accessible from other computers through a browser. I had been skeptical of cloud storage but this is a perfect well thought out solution. It is so good that I decided to upgrade to 50GB storage for 10 dollars a month.
www.dropbox.com

Good suggestion. I use dropbox to make mp3s (podcasts) and other documents available to my Android-based phone as well as all computers I happen to have it installed on.
Leo
29-Jul-2010

Tim
July 27, 2010 12:07 PM

GBridge is very nice for tunneling and it can be used for backup. It uses your google account. It's rather geeky, not very user friendly.

Chris
July 27, 2010 2:15 PM

I have been using Dropbox for a couple of years, and I love it. It allows you to create Sharing Folders that you can use to share files with specific people. For example, I created a Sharing Folder that only my sister and I can access, and we share photos through it. It's free for 2Gb of storage but you can increase that by referring people. If they download the program, you receive an additional 0.25Gb of storage up to a maximum of 5Gb. I am currently up to 3.75Gb of free storage. It is really easy to use and comes with a great introductory tutorial. It also allows you to use Drag & Drop to upload files. I highly recommend it!

Norman Ganancial
July 27, 2010 8:24 PM

Yes LogMeIn, I've been using that before however the application is the same with the other, you have to install the software application both PC that you are going to use. So how can you access your home PC if you try to use internet in other place, it need adminitrator account to install LogMeIn. Better Google Doc secure and faster.

Danielle
July 28, 2010 7:32 AM

I agree on the SugarSync! It's what I use too. It backs up everything, all file are accessible to other computers and it has a "magic briefcase" that I can just drop items in and then not only are they automatically backed up too but synced with every other computer my magic briefcase is on/logged in to, etc.

Alice
July 28, 2010 8:40 AM

I agree with John and Chris. I, too, have been using Dropbox since my brother introduced me to it. Although you can start with only 2GB but you can increase storage space if you continue recommending friends who end up downloading. I love it because it automatically syncs all files on any PC you try to work on after having downloaded Dropbox on it.

John
July 28, 2010 3:38 PM

Drop Box has my my life so much simpler. But I looked into Sugar Sync. I don't need the full 50 GB that I am paying Drop Box for and Sugar Sync offers 30GB for half the price of Drop Box. It also appears to have a feature that will allow me to only sync selected folders to my tiny solid state drive on one notebook.

Tony
August 1, 2010 5:47 AM

I have copies of my files in Google Docs. Some are shared files, and can be readily accessed by those listed when they were stored. Sharing can be either to View or to allow Editing. Other files I've only stored there as a back-up and a convenience for myself to access from other locations.

J.J. Roberts
August 4, 2010 9:33 AM

I've had similar problems with organizing all of my data between my computers before, but a couple months ago my boss dropped me a note about Syncables. I've since become an enthusiastic user of the service...it's quite good; it syncs your data across all of your computers automatically and with ease. Because I have access to all of my folders, media, music, and email on each of my computers, I haven't even needed cloud sync. Syncing between three computers offers comparable (if not better) security for my data than using the Internet as a 'storage room'. Just my experience anyway!

DJ
August 8, 2010 11:35 AM

I use a combination of both Dropbox and Truecrypt, which allows me to encrypt the data I upload to my dropbox folder online. I like the idea that my data has an increased level of security to it by means of encryption. After all (to some people this may sound paranoid but to me its not as crazy as it sounds), things can get hacked but then there is still the encryption. Storage space and upload speeds are of course to most of us a major restriction, thus making a thorough selection of what you want to upload is only logical. Uploading a larger folder, e.g. a folder in the hundreds of MBs-range or even GBs can be a pain if you try to do it in one session. The answer to this would be to zip the folder in question and in the meanwhile dividing it in smaller zipped packages, compress (archive) the folder to be uploaded directly in your Dropbox folder in Windows explorer and you 're all set. Uploading takes a couple of days in this case and Dropbox will easily remember the files that have already been uploaded and continue to upload from the point you left (i.e. for example when you shutted down your computer).

Tony M.
August 9, 2010 5:21 AM

I don't have extensive experience with syncing files, nor with online file storage/sharing. However, I've become a fan of Drop.io for my occasional file-sharing needs. I feel nothing can match the neat look and intuitive behavior of their interface. There's absolutely nothing to install, you don't need to create an account (unless you want to use some of the advanced administration functions), and files can easily be shared via a variety of methods.

I know Drop.io may not the best they offer only 100 MBytes of storage space for free but for certain file-sharing needs, I feel it's worth looking at.

Ashkan
October 26, 2010 7:29 AM

For sharing and accessing my file via the internet, I use my Asus WL500W access point router. it has two usb ports and an embedded ftp server. I have connected a 500 GB external HDD to it. All I have to do is to provide my (static) IP address with ftp protocol and my username and password via a ftp program. Also, I can access my files locally by windows explorer.

Jatin
March 15, 2012 10:46 AM

If it's just the computer you wanna access, just get TEAMVIEWER (www.teamviewer.com) install it, make it unattended accessible and off you go.

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