The key underpinnings of the Internet are data storage and transfer. Relatively recently, the term "cloud computing" has come into vogue. The idea began gaining popularity around five years ago, but interest in it has exploded suddenly with Apple’s announcement of their forthcoming iCloud service, available this fall. This announcement likely caused many photographers to renew their thoughts about whether they can leverage cloud storage for their own photographic images.
The ability to store files online is not new, of course. But as broadband connections to the Internet have become more widely available, an increasing number of companies have started offering cloud storage services. For many photographers, these services can provide tremendous benefits.
One of the biggest reasons to consider the use of cloud storage is as an online backup. If you’ve ever lost any photos due to a failed hard drive, you certainly can appreciate the importance of a reliable backup system. There are many options available for backing up your photos, but an online backup provides an extra benefit by virtue of the backup automatically being stored in a different physical location from the original data.
By storing your backup in a different location, you’re helping to minimize the risks of data loss. In theory, you could simply store a backup drive somewhere other than your primary location. The problem with this approach is that you need to have your backup drive on location part of the time, at least for purposes of updating the backup, and there’s also a risk that you’ll neglect to move the backup drive to another location despite your best intentions.
Another benefit of cloud storage is the ability to access your images from anywhere on the planet provided you have a connection to the Internet. At a very basic level, this ability makes it easy to share a portfolio of images with others as you travel around the world. But perhaps more significantly, you actually can get real work done if you have access to your images from virtually anywhere.
Imagine, for example, finding yourself halfway across the world from your studio when you receive a request for images intended for the cover of a well-respected magazine. By having your images stored in the cloud, you can potentially gain access to your full image library, making it possible to select and send high-resolution files for publication.
Online storage also has become highly reliable, with most service providers offering automatic redundant storage and extremely high reliability and accessibility levels. That means you can feel reasonably confident that the files you store online will be stored safely, and also that you’ll be able to access them at virtually anytime.
Naturally, cloud storage isn’t without some potential disadvantages. These mostly relate to limitations you’ll want to keep in mind as you consider cloud storage as part of your overall workflow.
The most important thing to remember is that cloud storage shouldn’t be used as your sole storage solution. Generally, the services provided for cloud storage are very reliable, but any responsible digital photography workflow requires redundant storage. Just as you should never depend upon a single copy of your digital photos on your local computer, cloud storage shouldn’t be seen as a replacement for local storage.
As dependable as cloud storage solutions have proven to be, they aren’t infallible. There’s a risk, though small, that files will be lost, or that files safely stored won’t be accessible from time to time. As such, cloud storage should be treated as a storage option that’s reliable, but for which there’s the potential for problems.
There are a variety of options available for cloud storage, with varying costs and benefits. At a basic level, you’ll find options for simple online backup. In most cases, this approach involves an automatic backup of photos, documents and other files stored on a particular hard drive.
There’s also some reason to be concerned about the safety of your images, both in terms of dependable storage and resistance to unauthorized access. The chances of there being a problem are quite low, but the risk does exist. It’s important to take these risks into account as you evaluate whether cloud storage is a good fit for you, and as you make a decision about which service provider you’ll utilize for cloud storage. One of the biggest limitations of online storage of large amounts of data is the huge amount of time it can take to upload your photos to the server. Let’s assume an upload speed of around 2 Mb/s (this is probably a bit optimistic in terms of average upload speeds for extensive transfers). That means you’ll be transferring images at a rate of about four seconds per megabyte of data transferred. For 1 terabyte of data (over one million megabytes), you’d be looking at more than a month required to transfer your data. Fortunately, some of the cloud storage services enable you to ship them a hard drive containing your photos so they can be transferred directly to the servers and then made available online.
The cost of cloud storage can actually be a significant disadvantage for photographers, considering the large amount of data the typical photographer has accumulated. For many services, the volume of data a photographer will want to store will cost hundreds of dollars per month. That’s quite pricey considering how inexpensively you can purchase an external hard drive or other media device for a local backup.
There are a variety of options available for cloud storage, with varying costs and benefits. At a basic level, you’ll find options for simple online backup. In most cases, this approach involves an automatic backup of photos, documents and other files stored on a particular hard drive. One of the more well known of these services is Carbonite (www.carbonite.com), which offers what they term an unlimited backup option for one computer at $59 per year.
The storage space you can consume with Carbonite is unlimited, but after 200 GB of storage is consumed—a limit most photographers have far exceeded by now—the backup transfer speed slows significantly. As a result, it can be very time-consuming to achieve a full backup of all your photos. Considering this limitation, if you use this type of online backup service, you may want to reserve it for only your most important
images, providing an additional layer of protection for those images, with the rest of your library backed up locally.
For truly unlimited online storage without restrictions, you’ll have to pay a bit more—sometimes much more. For example, another popular provider of online backup services is Mozy (www.mozy.com). To back up the volume of data typical for photographers, you’ll need the MozyPro service. This costs $3.95 per month per computer, plus $0.50 per gigabyte of storage per month. For 1 terabyte of storage, that translates into a cost of over $500 per month, which is obviously a relatively high price to pay for an online backup.
One of the more innovative solutions for cloud storage aimed directly at photographers is Mosaic (www.mosaicarchive.com). To begin, the pricing structure separates the data-transfer cost from the data-storage cost, which can greatly help reduce the overall cost for photographers. You’ll pay $0.40 per gigabyte for transfer, but only $0.025 per gigabyte per month for storage of from 1 to 4 terabytes (the price per gigabyte goes down for larger storage capacities). For 1 terabyte of photos, that means a one-time fee of $400 to transfer your photos and then just $25 per month to store those photos. While you could theoretically upload your photos online via Mosaic, they also offer a hard-drive transfer service. They’ll ship an external hard drive to you so you can copy your photos to that drive and then ship the drive back for it to be transferred to Mosaic’s servers.
Perhaps more interesting, Mosaic also offers a plug-in for Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, which allows you to manage your Mosaic storage directly through Lightroom. Conceptually, you can take your images offline once they’re stored safely on the Mosaic servers, enabling you to free up storage space on your local computer. The images can still be managed through Lightroom and retrieved from the Mosaic servers if the original is needed at a later time. Of course, this approach assumes you’re comfortable using Mosaic as your complete storage solution, which probably isn’t realistic for most photographers. Still, this plug-in provides considerable value for photographers who make use of Mosaic services, since it provides an easy method for adding new images to your online storage and keeping track of which images have been archived and which haven’t.
There are obviously some significant limitations for photographers when it comes to cloud storage of their full library of images. Apple’s upcoming iCloud service will simplify (and virtually automate) the process of synchronizing photos across multiple devices. But this approach is obviously not viable for the huge volume of data most photographers would be interested in storing in the cloud.
In the short term, cloud storage is an excellent solution for making a relatively small number of images available as a portfolio presentation using a variety of Internet-connected devices. For storing a complete catalog of photographs, the costs, transfer times and other considerations present some obstacles. However, cloud storage offerings are likely to improve significantly as competition increases, thanks to the sudden rise in interest for cloud storage solutions. Especially when supplemented with the option to deliver files to the server via an external hard drive shipped to the service provider, cloud storage offers advantages at which many photographers will want to take a serious look.
Tim Grey is a photographer and author who has created a wide range of video training titles for photographers. You can learn more at www.timgreystore.com.