I got a seemingly-simple yet reasonable question from a friend this week. What’s the difference between cloud storage and online backup? As someone who embraces technology and spends time trying to keep up with the latest and greatest…it hadn’t occurred to me how potentially confusing these topics could be. So here is a hopefully-clear summary of both tools.
What is Online Backup?
"Backing up your computer" typically refers to backing up your entire hard drive so you can easily restore your files. When you do this with an online tool, you're sending small chunks of all that data at a time to a server that's located somewhere else. That means in the event of theft or catastrophic damage (think fire, flooding, earthquake that crushes your computer), you can restore all of your files to a new machine without hassle.
What is Cloud Storage?
You've probably heard the term "the cloud" bandied about a lot. The "cloud" is where you can store selected files on the Internet so you can share them and access them whenever you want.
So now that you know the basic differences between online backup and cloud storage, let's get into the nitty-gritty:
What does Online Backup do that Cloud Storage Doesn't?
Online Backup to a service like Backblaze backs up an entire computer hard drive (or a single user account on that hard drive) so that the user can easily restore the files. This makes a "clone" of the computer, complete with the file structure. That means your documents stay exactly where they are, as do your photos and other important files. You don't have to go digging around looking for weirdly-named folders.
When you want to find particular files from the online backup, you search for them the same way you would if they were on your computer. For example, if you know you're searching for a Microsoft Word document, you would search for a "doc" file or a "docx."
This process works best when it happens automatically and you don't have to think about it.
Some services that offer automatic online backup include:
What does Cloud Storage do that Online Backup Doesn't?
Cloud storage makes a subset of your files available for syncing and sharing with other devices or people. Cloud storage involves the user making their own folder structure, which they then drag and drop files into. Think of it like a "hard drive in the sky," where you're starting from scratch, putting just what you want, where you want.
Cloud storage tools can be used to reduce clutter. If you can access your data from any device, multiple copies of files aren't needed.
If you're going to use multiple platforms for cloud storage, then create criteria for what will go where. Will you store photos on Dropbox, and work documents on Google Drive?
Some companies that offer cloud storage services include:
Here are a couple of very important things to keep in mind, though:
Dropbox is NOT a Backup Service!
That's why it's listed under "cloud services" above; the only things it "saves" to the cloud are the things in your Dropbox folder-- nothing else. If your computer completely crashes, is lost, stolen, or catastrophically damaged, you can't count on getting back everything you need from Dropbox. It won't have your various settings, images or documents saved in places other than your Dropbox folder, your programs or applications, music, movies, and so forth.
It also makes copies of files on every device you have connected to Dropbox by default, which means if you have a tablet, smartphone, or laptop with a minimal amount of storage and a large Dropbox, it can take up a lot of space! You can use Dropbox's Selective Sync feature so that you can minimize the amount that is dumped onto each device-- the best way is to set up which folders you want to sync (or not) when you first add Dropbox to that device.
Not all Cloud Storage Options Are Equal! You can check out online reviews from places like Top 10 Reviews or Consumer Reports with breakdowns of what each service offers in terms of storage space, download speed, ease of use, and device syncing capabilities. Other comparisons include Top 10 Best Online Backup, PC Magazine (which also touches on file syncing, which is similar, but not exactly the same), and CNET's comparison of OneDrive, Dropbox, Google Drive, and Box. The point is: read different reviews, not just one site. Pay attention to the dates those reviews were published too, since new features can be added, bugs removed, and tweaks made at almost any time.
While many review websites will mention several "big name" cloud storage options, there are a few relative unknowns in the field that have competitive or unique offerings. Check out these options Brandon Butler of Network World found. Keep in mind: whatever you intend to put on cloud storage, carefully review the terms of service and privacy agreements, especially if you go with a cheaper or ad-supported service. Don't ever go with a cloud storage service based off just one site's recommendation.