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Storing data in the cloud

There is something to be said for having data “in the cloud.” By “cloud,” I don’t mean those white pillowy things in the sky — I mean on a server somewhere, accessible via the Internet.

Data in the cloud is data that you can get your hands on whenever and wherever you have an Internet connection. It’s the difference between having your address book, calendar and e-mail on a specific PC in your home or office and having it somewhere like Yahoo, Google, AOL or MSN mail. If you have it on one of those servers you can find it even if you’re away from your PC. You could even find it if your PC, along with the rest of the house, were destroyed in a fire — not that I’d wish that on anyone.

I haven’t had any fires, but I’ve often been in a situation where I need access to information when away from home or files that have been deleted from my computer. For me, that’s easy as long as it’s something that’s arrived as an e-mail any time during the past couple of years. That’s because all my incoming e-mail is automatically forwarded to my Gmail account, and if I need access, I can get it from any Web-enabled device. Gmail also keeps track of your contact list, and Google calendar tracks your schedule.

Another Google product is Google Docs and Spreadsheets. This service gives you online access to a word processor and spreadsheet program as well as a calendar. Although the online programs are not as robust as what you get with Microsoft Office, the Google service, aside from being free, has the advantage of allowing you to share files with friend, colleagues or family members. It’s a way, for example, for a parent to proofread a child’s homework assignment, even if that “child” is a college student hundreds of miles away. It’s also a way for colleagues to collaborate on spreadsheets and documents and for any group — including families — to share a calendar.

Data preservation is another advantage to having information in the cloud. For one, it’s backed up. While it’s possible for Google, Yahoo, MSN or AOL to lose data, it’s pretty unlikely. These companies have a lot invested in servers and redundant backup systems. I’m far more confident in their ability to maintain my data than in my own. Still, I recommend that people keep copies of their files on their computers and on DVDs — just in case

There are privacy implications. The world’s largest search company does have a lot of information about its users — but the same can be said for banks, insurance companies, credit card companies, phone companies and all of those other companies that keep track of our data. Your cell phone company could, if it wanted to, pinpoint your exact location thanks to the GPS chip in most of today’s cell phones. I’m not 100% comfortable living in a world where companies know many intimate details of our lives, but I’ve pretty much resigned myself to it. It’s part of the cost of living in a connected society. As long as the people behind these companies “do no evil,” as Google’s motto goes, than we’re probably OK. But one never knows for sure exactly where evil lurks.

The “cloud” is also a great place to back up your data. There are all sorts of online backup services, including one called Carbonite.com that gives you “unlimited” backup for $49.95 a year. I put “unlimited” in quotes because I read in a blog somewhere that they will pull the plug on people who take that to an extreme. I don’t use an online backup service like this, but I do back up regularly to an external hard drive and also occasionally backup all my important data files to a DVD, which I then mail to a trusted friend just in case something were to happen to my house. Sometimes, when I’m working on a document I’d hate to lose, I just e-mail myself a copy, knowing that I could retrieve it from the e-mail server if something happened to my PC.

Fabrik, which makes both network attached and standalone USB and FireWire drives, lets you back up locally and via the Net. The company has recently introduced an ultra sleek line of SimpleDrive external drives designed by Pininfarina. In addition to providing external storage, customers who buy the drives get 2 gigabytes of online storage at the company’s MyFabrik.com service. Eventually, says Fabrik’s marketing manager Charles Hayes, consumers will be able to “back up everything to your hard drive and at the same time to the cloud so you have a redundant copy.” Several other companies offer online storage, including Xdrive.com, Carbonite and ibackup.com.

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