In the consulting and freelance writing business I work with dozens of companies a year. Most of them embrace and leverage cloud storage solutions for our projects. And rightly so. They love the benefits that cloud-based storage provides.
A recent article by my peer Dr. Avril Salter compared some of the major cloud storage providers. She did a fantastic job of providing the details for general cloud storage use. My intention in this article is to explore the area a bit deeper and target a specific common cloud storage scenario – creating, editing, and managing content.
In this context, content can mean any number of things. I typically create content using the common Microsoft Office applications like documents, spreadsheets, and presentations from Word, Excel, and PowerPoint respectively. I also create or purchase photos, create graphics and charts, and record audio and video content. All of these are content.
The drawbacks of email, FTP, and the rest
How often have you emailed a Word document to a customer or partner and had them return it to you with their changes? If you’re like most of us, it was pretty recent. Not long ago email was the fastest and most reliable way to share content with anyone outside your workgroup. But there are a ton of drawbacks to using email including:
No guaranteed delivery.
Verification usually required a second avenue of contact (e.g. phone call, chat).
No simultaneous editing.
No backup or redundancy while the file is out for review.
Sure, there were (and still are) other solutions like FTP. But FTP is slow and difficult to manage. Most other solutions required a combination of software installation and a steep learning curve, and many require some amount of software engineering. All of them come with their own security concerns on top of that. And while Microsoft SharePoint was designed to solve many of these deficiencies, it is primarily targeted at collaboration within an enterprise.
Cloud benefits for content work
Almost all of the generic cloud computing benefits apply to the content scenario. Rather than restating them here, I’ll focus on the primary benefits that cloud storage provides for content collaboration projects in particular. These include:
File replication. Each person working on the project stores files in a single place, and everyone else collaborating on the project gets a copy. The better cloud solutions offer synchronization applications that copy these files in the background and often make them available before you even need them.
File version management. When Alice changes one of those replicated files, she knows that everyone will get an updated copy of the file. Most of the cloud storage providers manage this seamlessly and can even notify the user when a new version synchronizes.
File version storage and rollback. After Alice changes a file and Bob gets the new version, it would be great to keep both the old and new versions somewhere. Just in case the new version is wrong, the file is corrupt, Alice deleted critical data, or some other unforeseen circumstance. Most cloud providers now store previous versions of all replicated files and enable users to rollback a file to a previous version or to a point in time.
Conflict avoidance and resolution. This one is near and dear to my own heart. If Alice and Bob both edit the same file at the same time, they don’t want to end up with multiple versions of the file or in a “last write wins” scenario. The better cloud storage providers (I’m looking at you, Box) lock in-use files so that they can only be edited by one person at a time. There are also a handful of providers that allow multiple simultaneous edits, but in my experience only Google Docs does this seamlessly and consistently.
Nearly infinite storage capacity. You’ve already read about the resource availability of cloud service providers in several articles. What’s important in this scenario is that this content can grow quickly and in unexpected ways, such as incorporating video or adding reference libraries to a project. Cloud providers deal with all of that on your behalf, dynamically growing and shrinking your storage allocation.
Managed security and access control. Most projects are confidential in one way or another. Even this article is considered confidential until it is submitted, approved, and posted. Only intended collaborators should have access to the content. Cloud solutions handle sign-in and security for you, letting you focus on the project instead of password management, data encryption, and so on.
This list applies to most of the content scenarios I’ve been a part of. But of course every client is different and every project has different requirements.
When I plan out a content project, I have two go-to solutions. They are Box and Microsoft SharePoint. The way I decide between them is primarily based on the company, their work style and preferences, and my access to their network.
When a company is already heavily invested in SharePoint and has a great backup and management strategy in place they probably want to use it. SharePoint meets most of these needs and then some. Its only major drawback in this scenario is how external users (e.g. me) access it.
When all things are equal and the decision is mine, I lean towards Box. I personally like how it synchronizes files to my desktop and devices transparently, how it enables sending a link to any file to a recipient with a single click, and how it retains infinite versions for rollback or comparison. Box does all of this and, like most cloud services, provides these services immediately and for whatever duration I specify.
Those are the reasons I give my clients and they’re correct. The extra reason that I don’t tell them is that Box handles system management and data backups themselves. I don’t have to worry about the client’s IT processes, limitations, etc. Box handles server maintenance and repair, backup, load balancing, and all of the other critical IT chores that clients dislike. Paying Box a few dollars per month is worth knowing those things happen instead of finding out they don’t at the worst possible moment.