“The Cloud”. We hear the term used in Microsoft commercials, we read opinions about it on web bulletin boards, and the phrase has even crept into casual conversation. But what exactly is “The Cloud” and what does it mean for our digital pictures?
The Cloud is a term used to describe content, data and applications that exist on the internet*. More precisely the data is kept on servers that are connected to the internet. As such it is available from any computer connected to the web by using a browser or other interface (privacy settings and security permitting).
Cloud computing isn’t a terribly new idea, anyone who uses a web based email account like Hotmail, Gmail or Yahoo has been using cloud computing. With these email services the email software and the data are both on a remote web server and accessed by the user through a web browser.
By this same definition Facebook, Twitter, Flick’r, YouTube and almost every other social or sharing site on the web are additional examples of cloud computing. We post messages, pictures, video or links and all of it is managed by the site’s software and the data is stored on their servers.
“The Cloud” is a recent marketing catchphrase, however it is an attempt to describe and label something most of us have been doing for a while. Digital photographers in particular have been big fans of this kind of data storage and sharing for years.
Storing images online has been an option since the first digital cameras. With many millions of image files uploaded to the web every hour there is a lot of competition between the storage sites as the try to get our business.**
Many image storage sites vie for our attention by offering free memberships. It is only required that the user setup an account before they begin uploading their picture files. What can be done with the image files once uploaded varies by site, some sites act only as a cyber-hard drive to be used for bulk storage while others offer sharing or even photo editing tools.
Most free storage sites will support themselves by selling ad space or by sharing revenue with a dedicated photo printing company. Some may generate revenue by offering a fee-based, ad free membership option.
For example Flickr and Photobucket both offer a free account and a fee-based Pro account. Like most other free offers there are heavy restrictions, the biggest of which is that once an image is uploaded to the free account you cannot download a full-sized image file back to your computer (which makes this kind of storage useless as a file back-up). Plus the free account user interface is ringed with ads However if the user opts for the paid Pro account many of the restrictions are lifted and the ads go away.
Other sites take aim squarely at the enthusiast or professional photographer. These sites may have a component designed as a free trial but their key service is a fee-based model. Rates vary from as low as $5.00 per month to hundreds of dollars per month. Again, prices reflect the sophistication of the site’s software interface and the amount of storage offered.
Image file storage and sharing sites are examples of cloud computing. From basic to pro-level sites, photographers have a lot of options when they want to use the internet for sharing and storage. However there are concerns regarding internet storage that photographers must be aware of and work around:
#1 Free Isn’t Forever – Websites come and go and if the internet storage site you have chosen goes belly up what happens to your image files? It has happened in the past and it will happen again. It’s not just the little guys who get toe-tagged either; Yahoo! Photos is an example of a big fish that closed up. Yahoo eventually offered to cross-load the user’s files to a Flick’r account but they didn’t offer a means to download the images back to the user’s computer. This is not an exclusive club; other notable members of the Here Today, Gone Tomorrow Club include HP, Canon, and Microsoft.
#2 No Guarantees – Most web storage sites make no guarantee about storage safety. They may have amazingly strong back-up and security measures but there is seldom a written guarantee of safety from disaster or hackers.
#3 The Cost of Downloads – Not all sites will permit you to download your images back to your computer. The few free storage sites that do allow download will only download a web-sized image and not the full-sized file.
Some fee-based storage sites will allow the user to download full-sized image files, but the user could pay an additional hidden cost for the privilege. That hidden cost is measured in time – the storage site may only provide the means to download one image at a time. Right click, Save-As, wait for download, repeat for each image.
#4 Right Click Theft – The user is responsible to turn on or off protection against right-click copying of an image, if the site even provides such a feature. Search for an image on Google sometime and you’ll get an idea of how important this feature is. Millions of right-clickable photos ripe for the picking can be found with a simple search.
#5 Multiple Storage Sites (Clouds) Don’t Equal Good Back-Up – Seriously, I’ve seen the ‘My Pictures’ folder on a lot of computers. What a mess. What are the odds that you will follow through and keep multiple storage site accounts in sync? If they aren’t kept in sync they aren’t a back-up. Internet storage backs-up local storage (removable storage media and even better, 4X6 prints too), it doesn’t comfortably replace it. Why? For one good reason see number six below…
#6 You're Dead – Or at least your internet storage account is. Maybe you really did shuffle off this mortal coil and go to that big studio in the sky. But in their grief and ignorance your family and friends didn’t know to keep up the internet storage membership. OK, that’s kind of dramatic, but let's assume for whatever reason that you stopped paying your account fees. Your image files will be in limbo for a while and possibly could be retrieved, but that won’t last forever.
Even if you do leave behind explicit instructions on how to maintain the account who would want to keep paying year after year? It was your passion, not theirs. They just want to look at the pictures.
A Bonus Heads-Up – Don’t confuse a print ordering site with a photo storage site. A print ordering site may allow its customers to create free albums to store and share images but it is for the purpose of making prints or photo gift products. Many print ordering sites will delete accounts that haven't had any order activity within a certain time frame. Read the fine print and search the FAQ page of a site before selecting it as your online storage presence.
Summary:The Cloud is a recently coined marketing phrase for internet based computing and data storage. Internet storage offers a photographer some truly wonderful options and features. Continuous upgrades to existing sites, plus a bumper crop of new sites, means new applications and performance enhancements by the day.
For the most part internet storage is an easy and a reliable way to archive and share images. Using “The Cloud” as a back-up to local storage makes a lot of sense (think fire, flood, or computer crash). And for the digital shooting pro, a good image hosting site is almost a requirement in the current market.
For all of the positives there can be negative consequences if the technology isn’t understood and used properly. As outlined in the Six Concerns above there are a number of key questions to consider before entrusting your image files to any internet storage site. Ask the right questions and make an informed decision. And please remember that a back-up storage location implies that there is also a primary storage location. Every photographer needs both.
* How did the word “Cloud” become associated with this type of internet usage? According to Wikipedia, when designers of software or computer networks draw up charts to help describe a process, anything physical like a computer or a server is drawn as a box or an oval, lines are used to show the connections between these devices. However anytime the process chart connects to the internet, the internet is drawn as the outline of a cloud.
**How big is the photo storage and sharing market? Flick’r has about 3 million images uploaded to it every day. Photobucket reaches almost 4 million daily. Facebook is the reigning champ with an estimated 2.5 billion photos uploaded every month. If that Facebook figure is accurate (found on Answer.com) we’re talking 83 million image uploads to Facebook daily! That’s a lot of terabytes of online storage and a whole lot of potential ad views for advertisers.