Back in 2007 when Drew Houston, Dropbox's CEO, had gotten sick and tired of misplacing his USB drive the idea of personal and small business cloud storage was a radical one. Today, everyone and their uncle seems to be offering cheap or free cloud storage.
That's great! Except, well, how do you choose which one is right for you? It used to be that most people decided simply on the basis of how much free storage you got. That had the advantage of being simple, but it only tells part of the story.
The real value from a cloud storage service comes from how well it works for you. As you'll see, some work much better with some operating systems and business plans than others.
Amazon Cloud Drive
It's odd. Amazon does a great job with Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) for developers and business IT but Amazon Cloud Drive has never worked that well. The single most annoying point to me is that there's no file syncing.
In March 2015, Amazon introduced two new storage plans, one just for photos and one for all other kinds of files. Neither one is exactly free, but both have three-month trials. If you have an Amazon subscription or a Fire device, however, Unlimited Photos is free. Without those, it's $12 per year.
Unlimited Photos gives you unlimited storage for your photos and videos (GIF, JPEG, MP4, etc.) and 5GB of free storage for other file types, like PDFs or documents. Unlimited Everything, like the name says, gives you unlimited file storage for $60 per year after the three-month free trial.
You can access Amazon Cloud Drive from the web or from Windows or Mac OS Cloud Drive desktop apps. Amazon Cloud Drive also has Android and iOS apps. With these you can automatically upload videos and photos. This service is also built into Amazon's Fire tablets and phone.
My bottom line is that if you own an Amazon Fire tablet or Fire phone, or you're an Amazon Prime member, Amazon Cloud Drive is worth it. If you're not, for me that lack of integration with your desktop operating system is a deal breaker.
Sure you can get a free Box cloud storage account with 250MBs of storage and for $10 a month you get 100GBs of space, but that's like using a Rolls-Royce to pull a U-Haul trailer.
Where Box really shines is as a groupware or work-flow application. Used that way, it enables you to share files with colleagues, assign tasks, leave comments on someone's work, and get notifications when a file changes. The Starter version is for teams of 3 to 10 people. It comes with 100GBs of storage, can handle files up to 2GBs in size and integrates with Google Docs and Office 365. Starter costs $5 per month per user.
The Business edition requires at least three users, has unlimited storage, and permits you to have files as large as 5GBs. It also works with Active Directory (AD) and single-sign on (SSO). It also includes all of Starter's features. This version costs $15 a month per user.
Box excels at file privacy and data encryption. You get full read/write permissions control over your files and directories. In addition, you can also hook up Box to business applications such as Salesforce and NetSuite. Last, but not least, you can also use it with Microsoft Office and Adobe Lightroom with plug-ins.
Like the other services, you can use your files via Box's website and even create basic text documents. To really make it work you'll need the Box Sync and Edit apps for Windows or Mac OS X. It also comes with iOS, Blackberry, and Windows Phone apps that will enable you to view, upload and share files. To edit files though, you'll need the Android app. Box is also now integrated directly with Google's Chrome OS if you're using Chromebooks.
Box does have a few quirks. For example, you can't use Box on a server or networked drives. Your "local" directory must be either on your PC or a directly attached drive.
Box is best suited for a business IT buy. Its real value comes if you deploy it in your company not just as a way to store and share files but to run team projects.
Who doesn't use Dropbox? Sure, its free storage is only 2 GBs, but you can use it on any platform. You can get to your files from Dropbox's web site, desktop applications for Mac, Windows and Linux, their native files systems and the iOS, Android, BlackBerry and Kindle Fire mobile apps. It's a snap to set up, and you don't need to worry about syncing files for a second.
It's also easy to add free storage for nothing. Take the Getting Started tutorial and you get 250MB more room. Get a mobile app and turn on the automatic photo upload feature, and ta-da you get 3GBs of extra space. You can also earn 500MB for each friend you get to sign up for Dropbox for up to 16GBs in all.
If you need more storage, a lot more storage, Dropbox currently offers 1 TeraByte (TB) for $10 a month.
For small businesses, or those who just can't get enough storage, Dropbox Business offers unlimited storage for $15, plus tax, per user per month. This comes with a 30-day free trial.
Where Dropbox shines the most is its sheer simplicity and the simple fact that you can use it on almost any platform you care to name. If you, or your crew, use a lot of different gadgets, Dropbox should be your first choice. I don't need to tell you that. You're probably already using it.
Google Drive used to be just storage. But then Google took its online office suite, Google Docs, and pasted them together. Now, for simply having a Google account, you get 15GBs of free storage and an excellent office suite. It's good enough that many businesses and every Chromebook user is now using it as their complete cloud-based office.
Still wedded to Microsoft Office and not Google Docs? No problem. With a Google Chrome extension you can view and edit Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files with Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides.
Need more storage? No problem. For $2 a month you can get 100GBs, and for $10 per month you can get 1TB. In addition, if you buy a new Chromebook you can get more storage. With any Chromebook you'll now get a free TB of storage for two years. If you buy a high-end Chromebook Pixel, you get free storage for three years.
After the free deal expires, you still get to keep the storage you use. So, for example, if you use 500GBs of your free 1TB, after a year and a day you still have 500GBs of free storage.
If you want to build your business around Google Drive, you can do that too. Google Drive for Work includes unlimited storage for files, folders, and backuos for $10 per user per month. With it, you can sync all your business files, including Microsoft Office files, across your computer, phone, and tablet to access your work whenever you need it. The only caveat is that if you have fewer than five users your business gets "only" 1TB of storage/user
There are apps for Google Drive for Android, iOS, Mac OS X, and Windows. Annoyingly enough there is not a Linux app, even though Google Drive is built into Chrome OS, and Google has promised us a Linux app for years. There is a third-party apps, InSync, which I highly recommend, but I'd really like to see Google's native Linux app.
If you're a Chromebook or Google power user, I don't need to sell you on Google Drive. It's the best cloud storage option for you.
Apple's cloud entry is... interesting. First, iCloud Drive's full feature set only works if you have Mac OS X El Capitan or iOS 9. If you don't have Apple's latest and greatest, it's not going to show to its best advantage. In short, iCloud, Apple's earlier iCloud service is not the same thing as iCloud Drive. Curiously, iCloud Drive showed up on Windows before it did on any of Apple's own operating systems.
It comes with 5GBs of free storage and it's a dollar per month for each additional 20GBs of storage or $4 for 200GBs. Like Google Drive, iCloud Drive is also integrated with an office suite, albeit it's only Apple's beginner's office suite, iWorks.
Unlike the other services, there is no business version of iCloud Drive.
ICloud Drive, in my experience, is prone to be slow and quirky. I've had trouble syncing files between my Macs and iDevices. Eventually, I think iCloud Drive will be for Apple users what OneDrive already is for Windows, but it's still having teething problems. However, as a business solution? It's not there now and I doubt it ever will be.
Formerly SkyDrive, Microsoft's OneDrive is what Apple wants iCloud Drive to be when it grows up. Starting with Windows 8, OneDrive is baked into the operating system. As far as you're concerned OneDrive is just another directory in the file explorer. Unlike iCloud Drive, OneDrive will work with more than the newest versions of Windows. Anyone can use it on the Web, with a desktop app for Mac and earlier versions of Windows, and with OneDrive apps for Android, iOS, Windows Phone and Xbox. Yes, Xbox.
OneDrive comes with 15GBs of free storage. On top of that, for each friend who signs into OneDrive as a new customer, both you and your friend will receive an extra 0.5 GB of free storage up to a maximum of 5 GBs.
If you need more, it's $2 per month for 65GB, $4 per month for 200GB, or $7 a month for 1TB. In addition, with the top of the line one TB plan you get a free Office 365 Personal. Normally, that plan would cost you $7 a month or $70 a year by itself. So, if you're an Office 365 user, this is a no brainer. Get them both.
The real selling point for OneDrive is that, besides working hand-in-glove with Windows. it also works closely with Microsoft Office programs. With Office 365 you can also collaborate with others in documents and spreadsheets in real time with your partners.
If you want to take OneDrive into your business, Microsoft stands ready to help. OneDrive for Business. This is not a storage plan per se, but like Google Drive has been merged into Google Docs, OneDrive for Business is a marriage of OneDrive and Office 365. With Office 365 Business, Business Essentials, or Business Premium plans, the prices start at $8.25 a user per month with an annual commitment. With any of these packages, you get 1 TB of storage per user.
There's no question who will get the most from OneDrive. It's anyone who's wedded to Windows and Microsoft Office. If that's you, starting using it already. You'll be glad you did.
What's that you say? You don't like trusting your data to Apple, Google, Microsoft or anyone else? Well, try the do-it-yourself way: You can use ownCloud to set up your own cloud storage either on an office server or off your own external service.
The open-source ownCloud, while easy to set up for a Linux power-user, might prove a challenge for some. Still, if you want real control, it's hard to beat.
OwnCloud comes in both a free and in a business version. The only real difference is that the enterprise edition has support and more integration with other cloud services. For example, with ownCloud you can integrate it with Amazon S3 and Microsoft's OneDrive.
How much storage can you get with it? How much do you want? I have a 4TB ownCloud drive in my office and another terabyte off one of my remote servers. There are ownCloud desktop clients for Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows and mobile apps for Android and iOS. You can also use the WebDAV protocol, an HTTP extension, to directly integrate ownCloud drives into your local file system.
This cloud storage solution is for anyone who wants the maximum amount of control over their storage and doesn't mind doing some extra work to get it just right.
The best cloud for you?
It depends on what you use and what you want to do with it. All of these services give you more than enough free or cheap service for small business purposes. In short, don't be distracted by how many free GBs of storage you get; it's not that important.
To sum up:
- All-in-one office/cloud/workflow: Box, Google Drive, or OwnDrive.
- Apple users: Amazon, Dropbox, or Google Drive until iCloud Drive matures.
- Ease of use and multiple devices? Dropbox.
- Google users: Google Drive
- Linux users: ownCloud
- Users who place high value on having data control: Box or ownCloud
- Windows users: OneDrive
- Google Drive for Work tweaked with more security, sharing controls
- Microsoft offers free 100GB OneDrive space to Dropbox users worldwide
- Microsoft offers unlimited OneDrive storage with Office 365 subscriptions
- Dropbox for Business upgraded with more search, sharing controls
- Google Drive adds ODF support, voice search for Android, and app uploads for iOS