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UPDATE: Wuala has changed their program and no longer offers the ability to trade local storage for extra storage. This totally changes the equation, and essentially makes the service useless to me. Just thought I’d mention that. -Oct 12, 2011.

Synchronized online storage is one of those things that sounds way geekier than it really is.  As a result, it’s one of those things that less people use than should – a lot of people could get a lot of benefit from “Cloud Storage” – if only they really know what it is and what it does.

Think of it this way.  Imagine you have a file folder on your computer with a limited amount of storage space. It acts just like any other file folder.  You can drag and drop files into it.  If you’re a bit savvier, you can even set backups to update to it automatically.  Now imagine you can access that exact same folder, with all it’s files, from any computer you wish – so long as you have the password for it.

And that’s pretty much all cloud storage is, when properly done.  It’s a folder you can sync up with as many different computers on as you like, regardless of their physical location.  The only caveat is that each of these computers has to have a net connection for the folder to update.  And if you don’t want to specifically install the folder on a machine, but you want to access the files in that folder, (say you’re at your Aunt Edna’s and you want to show her your latest pics from nightclubbing), you can log into a web interface and bring up specific files.

While sharing/accessing files online has been around for a long time, the services have generally been single purpose – a service for storing/sharing photos, a service for storing/sharing videos, etc.  And the emphasis has generally been on sharing.

With cloud storage, the emphasis is about making certain key files available from every computer you generally access.  And maybe acting as a backup of certain key files to a location off-site.  It’s not about sharing stuff with others.  It’s about keeping a small subset of your files shared and synchronized for yourself, wherever you are.

For me, I use it for some work spreadsheets I might need to access, work on from home or when I’m out and about.  And also for storing/backing up family photos.

Dropbox is the thousand pound gorilla in this market, for some very good reasons.  Specifically, it has a catchy, easy to remember name, a really strong marketing department, and a dead simple, easy to use interface.  And it’s free (for the basic version) – and by free I mean FREE.  No ads, no crapware installed on your computer.  Free.  The business model is based on the concept that you’ll like it so much, you’ll pay a nominal fee to get a larger storage allotment.  And so far, it’s working out pretty good for them, in business terms.

The basic free version comes with a a 2Gb storage limit, which might seem kind of small until you think about it a bit.  If you’re just using it to keep some key files that you’ll need to access anywhere (the aforementioned spreadsheets, maybe some scripts I’m tinkering with that I want to edit whenever inspiration strikes, the working .doc files from that “Great American Novel” you’re working on), 2Gb is actually quite a lot.  It’s potentially hundreds of documents.  In my case, it’s an actuality of just over a thousand small documents (no, really, I just checked), and that takes up less than 1/2 of the free minimum.

Ok, I’ve been using it for a year and a half now, and I could probably wipe out 90% of those files, but why bother?  They’re actually quite well organized, easy to find, and they’re not actually bothering anything there.  (How you organize your file system is your problem).  My point here is that it’s useful storage for those little documents you might want to get at from anywhere (my work computer at the office, my home computer, my laptop, my smartphone and my tablet).  Yes, they even have special clients for iPhone, Android, and Windows Mobile.

Which is really handy because I tend to keep a selection of my favourite pics of my 2&1/2 year old daughter, so I can quickly bring them up to annoy whoever happens to be around.

Using it involves installing an app on your computer or portable device, but it’s dead easy to do, is platform agnostic (fancy geek speak for “it will work on your Windows, Mac, or Linux machine).  You also have to sign up for an account, which pretty straightforward and easy to do (the only real information you have to give them is a valid email address), so that you can access the web interface, or tie in the installation to other computers.

If you need more space, you can earn extra space through referrals, linking it to your Facebook account, following them on Twitter, or you can pay $9.99/month for a 50Gb box, or $19.99/month for a 100Gb box.

If any of the stuff I’ve mentioned before sounds interesting, then why not head over and take a tour of the features.  Like I said, they have a great marketing department, and they explain a lot of this much better than I could.

One of the key problems with Dropbox is that the security is all on the far side of the pipe – your files are all encrypted (good) – bu they’re only encrypted on the Dropbox servers.  They’re fairly open on your own machine, and while they’re being transferred (mostly a problem if you have a system already compromised by viruses, or if you’re one of those people who likes to use open-air WiFi hotspots a lot).  But it also presents a problem in that if the service itself is hacked, or they screw up an update and leave the entire service wide open for four hours.  It also means that they can open up your files and turn them over to anyone with a warrant.  That’s a bigger concern for some than others.

Wuala is a relative newcomer to the field.  It’s a somewhat geekier product, with more fine grained controls, and a strange, hard to remember name.  On the surface, it does pretty much the same stuff as Drobox, only with half as much storage to start with- 1Gb – and a cludgier, harder to figure out interface.  Doesn’t sound like promising competition off the bat, now does it?

But looks can be deceiving.

First off, the product is still in “Beta” phase, so they openly admit they have work to do.  I suspect this work has mostly to do with the interface (it needs it), and on some performance issues (more on this in a bit).  It’s stable and usable, and while you might never have heard of LaCie, the company behind the service, they are, in fact, a fairly large and well known company that builds consumer and corporate storage devices – flash drives, portable hard drives, etc.  Which is to say it isn’t some fly by night startup that’s likely to disappear without warning.

Second, they’ve gone to pains to address some of the concerns that privacy and security types have about DropboxWuala works on an entirely different storage principle, that negates a lot of these security concerns.  All the files are encrypted on your own computer before they’re uploaded, and can only be decrypted if you have the password.   This is a big step forward, in terms of both security and privacy.  The people at Wuala can’t open your files, even if you want them to, without your password.  (Note:  Don’t forget your password).

Also, Wuala works on a decentralized storage model.  Dropbox has central servers where all your info is stored.  If something happens to that central storage system, you’re potentially in deep trouble.  But while Wuala does have a central storage system, they maintain this primarily to ensure a high level of speed and reliability.  The real magic is that they’ve set the service up as a giant RAID array, where every computer that is a part of the service, acts as a part of the array.

Ok, I probably just lost half my audience there, but for those of you brave enough to stay, let me explain that a bit.  Essentially, only a part of your files are actually stored on your computer.  The rest of the files are broken up into tiny bits and scattered across a wide range of computers – including the Wuala servers, and everyone who is a member of the service.  In fact, those bits are stored many multiples of times across all those computers, so that if anything goes down, or becomes unavailable, it doesn’t matter.  You can get the same bits from somewhere else.

Neat, huh?

Now, you might be concerned that bits and pieces of your files will end up on “some random guy’s” computer, but you needn’t be.  Remember that bit about encryption I mentioned above?  Two things are happening here to protect your files.

  1. Only tiny fragments of any given file will be on any one other machine.
  2. Those fragments are encrypted, and essentially unreadable by that other machine.

Also, you might be worried about “some random guy’s” files being on your computer, but again, the two points above work in your favour.  Even if someone were to intentionally put something bad in their folder (say, a virus, or maybe a Milli Vanilli tune), you would only get a tiny fragment of that file, and it would be safely encrypted – garbled and unreadable by your machine.  So you’d be safe from both viruses, and having to accidentally listen to “Girl You Know it’s True.”

Conceptually, it might be harder to wrap your head around.  In practice, it’s several orders of magnitude more secure and reliable.

And that tiny 1Gb storage allotment to start with?  Don’t be fooled.  It’s actually far easier to earn large amounts of free storage with Wuala, which creates something with far more potential.  Sure, you can buy more storage – and if you look at the pricing, on an annual basis 50 or 100Gb is actually cheaper than with Dropbox, and by a not small margin.

But you can also trade for more storage.  This is especially useful if you’re someone like me, who has several “always on computers” with very large amounts of storage (11 Terrabytes, and counting).  In fact, most people nowadays could easily spare 20 or 40 Gigabytes of storage on their home computers, given the rapid drop in cost of very large hard drives. (2TB drives can be had for less than $100, if you keep your eyes open).

And once you get into the 20+ Gb range, the possibilities for what you can do with it become all that much greater.  We have over 5,000 family photos, that only take up around 9Gb on disk.  I have all of this set to sync up nightly with my Wuala folder.  All those cherished memories, safely stored online, encrypted, where I can recover them should the unthinkable happen – say we get burglarized, or if the house burns down.  That’s a lot of peace of mind for something with so much personal value.

I’ve traded for 40Gb of extra space, a small fraction of what I have available.  And it’s enough space to backup all my email, key documents, and family photos.  The family videos would take up more space, but I’m thinking of trading up enough for even this to become feasible.

The truth is, that while I use well over 60% of the storage I have at home, most of it is things that I’m not concerned if I lose – it’s replaceable.  It just happens to be convenient for me to burn all my DVDs to my hard drives, so I can access them/watch them from any screen in my house.  The actual irreplaceable data is a small fraction of the overall storage picture for me.

The big downside to Wuala is the interface.  It’s needlessly obtuse.  It’s not obtuse to the point where an “average user” couldn’t figure it out, it will just take a bit longer than needed.

And the performance.  File transfer speeds are a bit on the sluggish side.  Much more so than with Dropbox.

But most of it is files that I’m backing up – I’m not accessing them directly from the Wuala drive, so the speed isn’t that huge an issue.  And the kludgy interface?  That’s all in the setup.  Once you have it set up, you can access it just like any other folder.

And as for trading – again, the grief is on setting it up.  And on waiting for it to grow to the point where it’s useful.  You only get a small percentage of what you trade at first – it bases what you get back as a percentage of your total online time, modified by your connection speed.  I have good broadband connection, and my computers are always on, so over time it works out to a 1 to 1 ratio.  But even there, it takes weeks for that to turn into a reality.  I think they need to be a bit more generous here to entice people to share. (They also have weird conditions on how much you can trade based on how much you’re already using).

And the Winner Is….

Well, it somewhat depends on what you plan on using it for, how you use your computer, and how much effort your willing to put in.  If you just want something quick and simple, even if limited, then Dropbox is probably a safe bet.  Sure, they’ve had a few security blips, but I think these have been somewhat over-rated.  From what I can tell, they are genuinely concerned about security issues, and are actively working to improve it.

But if you want something bigger, with more flexibility, and a gnerally superior security model is important to you, then Wuala is the winner hands down.  Client side encryption (for those of you who know what that means), is definitely the way to go for security.  And while you might have to work at it a bit to “earn” the extra free storage, it isn’t too onerous, and it’s within the reach of most people.

And what do I use?  Both.  I just use them differently.  Because of the speed performance, I use Dropbox for those quick little files I need to access all the time.  But because I was able to work up an extra 40Gb of storage with Wuala with relative ease, I use it for mass backups of key personal data (Wedding, Family, and Baby pics of my beautiful little daughter).  Over time, I can see myself relying more heavily on Wuala.  But there will always be a place for Dropbox as well.

And why not?  They’re both free, and like so much to do with computer software nowadays, you just have to think about how your going to use it, and they both can serve a purpose.

5 Responses to “DropBox vs. Wuala – Consumer Cloud Storage Smackdown.”

    I have to admit that I didn’t understand alot if it, but I read it all. I am trying hard to learn more about my computer.

    Good review – there are a few recent changes though:

    You get 2GB of space with the FREE version, but now there is no restriction to the number of computers you can sync/backup (from 2).
    It gives you the ability to upload and sync any folder on your computer.
    It is the only service that offers such a broad device and OS support with apps for iPhone/iPad, Android, Blackberry, Symbian and WinMo.
    On the Free version the upload/download is faster than when reviewed 🙂

    Also if you use the below referral code you get 500MB extra on top of the Free 2GB or 16GB extra on any of the paid-for services!

    Hope it helps someone.

    Thanks for the extra info, although you forgot to mention you were talking about DropBox. Yes, both services have made some changes since I posted the original review. The consumer cloud storage space is heating up, so I would expect to see a lot of improvements and tweaks with the different services over the next year.

    The hard thing about writing anything about these kinds of services is that the information in the review becomes stale very quickly.

    Thanks again for the comment, the feedback is appreciated.

    There’s a bit more to the story than you have identified, iOS and Android coupled with security.

    It’s no secret the world has gone/is going portable. For security on an iOS device, Wuala decrypts on the device. Given the basically useless Apple passcode, Wuala gives you real security on a device that is far more susceptible to loss than a desktop or laptop. Anyone using DropBox for secure files on an iOS/Android device is exposed at both the DropBox level and the device level.

    On a laptop it’s still an issue at the DropBox level. However, on a mobile device, the files systems and the available apps (not to mention the mess of WebDav) demand an end to end solution for secure files.

    DropBox downloads pics to iOS devices so compressed they are useless for viewing. You might be proud of the images but they are a mess once downloaded to the device. This has been a constant complaint but DropBox has done nothing about the issue for years.

    I would suggest checking you Internet connection. Wuala can easily outrun DropBox on both the up and down side. Like by a factor of 8 times on my setup (6.5 or 10 mb lines). This is a well known fact and your slowness is likely at your end.

    I am hardly a paranoid person but when I travel I tend to bring images of my credit cards, passports, bank transfer information, passwords, etc with me. For this, DropBox is useless. For business, DropBox is less than useless as I’m in the financial world.


    Thanks for the thoughtful reply.

    Yes, Wuala is orders of magnitude more secure, I did brush on that in the original piece, although you do cover some of the details quite well.

    Privacy and security are key issues – my personal stance on it is, if you want it secure keep it out of the cloud. If you must keep it in the cloud, then Wuala is by far the better choice.

    Personally, I use an encrypted PenDrive Linux – the entire OS on an encrypted USB stick. My Laptop will carry junk/misleading data. All the important stuff is on a nondescript USB stick, that should I lose it or it be stolen, the encryption levels mean that it would take significant effort for even a government agency to pull usefull data off it.

Something to say?

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