Monday, 29 September 2014

Data clouds

'Bowl of clouds' by
Kevin Dooley under
a CC license
I was sorting out my (digital) photos the other day. Browsing, cropping, retouching, titling, tagging, sharing and all those things that normally follow the transfer of photos from the camera to the computer.

[This is certainly a point where I could say that in the (somewhat) old days, the film days, things were much easier. All one had to do was shoot a film (36 shots at most, which would normally need days, weeks or even months to finish), take it to a store to have it developed and then select a few nice prints for the photo album or, even simpler, stack them in a box and put the box aside. Sharing photos would mean having reprints made, which was not the most pleasant processes, which, in turn, is why many people I know of used to order two sets of prints straight away.]

Regardless, I won't be comparing with the old days on that level. Partly because I enjoy taking photos and I don't mind all the post- steps. The only thing I may be missing a bit is the getting together with friends to show the photos but that's another story.

I do like, however, to preserved photos in some way, in an organised fashion, if possible. I think of them as little pieces of (my) history; bits of memory that will - eventually and inevitably - begin to fade from my mind. In the film days preservation was not really an issue. The prints could last for years, maybe decades. The negatives could/can last for more. Today, digital copies, photo files are thought to last forever. Correct? Well, not precisely. They can last for as long the medium that holds them lasts. And here is where problems begin to arise.

The data volumes we are talking about are rapidly increasing. Modern cameras make shooting photos really easy. They won't be making us pros but for sure they give us a very high success rate in terms of "acceptable" photos. Those are the ones that we are likely to want to preserve. With increasing camera sensor sizes and pixel densities photo files have increased in size. A 16 MP camera would give JPGs of 4 or 5Mb, depending on the compression level. The corresponding RAW files would be about 16Mb.

To cut a long story short, it is easy to gather a photo collection 100-200-or more Gb after a few years of using a modern digital camera. In itself, that is no problem. Modern hard drives can hold a few Tb of information and still be reasonably affordable. But are they reliable? Yes, they are. Do they fail? Not too often but occasionally they do. I had a drive failing within its warranty period and another something like a few months after it expired. Regardless of the cost, getting parted with several thousand photos of mine - little pieces of history, as I called them - wouldn't have been pleasant at all. Those two times I was lucky - I had more-or-less decent backups.

So, there you have the challenge: having a backup strategy (and a data restore plan), which will secure both the files themselves and their associated data (e.g., album structures and anything not within the files themselves) and will gather those files from all the different computing platforms in use (PCs, laptops, tablets, smartphones, etc.).

The various cloud services offer a truly tempting backup alternative. Google does it for every photo one takes from an Android device and can do it with PC content as well (I believe - I have never tried the latter). In could storage services Google already has several competitors - Dropbox, OneDrive, Flickr (for photos) and many others.

Having one's data (photos, in this case) in the cloud comes with a great deal of pluses: It is a kind of backup, the backup of that backup is somebody else's problem, it keeps content accessible from anywhere, it makes content sharing simple, it is easy to use, it is affordable or - even - for free. OK, that last bit regarding cost does vary on the data volume needed - 100 Gb won't be available for free.

Is the cloud truly reliable? Hmmm.... Yes it mostly is. Does it every fail? Hmmm.... Yes, it does. Or, at least it may fail providing access to one's data when one needs them. Occasionally cloud services close or change their terms of service, etc. That may or may not be bad thing. It happens, though. Then, there is the question of bandwidth: how much time does one need to recover the data, if needed? Is that any easy process? And finally, there is the question of privacy: what privacy level can one expect with one data if those are stored on the cloud? The answers to these last questions vary depending on the cloud services provider. And on one's confidence on the provider's policy.

Let's face it realistically, however. In a lot of real-life scenarios, cloud storage is highly practical. The cloud offers options and capabilities that local storage can't easily match. At least not within the IT resources range an everyday person can maintain. But this doesn't mean that one shouldn't have a copy of one's dataset in a medium at a hand's reach. After all, when it comes to photos, those are little bits of personal history that we are talking about :)

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