What Is Cloud Storage?

Access your data from anywhere using cloud storage

Businessman cloud computing sending storage boxes on conveyor belt from desktop computer to cloud

 Thomas Kuhlenbeck / Getty Images

Cloud storage is file storage in the cloud (online). Instead of keeping your files on your local hard drive, external hard drive, or flash drive, you can save them online.

There are multiple reasons to use cloud storage services. Maybe your local hard drives are running low on disk space, in which case you can use the cloud as extra storage. If you want to be able to stream your music collection from anywhere, access your work files at home, easily share vacation videos, etc., you can upload your files online to a cloud storage service. Another reason to use cloud storage is if you want to keep important files secure behind a password and encryption.

In short, cloud storage is helpful not only when it comes to backup but also for security and the ability to easily share files with others or access them yourself from anywhere: your phone, tablet, or another computer.

How Cloud Storage Works

When you upload a file to the internet and that file is there for an extended period of time, it's considered cloud storage. The simplest type of cloud storage is uploading something to a server and having the ability to retrieve it again should you want to.

A reputable cloud storage service protects the files behind encryption and requires you to enter a password in order to be able to access the files. Most of the time, the cloud storage account can be protected behind two-factor authentication, too, so that anyone wanting access to your files has to know not only the password but another code sent to your phone upon the login request.

Most cloud storage services let you upload all types of files: videos, pictures, documents, music, or anything else. However, some are limited to accepting only certain kinds of files, such as only images or music. Cloud storage services are usually fairly clear about what's allowed and what isn't.

Different cloud storage services let you upload files to your online account through different methods. Some support in-browser uploads only, meaning that you have to log in to the cloud storage service's website to upload your data, but most have desktop applications that make uploading files easier by a simple drag-and-drop into the service's dedicated folder. Most also support uploading images and videos from your phone.

Less common are torrent cloud storage services that are online torrent clients that not only let you download torrents from your browser but also store your files in your online account to stream or download later.

Once your files are stored online, depending on how the service works, the features you get might include the ability to stream videos and music, access the files from your mobile device, easily share the files with others through a special share link, download the files back to your computer, delete them to free up space in your account, encrypt them so that not even the service can see them, and more.

Cloud Storage vs. Cloud Backup

Cloud storage and cloud backup are easily confused. Both work similarly and have a similar end result: the files are stored online. But there are two completely different reasons to use these services, and knowing how they differ is important so that you know which one to choose for your own situation.

Cloud storage is a selective backup procedure where you choose which files to store online, and then you send them to your online account. When you delete a file on your computer that you backed up online, the file is still in your cloud storage account because it isn't actually tied to your computer anymore; it's just a single file that you uploaded online.

Cloud backup is when you install a program on your computer and tell it to keep specific files backed up online. Going a step further than cloud storage, a backup service will also upload any changes you make to the file so that the current version is always stored online. In other words, if you delete a file from your computer, it might also get deleted from your online backup account, and if you change a file on your computer, the online version changes too.

A backup service is great if you want to always keep a huge number of files backed up online. In the event your computer suddenly stops working, you can restore all of those files on a new computer or a different hard drive, and you'll get the same copies you had the last time the backup program stored those files online.

A cloud storage service is less practical as an always-on backup solution and more helpful as a way to back up specific files that you want to have access to from anywhere or share with others. The file versions in the cloud storage account are the same as the versions you uploaded, regardless if you changed them on your computer. Like online backup, you can still download the files again should you need to, like if your computer crashes.

Examples of Personal Cloud Storage Options

Although there are many cloud storage providers, some of the more familiar ones are listed below.

  • Amazon Drive offers 5 GB of free cloud storage. If you have an Amazon Prime account, the free plan includes unlimited photo storage and 5 GB for other file types. You can pay for more if you need additional space.
  • Google Drive is cloud storage built to work seamlessly with Google products. You get 15 GB of free online storage with Google Drive to keep documents, photos, music, and videos. You can upgrade to Google One for more space, anywhere from 100 GB to 30 TB.
  • Microsoft OneDrive is Microsoft's version of cloud storage. Users get 5 GB of free space for any type of file, and like Google Drive, OneDrive works seamlessly with Microsoft products like Outlook Mail.
  • Apple iCloud is Apple's cloud storage service that's available to any Apple user, whether you have a Mac, iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch. You can get 5 GB for free, but you can buy more. Much like an online backup service, iCloud can be used to automatically back up your phone's images, emails, and more.
  • Dropbox gives its users 2 GB for free and lets you access the files from the web, your desktop, or your mobile device. Dropbox Plus or Professional can be purchased for 1 TB or more of online storage space. There are also Dropbox Business plans.

How to Choose the Right Cloud Storage Provider

Numerous cloud storage providers out there would like your business, so it can be confusing knowing which to choose. Consider several factors before picking any online cloud backup service.

  • Security: Your data must be encrypted to keep it private. If you're concerned about the service itself being able to open your files and see all your backed-up data, go with a service that features "zero-knowledge encryption."
  • Price: The cost is determined by how much space you anticipate needing. Many services offer either a trial period or free storage to let you try out their features.
  • Compatibility: If you want to be able to access your cloud data from your phone, be sure to pick a cloud storage provider that supports it. Similarly, go with a service that can accept the types of files you want to store online, such as a music storage service if you'll be storing your music online.
  • Features: Knowing what features your cloud storage service supports is essential in choosing the right one for you. A comparison of the top free cloud storage services can help you decide between a few of the better ones. Beyond that, do some research on the company's websites to see what they offer, like if they support streaming media files from their website or mobile app if that's something you require.
  • Ease of use: Uploading and accessing your files on the cloud should be clear and easy to understand. If you want to be able to do this from your desktop, make sure it's simple and won't leave you scratching your head each time you just want to throw some files into your cloud storage account. If it isn't easy to use, look elsewhere.
  • Reliability: If a cloud storage service shuts down, you might lose all of your data. Choose a company that you expect would give its users fair warning should they close their doors, or at least offer a way for you to transfer your data elsewhere. Cloud storage services that have been in operation for a long time or that are well known are probably more likely to help out should they decide to shut down the business, but you should read the fine print to see their actual policies.
  • Bandwidth: If you're a heavy user, you should also think about bandwidth limitations. Some cloud storage services put a cap on how much data can flow in and/or out of your account on a daily or monthly basis. If you plan to have customers, employees, or family or friends download large videos or lots of other files throughout the month, make sure the bandwidth cap isn't prohibitive for you.