Dr Strangecloud (or how I learned to stop worrying and love syncing)

Dr Strangecloud (or how I learned to stop worrying and love syncing)

Summary: Cloud computing has turned us into hardware agnostics demanding access to our files anytime and anywhere.


It's been a while since I picked up a Surface Pro on a trip to Canada. I'd intended to use it to replace my existing laptop, but it's turned into a symbol of how the way I work has changed over the past couple of years — without my even noticing.

Standing in the store as the snow came down outside, I was trying to work out whether I should wait for the 128GB devices to finally arrive, or to bite the bullet and hand over the cash for a 64GB machine. It was then that I realised that it didn't matter. I didn't need a massive storage capacity on my portable machine. What mattered was the ability to connect to where my data really was: in the cloud.

So that's why I bought the 64GB Surface Pro, and why I haven't noticed any issues with the available storage. My data doesn't live on my devices any more, as the way I work has changed dramatically over the past couple of years. Where I used to base my work around a desktop PC and a server or two (and a back-up NAS), it's now centred on the cloud.

Every cloud-centric workflow needs a sync tool at its heart. Without synchronisation, you're stuck trying to remember just which files are on which PC, or on which phone, or which tablet. With sync, your files are just there. Turn off a PC, and you can still get them on your other devices. I can open the same files on my Nexus 7 as on my Lumia 920, or on the Samsung Galaxy Note I’ve borrowed from a friend to experiment with alternative form factors.

Using large-scale cloud services makes a lot of sense, as they give you more than just a place to keep files. They can also host application configuration and customisations, and keep a note of just where you were in the document you want. Suddenly, you realise that they've made the way you work just that little bit simpler.

Those macros you used to copy customisations to a new PC? Not needed any more. That awkward file copy when you rebuild a PC after a hard disk failure? Just connect to your sync service to carry on where you left off, and start the restore from any cloud backup tools you use and wait for it all to trickle back over the next few days.

My move to the cloud began the day I moved my working set of documents to Microsoft’s then-beta Live Mesh service. I could keep a desktop PC in sync with my laptop, and be sure that when I turned off my PC in London, got on a plane for the 10-hour flight to LA, and turned on my laptop in a motel in Santa Monica, all the files I needed would be there.

It was so simple that I began to go further. I didn't want to run an Exchange server any more, but I didn't want to lose its capabilities. So I migrated all our business servers to Office 365, and turned off two of the machines that sat whirring in the corner of the office. My mail and contacts were in the cloud — including email archives going back to the early 90s.

Then I moved my OneNote notes to another of Microsoft's cloud services, SkyDrive. That was a big step, as OneNote is probably my primary productivity tool, holding a decade of searchable notes from meetings, conferences, round tables and capturing ideas and thoughts. Suddenly the same notes were on my phone, in my browser and on a tablet. I could read and edit them on an iPhone, on a Samsung Android tablet.

So the switch in Office 2013 to cloud-first documents was painless. I'd already found it worked for me in OneNote, and as I'd had to move my files from Live Mesh to SkyDrive, I was already part of the way there. Without noticing it, my whole way of working had changed. I wasn't reliant on the big hard drives in my desktop PC or my server — just a big fault-tolerant array of drives somewhere between Amsterdam and Dublin and beyond. It also meant that when I picked up a Surface RT tablet and signed in with my Microsoft Account, I could see all my notes and all my recent documents.

Is this the mythical Post-PC solution? Perhaps, but alternatively, it's more an example of the devices+services model Microsoft has been espousing (a model that Canonical, Apple, Google and Adobe are also adopting). My devices are extended by the services they use, and by how I use those services. It's no longer about the hardware I use, but how well that hardware supports my choice of services. I still use that desktop PC most days, it's just that my workflow and tools have smeared and extended beyond that PC (and beyond Windows).

With SkyDrive at the heart of my personal workflow, it's not surprising that my main devices are a Windows Phone 8 smartphone and a pair of Surface tablets. Microsoft has baked its sync platform into its operating systems, and into its productivity software. If I'd chosen Google Drive, then I'd be carrying Android phones, tablets and Chromebooks, and iCloud would have me using my iPhone, with an iPad and a MacBook.

It's clear that we’re seeing the reshaping of the computer industry, away from hardware and into a blended world where our devices and our cloud services are extensions of each other. Windows 8 bakes SkyDrive into the OS, as does Apple with iCloud. Storing files in the cloud using a device as a local cache is surprisingly effective, as it means you can pick up where you left off, anywhere, anytime — even if you're just borrowing a phone for a couple of minutes.

It's taken a while to get here, but from where I'm standing, a cloud-connected, devices+services world has finally arrived. It's already affecting how I buy new hardware and software. If you don't support my cloud-sync tools, you're going to have to go a very long way to convince me to switch from a computer, or a phone, or a tablet — or even a gaming system — that does.

Topic: Cloud

Simon Bisson

About Simon Bisson

Simon Bisson is a freelance technology journalist. He specialises in architecture and enterprise IT. He ran one of the UK's first national ISPs and moved to writing around the time of the collapse of the first dotcom boom. He still writes code.

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  • "My data doesn't live on my devices any more..."

    And when your cloud provider goes tits-up...as quite a few have done...have fun.
    • It's smeared...

      ...across PCs, devices, cloud services, local backup, and cloud backup...
    • Which is why I prefer the sync solution

      Which is why I prefer the sync solution over the "trust us" solution.

      Sync keeps a local backup on your device or PC.
  • Its your data

    While ease of transfer other than FTP isn't a bad thing, at the end of the day my work, be it documents, video, photo's, whatever is residing on disk storage I own and back up regularly. The have been too many liberties taken with peoples on-line data not to have a safeguard. Remember it's your stuff!
  • Cloud to Local Backup

    The biggest hesitations for cloud are people worried about losing data and people worried about who sees their data. Something that encrypts data on the client before it is sent to live on the cloud could make more people believe their data was safe. A cloud service that automatically backs up on one of my local hard disks would solve the loss worry. The first one that does both gets my money. (Not because I have worry over either, but because I believe they'll be widely adopted and I'm a sheeple.)
  • Three's a Charm

    I think everyone should have three sets of data:

    1. one in your working drive
    2. one in your local external drive
    3. one somewhere offsite

    Cloud can be a great option for #3.
  • OneNote...

    "Then I moved my OneNote notes to another of Microsoft's cloud services, SkyDrive."

    Dunno how you did it - but you do know that the most recent versions of OneNote do support SkyDrive natively, right? You don't have to move anything so much as adjust the sharing, and OneNote should do the move for you . . .

    "Is this the mythical Post-PC solution?"

    I prefer to call it "PC plus." The PC isn't really losing installed base, it's just losing sales because people are keeping their PCs longer. It's increasingly the case that people are using multiple devices of their choosing in the home. IMO the PC will always be a valid form factor when you need a large keyboard and monitor (or multiple monitors).

    And I do prefer the sync solution; the sync solution allows me to access my data offline, whereas if something's just a website I'm in big trouble if I happen to lost my internet connection.
    • sharing is moving ;-)

      when you choose the share on SkyDrive option in OneNote 2013, it moves a copy up to the cloud - with the size of my notebooks it takes a while. I still have one hold-out notebook with personal information like bank account numbers; I'm torn on whether to move that or not ;-)