What I've learned about clouds

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I recently read an article that debated the origins of the term "The Cloud". Some say that Eric Schmidt from Google coined the term at a Search Engines Strategies conference in 2006. Others say that Dave Winer, a Silicon Valley pundit, should get the credit as he made reference to a "cloud of computers" in a NYT article in 2001. Today, the "Cloud" is a term that we hear maybe daily. To some, however, it is still a bit of a mystery, and like any good mystery, it deserves some looking into.

I often hear people say that they want to store their photos in "The Cloud". While I'm a huge believer in cloud backup, I think before a person chooses this option, it's important that they understand what it means. Here are a few things that I've learned about the "Cloud".

1. The cloud is...basically, a storage place for your photos and other digital documents, located somewhere in a server, somewhere in the world, owned by another person or company. Some of the most common cloud storage companies we hear about for photos are Google, Amazon, Dropbox and Apple's iCloud. In addition, there are a zillion other companies that want to store your photos, including photo product sites like Shutterfly and Snapfish.

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2. They come in all shapes and sizes...Like the puffy ones in the sky, cloud storage comes in all shapes and sizes, as well as price points. Keep in mind, if it's free, there is likely a reason for that. Please read the fine print. Two flags that I pay attention to when it comes to cloud storage for photos are (1) privacy, and (2) what happens to the photo once it's in a company's servers (quality and metadata).

  • On privacy...Amazon and Google, while both have some amazing services many of us use, are known for their ability to wiggle their way into our world through some really creative advertising techniques. In order to do that, they use data from our online activities. Questions to ask about your cloud service...Do you know if it protects your photos from data mining? Once they hit the company's server, who owns those photos?
  • On photo quality & metadata...It's important for you to know what happens to your photos once they enter a cloud server. In many systems, the first thing that happens when your photos are uploaded, is that they are compressed to save space. In some cases, it is minimal. In others, it's cause for concern if you want to preserve your photos long-term in the best quality possible. I've also found that the data that is normally attached to your photo file (e.g. date of the photo, location, etc.) does not always come back with your photo when you download it. Questions to ask...Does your cloud company compress your photos? Do they strip the metadata from the photo at any point, particularly when it is downloaded?

3. Clouds come and go...Cloud storage is big business right now. Several companies have jumped on the bandwagon to provide this service. Some offer it as an "extra" and charge little to nothing, while others have invested in systems that are targeted toward very specific markets, including photos. In the past few years, we've watched the digital photo market explode with companies trying to get a piece of this 80+ billion dollar market. Some have been wildly successful... others... not so much. So think about this before you put all of your memories in one basket...Will this service, by this company, be around for the long haul? How do you get your photos back if you decide not to use their services any longer?

4. Different options fit for different purposes. For backup storage, I like a company called Backblaze. They are not photo focused, but they don't data mine, they don't compress or strip data, and if they go away, I know they are just my backup. For sharing, there are quite a few that can do this well, mostly because we're not always as worried about preservation when we are sharing a photo just to make someone smile. When sharing pictures with my clients for an album, I like Dropbox. They don't compress the photos and the service is free up to a certain amount.

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Bottom line...I've learned that digitizing our most precious memories is the future and that cloud services play a role in preserving and sharing our memories. However, I recommend to my clients that they own their original photos and that cloud services are a great backup solution to protect their digital photos from hardware failure or other issues. While cloud services have come a long way since they were originally born, I have yet to find a service that cares about my memories as much as I do.