Research Tools: Storage, Physical Media Be Gone

Cloud Storage
Cloud Storage

For graduate students, especially those in the sciences who collect a large quantity of data, having a reliable backup source is very important. Furthermore, having access to the data from multiple places makes it easier to complete some tasks. As we conduct our research, apply our hypothesis, and run simulations, we tend to collect this data and may want to keep it for analysis later.

We have gone through multiple types of storage media (Floppy Disks, CDs/DVDs, USB Drives) in the last 2 decades. With each and every one of them there have been advantages and disadvantages. We also had to carry around the storage media and there was always a possibility of the data being corrupted and in some cases unrecoverable. In this post I want to go through 2 cloud storage options a graduate student could encounter and my thoughts on their use. I have found that some students don’t know how cloud storage can benefit them and once they start using it they find it an essential part of their workflow.

Standalone: Dropbox (2 GB free; 500MB per student referral; max 16 GB; paid options)

Dropbox has been a personal favorite of mine for the last 3 or so years. Dropbox is an easy to use cloud storage solution. You setup an account on their website, install their application on whichever platform you use and then you can drop files in the Dropbox Folder and it will sync. Syncing here means that all the places you have installed Dropbox will update their files as you save changes to them. So if you have Dropbox installed on 2 computers, your lab computer and your laptop, and you make and save a change on a file on your laptop, in a few seconds the change will be reflected on your lab computer.

You can also share your dropbox with your lab-mates, advisor, friends and family. This is great when collaborating on a project. Warning: collaborating on a single file together on Dropbox without managing who has access to it and when, can turn tragic: For example, if two people make changes on the the same old version of the same file, save it on Dropbox a few seconds apart, without the second person first opening the version person one has saved then all of person one’s work may be overridden.  Dropbox does have basic version control but one should always be careful with working on a single file with multiple people [link]. Dropbox has been expanding its offering with integration with services from other companies, for example, with Dropbox you can host a simple website with site44 [link]

Integrated Suites: Given the major challenge I pointed out with Dropbox, lets look at some integrated solutions. Integrated in the sense that they provide not just cloud storage but built in tools for editing and collaboration.The big one is Google Docs

Google Docs/Drive (5 GB Free, number of paid options)

Google Docs started as a document creation tool that is completely online. Through time it has evolved into an online storage, creation and collaboration tool. With Google Docs you can create documents, share them with others as well as collaborate on document creation itself too. You can create documents, spreadsheets, presentations, forms etc. You can also import documents you have created elsewhere into the Google format as well as download the documents in a format that you can open in applications on your computer. In April Google relaunched Docs as Google Drive. It now has the same capability as Dropbox, in that you can now sync local documents across computers and share them. Collaboration is the major differentiating feature. Personal tips about the services: When evaluating if the application will be something I use regularly I check if the application has multiple access options. For me having access to my files on a phone, tablet or web is great as I can then open important documents wherever I am. I also store notes that I sometimes create while in transit.

Other Products.  There are numerous other options for cloud storage and/or collaboration. A quick list (not exhaustive):