Software, Technology

Review: Dropbox Cloud Storage


Dropbox LogoThe Cloud back-up and storage market is getting crowded with new players offering ever more ludicrous amounts of free space, but we couldn’t run this series without looking at one of the established ‘brand names’; Dropbox is one of the most popular Cloud storage and file sharing programs and has built up quite a following in the last couple of years.

View from the Top
Dropbox is a reliable on-line data backup service that lets you access and share files from almost any computer or mobile device, using native clients or its’ web interface. It is one of the few truly platform-agnostic services, with client software for Windows, Mac and Linux; you’ll find a .deb package for the Dropbox client in the 11.10 Ubuntu Software Center for a painless, one-click install of a client we can happily report ‘just works.’ Add to that mobile clients for iPad, iPhone, Android and Blackberry and you can see the Dropbox bid for ubiquity across devices that gives it an appeal beyond its’ competitors. I’d have to say some of those mobile apps do look a little thin on functions, but that’s not unique to Dropbox.

From our corner, the current Linux client is a mature development over previous, ahem, ‘idiosyncratic’ versions, so now the free package of 2GB online storage with a high reliability desktop client, collaboration features and continuous development, is quite sufficient for home users starting out in the Cloud. By way of an incentive, Dropbox has an attractive referrals programme for increasing your initial free allocation from 2GB of free space up to a usable 8GB by referring friends.

Feel the Width
Dropbox Web applicationsThe paid plans above that go up to 50Gb (Pro 50 at $9.99 a month) and 100Gb (Pro 100 at $19.99 a month). Beyond that, Dropbox will do you a deal on the Teams plan for storage space in the Terrabytes. The paid service at times looks a bit pricier than competing on-line data backup services, depending on the current offers in the market, whilst the help and support options are a little limited. You can only contact Dropbox support by email at present. I’m guessing the margins are too thin to afford technical and customer support by chat or telephone as well. The Help Center on-line is fairly rich, organized by topic and operating system. Dropbox also hosts a product tour, a forum and a wiki. That said, turnaround on simple queries seems to occur within a couple of hours.

Features
Dropbox was one of the early services to enable ‘blind’ public links for sharing files over the web, which is one of the things I do most. You can share individual files, whole folders or image galleries that are viewable by anyone, either by creating a public link or by sharing them with a controlled group. Create the folder that contains the items you want to share and then enter the email addresses to which you want to send the sharing invitation. Two more of the Dropbox features worth outlining are Versioning and Sync.

  • Anything stored on the Dropbox servers has one month history – that is, any files deleted can be recovered with next thirty days; it’s a simple feature for home user’s convenience rather than any kind of version-control for writers, programmers or designers. There is unlimited ‘versioning,’ called Pack-Rat, or Dropbox Rewind for businesses, which is a paid add-on.
  • The Sync feature will help a lot when you spread your work across multiple devices. Installing Dropbox on each device registered with your account will enable the automatic synchronize funtion whenever you change, add or delete a file. It’s quite flexible in the choices available:
    • what to sync – select the folders you want to sync
    • with whom to sync – you select the people (using email invitation) with whom you want to sync a particular folder.

Anything you do on individual machines can also be managed from the web interface, so you don’t have to have a Dropbox client installed on shared machines in order to have access to your data wherever you go.

The only negative point I really have against Dropbox is conflict management; I don’t mean it’s a like a war zone, but sometimes you have issues if different people access a file at the same time and modify it. It’s a tricky technical issue in networking and databases at the best of times, so this is not a surprise ‘feature’ of a Cloud storage service, particularly when Dropbox is pushing the collaborative and sharing side of operations.

One thing that isn’t supported is sycning files outside of the centralised Dropbox folder. You can work around this by linking, but when other operating systems have implemented virtual folders (‘libraries’) we could do with a sync service that’s able to do the same.

Security
This is always the potential pitfall of the Cloud. Dropbox uses the SSL Secure Socket Layer protocol for transfers and encrypts all files using AES-256 before storing them on its servers; anything shared is then made visible by exception. Public folders are viewable by anyone who can find them. Photo gallery links give access to anyone with whom you share the link to the gallery, but they cannot access other areas of your account.

The mechanism of sharing by email invitation I think needs some work. The next feature release needs to link Dropbox users by account, thereby securing sharing within the bounds of Dropbox security. I believe this is how the Teams product works, so this needs to filter down to the consumer level.

One thing I found a little unsettling was the April 2011 change to the Dropbox privacy policy. “We may disclose to parties outside Dropbox files stored in your Dropbox and information about you that we collect when we have a good faith believe that disclose is reasonably necessary.” In other words, the encryption keys are known to Dropbox staff. This, too, is not unique to Dropbox, but it should serve as a reminder that the convenience of the Cloud may be offset by the loss of control over your personal data.

Conclusion
I haven’t had to worry too much, this last year. Dropbox sits quietly in my notification area, reliably getting on with the job; background syncing is no trouble, it doesn’t hog my bandwidth when on-line and the availability across platforms makes for a break-out experience, whether at home or at work. AJS

About Allan J. Smithie

Allan J. Smithie is a journalist and commentator based in Dubai.

Discussion

2 thoughts on “Review: Dropbox Cloud Storage

  1. Reblogged this on txwikinger's blog.

    Posted by txwikinger | March 3, 2012, 1:04 am
  2. Hey AJS, an impressive post and I am happy to read it as a Dropbox user. As you mentioned, there are a lot of other players in the market but Dropbox sits unique because of its simplicity and features. I use Dropbox everyday for all my personal use. You must also consider looking at Syncblaze (syncblaze.vembu.com) which is a similar solution but available only through channels. I use syncblaze back at my work and it really is very helpful to collaborate among my colleagues. do take a look at it and find out whether it will do any needful, I am sure it will. Eunice Nisbett

    Posted by Eunice Nisbett | March 3, 2012, 10:13 am

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