One of the best and easiest ways to store data is to use cloud storage. Huge corporations like Microsoft, Apple, and even Google—not to mention dozens of smaller providers—let you store files offsite for a monthly fee. But what is cloud storage exactly, and how does it work?

What Is Cloud Storage?

In short, cloud storage is when you store your files and data via the internet rather than on your own computer. Instead of filling up your own hard drive, you sign up to a paid service—Dropbox is probably the best-known example—and put your files on its servers.

This means your files are kept on the internet and accessible from anywhere and from any device: just log into the service with your password, and there they are. Most cloud storage services will let you view your files online, with some, like Google Workspace, even letting you work on documents and spreadsheets.

Cloud Storage Benefits

There are some very good reasons to use cloud storage. You can use it to free up space on your own computer or use it as backup, all while being able to access files from anywhere. Let’s take a look at some of the main advantages.

Saving Space and File Backup

If you offload files to the cloud rather than storing them locally, your hard drive won’t fill up as quickly, which usually translates into better performance, especially for solid-state drives. Even if your hard drive is of the spinning variety, though, it’s always good to be able to clear up some space. For example, if your photo collection is taking up space you’d prefer to use for a new video game.

Alternatively, instead of moving files from your hard drive to the cloud, you can also duplicate them and create a backup. There are dedicated companies that offer this service—IDrive and Backblaze, to name but two—but you can also set it up yourself using no-code automation software like Zapier. Either way, if something happens to your computer, your files will be safe.

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Saving Money

There’s also a financial incentive: the other way to get more storage is to get a new hard drive, either by slotting one into your computer or getting an external one.

Although there are definitely some benefits to using extra hard drives over cloud storage (more on that later), one downside is that they are a large up-front cost. Cloud storage services, on the other hand, are paid either by year or per month, meaning you can spread out what you spend a little better.

On top of that, many cloud storage services have free plans: smart use of free cloud storage offerings might mean you never have to spend a penny on storage at all, especially if your needs are modest.

Access Everywhere

However handy saving space and money are, though, the two main benefits of cloud storage is the fact that you have access everywhere and that files sync continuously. The first of these is the simplest: no matter where you are or what device you have with you, you can access your cloud storage account—provided you have internet access and the password.

If you shoot a cool video on your smartphone, you can edit it on your desktop PC by simply uploading it to the cloud. If you need to quickly edit a work document on your smartphone during your commute, you can do so without opening up your laptop on a crowded train. Having files available to you no matter where you are comes in handy more often than you might think.

In fact, it’s what spurred on the creation of Dropbox, the first widely available cloud storage provider. The story goes that Drew Houston, one of the founders of the company, had a habit of forgetting his USB thumb drives exactly when he needed them. Existing ways of storing and retrieving data from the web at the time were slow and buggy, so he created his own service.

Continuous Sync

Dropbox is also responsible for the last big benefit of cloud storage, continuous sync. As great as it is to have files available everywhere, it can become annoying if changes aren’t reflected across all devices, especially if using a single storage account with multiple people—usually in a work environment.

As such, most services will offer some kind of continuous synchronization—and you may want to avoid ones that don’t. Though it sounds intimidating, continuous sync, or usually just “sync,” just means that files are constantly being updated, no matter if they’re just in the cloud or are also duplicated on a physical hard drive.

The upshot is that, no matter which device you’re accessing a file from, you’re always using the latest version. It’s a great innovation and probably the final piece that makes the cloud storage puzzle complete.

Cloud Storage Drawbacks

You could fill a book on the advantages of cloud storage, but in all fairness, there are some drawbacks, too. The main issue is that as great as all the above sounds, you need to have an internet connection to make use of any of it.

Also, it needs to be a decent connection, too, unless you really like your syncs taking minutes on end. If you are somewhere where the internet connection is spotty, then cloud storage isn’t a great option.

Is Cloud Storage Safe?

The second biggest question is whether cloud storage is safe. The answer here is that it very much depends on the service you’re with. Dropbox, for example, has a history of breaches, some of them quite serious. As a lot of people store a lot of files with cloud storage services, these providers become juicy targets for hackers.

Anything online can be accessed by anybody, so, yes, there’s a chance your files could be accessed by online criminals. As such, you really shouldn’t keep sensitive files stored online—whether it’s nude pictures or company secrets, keep that stuff on your hard drive.

The other reason for that is that not all cloud storage services have iron-clad privacy policies. Many leave room for interpretation, so it could be that employees of the company could, perhaps, have access to the files you store. There’s no evidence this happens, but there’s no evidence it doesn’t, either.

All that said, though, the benefits of cloud storage outweigh the drawbacks, especially if you don’t use it for anything too sensitive. If you’re interested in trying it out for yourself, have a look at our guide to the best free cloud storage services.

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Profile Photo for Fergus O'Sullivan Fergus O'Sullivan
Fergus is a freelance writer for How-To Geek. He has seven years of tech reporting and reviewing under his belt for a number of publications, including GameCrate and Cloudwards. He's written more articles and reviews about cybersecurity and cloud-based software than he can keep track of---and knows his way around Linux and hardware, too.
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