Archived Data, In the Cloud

Thomas Verschoren has added some thoughts to my argument for iCloud — specifically he doesn’t like how iCloud deals with archived data:

What Dropbox offers, and iCloud doesn’t is an archive. Dropbox is a place to make your content available everywhere, anytime at a moments notice, but only when you need it. iCloud only has storage as an option. Files are in your app, or you delete them, they can’t float just behind the horizon for future use.

Verschoren makes some really smart points. The most damning is the case of photographs. With iCloud you only get the most recent 1,000 shots (via Photo Stream), but with Dropbox you can fill your account to its max with photos.

This is another case where an easy change could be made. I’d love to see Apple implement a data and photo archive similar to the iTunes Match service. I can see all the music I own on my iPhone, but all of that music actually isn’t on my iPhone until I want it to be.

This is the hard part about Dropbox and cloud services: iCloud documents are all in an active and synchronized state. With iTunes Match only what I want is on each device — the rest resides in “the cloud”. With Dropbox, however, everything exists on one master device (your main computer) and mobile devices only store pieces of that data when you explicitly tell them to.

There’s obvious benefits and downsides to each.

iCloud

Positives:

  • Data is there when you open the app, little to no waiting for downloads.
  • Music is basically on-demand with an option for the newest music you buy to automatically be on every device.
  • The newest version of every file and photo is just there, the assumption being that this is the most important data.

Negatives:

  • Impossible to archive old data in a way that removes it from your device while keeping it easily accessible.
  • Syncing isn’t always reliable.
  • Old photos aren’t available forever.
  • Apple, and App Store, only.

Overall iCloud assumes your newest stuff is the most important. The fix is easy: photos and documents work more like iTunes Match.

Dropbox

Positives:

  • Works on every device.
  • You have to choose what data is stored on mobile devices.
  • Tons of space for archiving and no limits on media types (only storage size restrictions based on account level).
  • Syncing is rock solid.

Negatives:

  • Must wait for synced changes to come in.
  • Must store all the data on at least one master device.
  • If you have no internet connection, you’re out of luck on mobile unless you had foresight to pre-load that data.

Overall Dropbox works exceedingly well even though the file management is manual, which is less appealing to novice users and works against the iOS “no file-system” model. The cost is higher than iCloud and it’s less useful when your Internet connectivity is limited.

The fix is to get the data fully in the cloud and not tied to one device, and optionally allow background downloading of new files to mobile devices.

Ideology

In these back and forth arguments about Dropbox and iCloud, one thing keeps ringing true: some people prefer one approach over the other. I don’t think either service takes the best approach to cloud data — both have substantial room for improvement.

Ideally only the files I’m using would actually be on my devices. Everything else would be securely stored elsewhere. I liken this system to iTunes Match, but perhaps a better model is Apple’s own Fusion Drive.

Here’s how the Fusion Drive works, as explained by Lee Hutchinson:

Schiller’s comments indicated that Fusion Drive keeps track of what files and applications are being frequently read, physically moving (or “promoting,” as it’s commonly called in enterprise tiering solutions) those files and applications from the HDD to the faster SSD. At the same time, files and applications on the SSD which haven’t been referenced in a while are moved back down (“demoted”) to the HDD, to make room for more files to be promoted.

How does a great cloud storage system work using the Fusion Drive model? Just swap “SSD” with “your local device” and “HDD” with “cloud”. The OS intelligently decides which files it should keep locally — everything else gets off-loaded to the cloud.

Of course this approach relies on a couple of things:

  • Fast and stable internet access.
  • Transparent file manipulation.

Basically the OS would have to mount the cloud volume and transparently make it part of your normal Mac drive. This makes a ton of sense for mobile devices because cellular connection is ubiquitous and fast in most areas. It’s a harder sell for laptops, which rarely have a cellular connection built-in and are often used in areas with no Internet connection (e.g. a plane).

Essentially we’re talking about a hybrid system that always keeps the most recent files locally stored and up to date on every device. The “archive” files all reside in the cloud, ready to be accessed when required, with no single device needing to be the “master”, from which everything is synced. This would benefit the user by allowing them access to everything they need in a relatively small space: for example, a 64GB SSD.

It’s iTunes Match meets Dropbox meets iCloud.

Originally posted for members on: January 16, 2013
Follow along on RSS, App.net, or Twitter.
~I would appreciate it if you considered becoming a member.~