Category Archives: cloud

cloudHQ – fantastic cloud syncing tool

I’ve just found a tool that is making some of my biggest Google woes go away!

It’s called cloudHQ, and it’s really cool. You give it access to your cloud storage accounts – such as Google Drive, Dropbox, Box, Evernote and so on; and it enables you to transfer files between them – whether on a one-off basis or as a continuous synchronisation.

You can also add details of more than one account for the same service, which is dead handy.

There is a free trial, and if all you are doing are one-off transfers you might get away with just using that. I’ve signed up for a Pro account which gives me unlimited data transfers, so I can leave it whirring away in the background.

Here is what I am using it for at the moment:

  1. Transferring all the files in my old Google Drive account into my new one (this was one of my biggest headaches!)
  2. Copying all the photos I have in Dropbox into Google Drive (which I can then make accessible in Google+ and on the photo gallery app on my phone)
  3. Copying all the notes I have in Evernote into a folder on Google Drive as a backup

Here’s a video explaining it better than I can.

Hurrah for cloudHQ!

Amazon WorkSpaces

As well as being the world’s biggest online retailer, Amazon is also one of the main providers of cloud based computing services. They offer a dizzying array of different services and platforms, enabling anyone with a credit card to get access to serious computing power.

One of their newer offerings is WorkSpaces. These provide access to a desktop computing experience via the cloud. What this means in practice is that you can use one device – whether a laptop, desktop, tablet or smartphone – to access another computer which is hosted on Amazon’s cloud, including an operating system, applications and storage.

Here’s a video that probably explains it a lot better than I can.

How I’m using WorkSpaces

I’m a Mac user, and sometimes, annoyingly, other people assume you are using a Windows PC. Recently as part of one of my volunteering roles, I was asked to complete some e-learning. Only, on visiting the required web page, I was informed that the e-learning would only work with Internet Explorer, which isn’t available for the Mac.

To get round  this, I just needed to load up my Amazon WorkSpace client, and log in to my WorkSpace running Windows 7, which of course has Internet Explorer available. Job done.

Another area I am thinking of using WorkSpace is to keep some of my bits of work separate. I’ve more email accounts with different organisations I work with than I can count, with associated document stores and so on. One way around this might be to use my laptop just for my own personal stuff, and then have WorkSpaces for my other identities, meaning I don’t get things jumbled up but can always access what I need.

The downsides

The obvious downside is that you can only access your workspaces when you have a decent internet connection. The other is that at the moment the only choice of operating system is Windows 7. It would be nice to have a Linux option, for instance.

How in-the-browser software should work

I wrote recently about my growing unease with the addiction we have with ever greater convenience with our computing over the necessity of control. A lot of this is driven by cloud, and software-as-a-service (SaaS).

The convenience of SaaS is difficult to argue with. No installing software. No upgrades. Files accessible wherever you want them. The ability to share documents and collaborate on them with others in real time.

The downsides are all to do with control of your data. If it’s a paid service, and you stop paying, can you still access and open your files? Or if the company behind the system goes belly up? Is all your data locked up inside a system, or in a format you can’t reuse?

It is possible for those behind cloud based software to get it right though. Take a look at Dave Winer‘s new tool, Fargo. It’s an outliner (and outliners are cool, remember) and based in the browser. However, it also:

  • uses Dropbox for storage, so you have access to your files via Dropbox’s website, or downloaded locally to your computer, whenever you want. It’s not locked into Fargo’s own filesystem
  • uses the open standard OPML for the file format, so if you stop using Fargo for whatever reason, you can still load your files into any outliner that uses the OPML standard (which they all do, if they’re worth their salt)

This is how in-the-browser software ought to work. All the advantages of cloud based applications without giving up the control over our data that traditional desktop apps give.

Far from the maddening cloud

Reading some of the coverage of Instagram’s change in their terms of service, you’d have thought a murder had been committed. Or maybe that the world was about to end.

A few years down what might once have been called the Web 2.0 road, well funded companies are finding that they have built their networks, grown their user bases, and now shareholders are looking for some return on their investment. We should not, therefore, be surprised that the rules are changing, that the digital ground we’ve been standing on is shifting beneath our feet.

Nothing at the end of the day is free. Somewhere down the line, somebody is paying – whether it is you with a subscription, a VC’s investment money or an advertiser taking advantage of your online data.

The cloud brings with it incredible advantages – access to your digital assets wherever you are, no matter what device you are using. The ability to share with others, to collaborate with them, to enable people to remix your work and share it on.

Thanks to the cloud – and whatever it was called before it was the cloud – we are all writers, photographers  film makers, publishers, producers, networkers, community organisers. It gives us access to unimaginably large groups of people who will have an interest in what we are doing, and the tools to spark a conversation with all those people.

It also has its downsides though. As ever, there’s a tradeoff. Sometimes that tradeoff will be worthwhile. Lots of Instagram users obviously thought that it wasn’t – and that’s fine. Services and products will live and die as a result of how they manage their service, and balance the needs of the users and the needs of their balance sheet.

What’s important I think, to consider, is that part of the shift towards cloud, with all the advantages mentioned above, also is putting control over our cultural assets into the hands of corporations whose only mission is to generate a profit. Amazon is not your local library. Apple isn’t the British Museum.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this – I’m not making a political or economic point here. But if all your books aren’t in fact your own, and in fact are merely rented from Amazon on your Kindle; or those music tracks you thought were yours can be taken away from you without you being in control – then that’s a worrying thing and everyone need to approach this carefully.

Likewise with your social media content. If you don’t want your photos popping up in adverts for pile cream, then don’t put them on Instagram (or indeed probably anywhere on the internet).

So what to do? I think just be aware. When people say to you, “use this site, it’s free!”, remember that it isn’t. If you store content you created yourself online, make sure you have a copy of your own. If any of your content matters so much to you that you don’t want anyone re-using it in ways you can’t control, don’t put it on the internet.

In effect, don’t trust anyone, particularly tech startup companies, or indeed giant corporations. They won’t be around forever and they won’t always keep their word. Most of the time that’s fine, and the trade-off between control and convenience works out for everyone.

But we all have content, assets, that matter to us – and don’t entrust those to anyone you don’t know, no matter how slick their user interface.

Living on a cloud

While despatched on a mission of digital mercy a few weeks ago Mr Briggs (of this parish) and I fell to comparing our computers. Or rather he fell to ridiculing my rather ancient Samsung laptop (seven years old I think, it doesn’t like to process video, original power supply fell apart and it now boasts a rather lovely Maplin back up device). Apple fans do tend to look upon me with fear tinged with pity when I unpack the machine.

I explained to Dave that all I really need is an OS to show me a browser because I live in the cloud. He’s become slightly cloud obsessed lately with visions of Chromebooks floating before his eyes. When he challenged me to write a blog post about my online working I realised that that I’m still not quite there.

The Basics

I do rely heavily on those lovely people at Google. They handle my mail for a start. A huge variety of email addresses are sent into my email account (or collected by GMail from mailboxes) and the system handles them smoothly. I virtually never see any spam and it is rare (though not unheard of) for real mail to get caught in the spam filter. I have a couple of Android devices that sync happily with the big G’s servers and lo: mail wherever I need it.

And I make a lot of use of Google Docs. Or Google Drive as we must now call it (what are they going to call the self-directed cars then?). The word processor meets my day to day needs.

Google Spreadsheets meet my fairly simple requirements perfectly well. There was a time when I demanded much of my spreadsheets but those days are mostly behind me. And for the days when they aren’t I have Google Fusion Tables.

Paying for stuff

Mountain View doesn’t seem to be able to deliver a decent task manager. For this I must turn to the excellent Remember The Milk. It’s idiosyncratic but it is fast, in the cloud and it has a cow logo which is nice.

For presentations I am inexorably drawn to SlideRocket. This is NOT cheap but it does make slideshows look good and its library system is easy to understand and flexible. If, like me, you create a lot of slideshows and then embed them all over the place it is probably worth the money. I guess it must be worth the money or I wouldn’t pay. I wish it cost less money though.

I use Hootsuite to help me manage my extensive social media real estate. I even pay them a little.

Other toys

I do use Dropbox but I haven’t fallen in love with it.

I’m more enthusiastic about Evernote. Especially since its Android app has got so good.

Google Reader is quite annoying but I haven’t found anything better for subscribing to blogs and other sites via their RSS feeds. And it handles my podcasts quite well.

What I still don’t do in the cloud.

Serious document prep. When I have a big report to prepare I will do the grunt work in Google Drive but I’ll apply the final formatting offline in Libre Office because it packs a lot more formatting oomph. And Scribus and InkScape are still my go-to guys for what we used to call DTP.

Stills and video editing. Actually simple edits are now pretty easy to do on things like Picnik (now integrated into Google+ of course). For stills there’s the GIMP for video there’s Kdenlive and for sound Audacity, natch.

When the rain comes

There are two big risks with leaving your stuff lying on random servers scattered around the world:

  • other people might see the data without my permission
  • the data might vanish or be locked away from me

So I fret a quite a bit about security. Google has good tools and I try to keep an eye on account activity, change passwords and use 2-factor authentication and so on. As to people being allowed in without my knowledge. I try not to think about that. This does make moving between machines less than frictionless but it seems to be sensible.

And I regularly take copies of my data and documents out of the internet and hide them in a lovely little Buffalo Terastation where they nestle quietly on a RAID. Google’s Data Liberation Front is a bit marvellous in this regard.

Luckily no-one asks me to do any heavy coding, design or other things that require a sooper-dooper machine. I suppose I could do that on a virtual box but that’s hardly the same.

But the crucial question is, when the old laptop finally gives up the ghost should I buy a shiny Chromebook or just shove Linux on a passing laptop?

Houses and clouds

The Government Digital Service blog is essential reading. Two recent posts well worth a look:

What is that beautiful house?

The phrase “not a CMS” has become a bit of a joke around the GovUK office (to the point where more than a few people were humming Once In A Lifetime), but it’s a key part of our approach. The Single Domain will include several components that enable publishing on the web but they’re part of a much broader ecosystem of tools wired together using APIs and designed to be constantly iterated to focus on user need. As we began to unpack what that means it became clear that we were going to need custom software.

Dr. Werner Vogels, CTO of Amazon, attends seminar at No. 10 Downing Street

Dr. Vogels defined cloud computing as “a style of computing where massively scalable IT-related capabilities are provided ‘as a service’ across the Internet to multiple external customers”. Calling on his experience from across the globe he outlined how the flexibility and resilience offered by clouds has helped to transform some government instances via the idea of software as a service and the advent of reactive charging models. He gave the example of Recovery.gov in the US as just one of over 100 Government sites using cloud hosting.

Clouds v cartels

Interesting article by the erstwhile US government CIO Vivek Kundra, in the New York Times:

AS the global economy struggles through a slow and painful recovery, governments around the world are wasting billions of dollars on unnecessary information technology. This problem has worsened in recent years because of what I call the “I.T. cartel.” This powerful group of private contractors encourages reliance on inefficient software and hardware that is expensive to acquire and to maintain.

Kundra posits that an increased use of cloud computing as being the answer to this problem. As Andrea DiMaio points out though, that might not quite be the solution, after all…

Let’s take the cloud. Vivek and others have done a lot to move the federal government in that direction. On the other hand, if any significant economies of scale must be achieved, there will be only a handful of suppliers that can provide what is needed. When migrations will accelerate and thousands of workloads, application and data will be in some form of cloud – be it private, government or public – why should cloud suppliers not establish a cartel? What evidence do we have that they really want to pursue interoperability and portability – so that their clients really have choice about where to source their IT services – as opposed to sharing the market as usual?

When clouds don’t taste so delicious

There appears to be a considerable amount of uncertainty about the future of Delicious, the web’s preeminent social bookmarking service.

Not sure what social bookmarking is? Here’s a video:

It seems a shame that Yahoo! have been unable to find a way to make a service with plenty of active and dedicated users pay for itself. I know I would pay a few quid a month to keep it going.

Either way, the service will be sold on or shut down in the nearish future. Users are looking for alternatives, with the likelihood being that if everyone leaves, who cares what happens? It’s easy enough to export your data from Delicious, and I would recommend you do it right away.

The two options at the moment seem to be Diigo or Pinboard. The former is much more polished than the latter, so it’s a case of choosing what matters to you. There are other options discussed in this post on SearchEngineLand.

Personally, I use Delicious mainly as a publishing tool – to get the links posts published every so often here on DavePress. Most things that I save to read later go into Evernote.

Flickr?

The potentially more worrying issue here is that Yahoo! also own Flickr, the photo sharing site. Bookmarks and links are one thing, but photos entirely another. I’d always advise users of cloud services to back up your stuff locally just in case something goes wrong – it’s good practice anyway.

That’s fine for those of us who have PCs or laptops at home where you can store media locally. But what of the future of low-cost computing – like the ChromeOS netbooks I wrote about the other day, where the machines themselves have virtually no storage and everything is held on the servers of companies like Google, Microsoft, Amazon and, er, Yahoo!.

This is one of the implications of cloud culture, where increasingly our cultural artefacts – books, music, films, photos, art – are being stored and curated by tech companies rather than traditional publishers, museums, libraries etc. The medium is also changing of course, from physical objects to digital ones.

The book won’t disappear anytime soon, of course, nor will painting on canvas. But the everyday access and storage of this stuff will be moving online, and we all need to have a proper think about how we deal with that.