The options for storing and archiving data have never been more numerous or diverse — or confusing.

Just when you thought that cloud storage was the next big thing, a new generation of external drives and wireless devices are adding Internet file sharing and support for mobile devices.

Storage for multiple digital devices

Once upon a time, archival storage for our data was relatively easy. You simply attached an external drive to your personal computer and set up backup software. Video and digital images greatly increased the amount of data we had to store and back up, but that was no real problem: with hard-drive capacity going up exponentially and prices plummeting, we simply bought a bigger external hard drive.

Then came cloud storage, and things became more complicated. Storing our data on a remote server is safer from hardware failure than on a local drive, but there are also those monthly fees and potentially slow access over the Internet.

Now it’s no longer the data on one or two PCs we have to archive, but images, music, videos, and so on, all kept on our growing number of mobile devices — smart phones, tablets, and hybrid laptop computers. We’re also sharing our data among these devices and with others as never before.

A Sept. 11 IDC report states:

“The International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide Quarterly Smart Connected Device Tracker expects tablet shipments to surpass total PC shipments (desktop plus portable PCs) in the fourth quarter of 2013. PC shipments are still expected to be greater than tablet shipments for the full year, but IDC forecasts tablet shipments will surpass total PC shipments on an annual basis by the end of 2015.”

Cloud services such as iCloud and Dropbox now support some mobile devices, but that still leaves the problem — or complications — of whether your data should be archived in the cloud or locally.

Seeing an opportunity, hard-drive manufacturers are now providing yet another option: local-cloud storage. Although that might sound like an oxymoron, these devices — such as Western Digital’s new My Cloud — seem to provide the ultimate solution. They offer network, USB, Wi-Fi, and Internet access, all in one small and relatively inexpensive box.

I’ll review the WD My Cloud below, but first, a bit more on the state of cloud services.

Cloud data: Competition based on integrated apps

A Wikipedia comparison chart identifies more than 55 cloud storage sites — and that number is undoubtedly growing. For consumers, this plethora of online storage can be difficult to sort through. Each site tries to differentiate itself from the pack by touting its value-added services, larger amounts of free storage, improved connectivity speed, or support for cellphones and tablets.

Some cloud services — namely Google Drive and Microsoft’s SkyDrive — focus on integration with business applications and remote document collaboration. Other sites are primarily used for backup, file and photo sharing, and/or digital storage lockers for mobile devices with limited storage capacities. (Most users of a 16GB iPhone soon wish they had more storage.)

One cloud-storage service that seems to have taken the kitchen-sink approach is Box (site), whose subscribers include Fortune 500 corporations, small businesses, and individuals.

Box integrates dozens of apps — project management, accounting, you name it (see Figure 1) — on sundry platforms: Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, BlackBerry, etc.

Figure 1. Box offers a broad selection of apps for mobile devices and productivity software.

My go-to app is the free Box Edit, which lets me work with content located on Box by using programs residing on my computer — all without leaving my browser. Box also hosts a network of partner developers to further enhance what could have been just another backup and file-synching service.

The true cost of online storage — transfer speeds: Cloud storage might be more secure from hardware failure and unforeseen disasters than local storage, but it has one very significant Achilles’ heel: the arbitrary, comparatively glacial file-transfer speeds over the Internet.

Transfer speeds are, of course, dependent on variables such as the bandwidth of your Internet connection, the current workload of the cloud server you’re connected to, the local device you’re working on, the size and number of files being moved or synched, and so on. Backing up your PC to the cloud is convenient and safe, but doing a full restore can take days.

Still, cloud storage is no passing fad. According to an IHS press release (reprinted by Bloomberg), services such as Dropbox and Google Drive will double their subscription base from 625 million this year to 1.3 billion in 2017. With much of our data in the cloud, what happens if, for one reason or another, you can’t connect to your provider’s server to retrieve your documents or photos? Or when accessing needed files just takes too long?

Store data to the cloud — in your house

Combining the connectivity advantages of the cloud with the access speeds of local storage is the concept behind Western Digital’s just-released My Cloud external drive (more info; see Figure 2). An external hard drive with storage capacities of 2TB, 3TB, and 4TB, the device provides connectivity to multiple computers and mobile devices — and it can be accessed from anywhere you have an Internet connection. It’s effectively a cloud server sitting on your desk.

That’s such an interesting idea, I took the 2TB My Cloud for a test run — and was impressed.

Figure 2. Western Digital's My Cloud combines LAN, Wi-Fi, USB3.0 — and Internet connectivity.

The initial setup took maybe two minutes. You start by attaching the My Cloud box to a router (Ethernet cable included) and plug in the AC power adapter, as directed by the thin, comic book–style instructions. You’re then directed to download the drive’s setup and desktop-management software from a Western Digital site. Or you can connect to the drive’s onboard management tools via a browser (as you do with routers).

The PC-based My Cloud app was equally easy except for one gotcha: it requires Java — an application known for its potential security vulnerabilities, as Firefox 24.0, Chrome 30.0, and IE 9 so urgently warned me. Fortunately, the My Cloud apps for iOS and Android mobile devices don’t need Java and worked just fine without it.

Figure 3. My Cloud warns users of possible security alerts when using its setup/management software on PCs.

Figure 4. Windows' warning that the Java-based My Cloud software could be a security risk

The time needed to learn My Cloud’s tools is kept to a minimum with judicious use of popup screens that briefly describe the function of each button and icon.

Flexible file management: In Windows Explorer, the My Cloud drive appears under Networks; you drag and drop files and folders in and out, just as you do with any other storage device. However, now all files on My Cloud are available to almost any other device via Wi-Fi or the Internet — even when local desktop PCs are powered off. I can, for example, send a batch of iPhone photos to the My Cloud drive via Western Digital’s iOS app or via an Android app.

Because this “cloud” is local and directly attached to my home network, I can make it as secure as I need to. I can set up user accounts with passwords to allow others to access specific folders and files. I can also transfer files from the My Cloud box to true cloud-storage services such as Dropbox. All these capabilities are handed through the simple My Cloud management dashboard, shown in Figure 5.

Figure 5. The My Cloud dashboard gives drive statistics and lets you configure security, sharing, Internet access, user accounts, and more.

Excellent connectivity: The My Cloud box has gigabit Ethernet and a dual-core processor to enhance transfer speeds. It seems to work: when I simultaneously streamed the movie Mamma Mia from the drive to my iPad and my Nexus 7, the movie played without a hiccup on both.

A USB 3.0 port lets you connect other devices, such as digital cameras, directly to My Cloud. You can also use it to expand My Cloud’s capacity by connecting another external hard drive. The My Cloud SafePoint tool lets you copy a snapshot of your data to another external drive.

Given its cost, My Cloud is an ingenious solution that frees me from monthly fees, bandwidth limitations, and the remote possibility of cyber attacks (or government intrusion) on my data stored on someone else’s remote server. (A hacker might gain access to the My Cloud drive, but only with access to the password you set up. That’s another reason to make sure you have strong passwords.) And I no longer worry that my cloud-based accounts might be offline for a few minutes, hours, or even days. The price of the My Cloud drive is U.S. $150 for 2TB, $180 for 3TB, and $250 for 4TB.

Other ways to expand storage on mobile devices

It’s a bit ironic that the portable devices we depend on have the least amount of storage capacity. Most smartphones and tablets come with 16GB to 64GB of memory, but you’re left with significantly less when you subtract space needed for the OS and applications. Unfortunately, we tend to immediately load them up with the most space-gobbling types of data: videos, music, and photos.

Even though devices such as Western Digital’s My Cloud are one solution, there are other approaches to solving the limited capacity of mobile devices. For example, here’s a trio of portable streaming systems, all with built-in Wi-Fi capable of streaming to multiple users simultaneously.

Seagate offers its compact, portable, $175 Wireless Plus (info; see Figure 6), a 1TB external hard drive that includes a USB 3.0 port and integrated Wi-Fi. You can quickly load it up via the USB port with movies, e-books, photos, etc. and then stream them to smartphones, tablets, laptops, and some TVs via Wi-Fi — without a power adapter or PC attached. The drive weighs just nine ounces and is has a reported 10-hour battery life

Figure 6. Seagate's Wireless Plus sets up its own mini-Wi-Fi network.

Verbatim uses different means to the same end with its $70 MediaShare Wireless (site; see Figure 7). This 4.3-ounce gadget has no onboard storage — it simply streams media via its built-in Wi-Fi. With a single USB 2.0 port and an SD-card slot, it attaches to external hard drives, flash drives, cameras, and other devices and streams their data. In other words, unlike the Seagate Wireless Plus, you are not restricted to streaming from just one drive. Apps for iOS and Android devices handle file management and streaming chores.

Figure 7. The Verbatim MediaShare Wireless (the black box on the left) gives wireless-streaming capabilities to USB devices.

Sanho Corp.’s $100 iUSBport Mini (site; see Figure 8) operates on the same principle as Verbatim’s MediaShare Wireless but takes a more travel-ready tack. Weighing under two ounces and about the size of a Tic-Tac box, the iUSBport Mini includes a USB 2.0 port, MicroSD card slot, and built-in wireless.

It’s reportedly capable of streaming up to three simultaneous 1080p HD movies, music, or photos to three different devices. It can also handle two-way file transfers with up to eight users. Alas, its mini-battery lasts only up to three hours — but it does recharge itself via any USB port.

The gadget can connect with Android and iOS devices through dedicated apps or via browsers.

Figure 8. The tiny iUSBport Mini gives USB devices and mini-SD cards Wi-Fi connectivity.

None of these devices is a threat to cloud-storage services. But they do offer new and interesting ways of accessing and storing our rapidly expanding glut of data.

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