Cloud Storage as Prevention for Virus Infection

For the past number of years, I have used Dropbox as my primary cloud storage for my most important and frequently used files. Even though Dropbox only gives you 2 GB of free space, I was able to earn more free space by referring friends and family. This had brought me to a total of 22 GB of space. This was plenty of space to store documents and other files. I have Dropbox installed on several computers and mobile devices and it’s all kept in sync between them. Recently Dropbox made a change to their free tier allowing only 3 devices to be used. They did say that current users can keep their existing devices but I knew that over time this would eventually become an issue for me. Since I subscribe to Microsoft Office 365, I decided that this was the right time to move all of my Dropbox files to OneDrive.

Microsoft Office 365 is a way to license the full office suite, ie Word, Excel and others. You pay an annual fee to use these services. For our family, the 5 user license makes sense. What really makes this a solid deal is the inclusion of OneDrive accounts for each user, each with 1 TB of storage space. I had been using OneDrive as one of my photo and video backup locations, but now decided to take the leap and move all of my cloud storage there.

Moving My Files

I decided to move files a bit at a time to see that they were properly syncing up in OneDrive. I have only a few folders in the root of my Dropbox account, such as:

  • Archives (genealogy data)
  • Current Files
  • Documents (bills and statements)

I decided to move one and watch what happened. The process worked flawlessly and I quickly saw the files appear in my online OneDrive account. I made sure that all computers I use with Dropbox and OneDrive were powered on so that each would get synced up as I went through the moving process. I also checked my other online backup service to make sure that all of the Dropbox files were backed up in case of any issues.

A Warning from Dropbox

One of the more malicious viruses out there is ransomware. Your files can get infected if you open an attachment that causes all files to be overwritten with garbage data. Some of these give you an option to pay a ridiculous “ransom” to get your files back. One of the warning signs would be that thousands of your files cloud service suddenly get changed or deleted. Well, I discovered that Dropbox checks for this. Shortly after moving the first set of files, I received this email from Dropbox

a helpful warning from Dropbox

In this case, I knew that these files had been deleted from my Dropbox account since I moved them to OneDrive. It is reassuring to know that if this had been a real virus, I could have easily retrieved all of these files. I did some research and determined that OneDrive also has ransomware protection.

Knowing that my files are further protected against a virus by being in OneDrive or Dropbox is additional reassurance that they are kept safe. Like I’ve said before, this type of service, coupled with backups at home and to other online services will help to keep your files safe, even if bad things happen to them.

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We rely on the cloud to get things done

On a cold afternoon in January, my daughter Emma attempted to log into Google Classroom to work on an assignment. Google Classroom is like a document management system. The primary purpose of classroom is to streamline the process of sharing files between teachers and students. The only problem was the system was down and she couldn’t access her files. As we put more of our data into the cloud, we rely more on having access to get our critical work done.

what my daughter saw when attempting to do her homework

How did we get here?

When I first starting using computers in the late 1980’s, everything I worked on was on my computer. There were some online services such as CompuServe but this was mostly for viewing online content like news or discussion forums. As time went on, people started getting onto the Internet in the early 1990s and the first cloud based services that became popular were e-mail, such as Hotmail and Yahoo Mail. This has continually expanded over time and now with our files stored in Dropbox and Google Drive plus school based systems like the previously mentioned Google Classroom, we rely on these services to be up and running.

What do I do when my cloud service is down?

Ironically, one of the benefits of cloud based services is that they are generally more robust and reliable than relying on your computer. The good news generally about these outages is that these systems don’t stay down for long because of the high availability built into them. Unlike your computer that has one hard drive and one power supply, these systems are built so that the failure of one component doesn’t take down the whole system. Still, outages do happen.

One of the ways to deal with outages is a form of prevention. Let’s take Dropbox as an example. You can access Dropbox files through other web based services. One of the key features of Dropbox is that you can install it on your computer so that the files sync there. Even if the online service is down, your files are still there and available to be edited. They changes will be synced when the service comes back online.

In that case of Google Classroom, it’s a bit more complicated. Much of this service has an online-only capability. Still, there are ways to work within this system. If you’re working on a document that is within Google classroom, export a copy to Word and send it to yourself. If this is something of a time sensitive matter, then having another copy means you can work on it and then merge the changes back to the main system before handing it in.

In the case of Emma finding that Google Classroom was down, she was lucky. It came back up later on Sunday and she was able to finish her work. Back when I was younger, a common excuse was “my dog ate my homework” which would now be replaced with “Google was down”. Still, with some advanced preparation, you can be ready for those times when the cloud isn’t up and running.

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Chromebooks to the rescue for the kids

A few years ago we purchased refurbished Dell laptops for the kids to use. There are often great deals on these gently used computers and for teenagers who are using them for homework and some games, they are more than sufficient. But adding a couple of Chromebooks to our family gave them what they were looking for.

Solving a Problem

Many schools today are using Google Classroom as a means of working on and sharing content in class and may be accessed from any internet connected computer. The problem we encountered was that of computer size and battery life. The Dell laptops were not that big but they were somewhat bulky and the battery lasted only a few hours. I looked at buying larger batteries but these just added more bulk to the laptop and wouldn’t make it more likely for the kids to want to take it to school.

Another issue taking the laptops to school is that they have all types of data stored on the computer and even though I am a big proponent of storing data on the cloud and backing up, they’re kids and I can just see something breaking on the laptop and they lose something that is important. If only there was a way to send them to school with a laptop that…

  • didn’t store anything locally
  • was lightweight to carry
  • had all day battery life
  • didn’t cost a fortune to buy

Well, here comes a Chromebook to the rescue!

Black Friday sales to the rescue

I was browsing the Black Friday sales in November 2018 and came across a Chromebook from Staples. Unlike the price shown below, it was $190 plus tax. Even $279.99 for a laptop that meets the above mentioned problems is a good deal. At the sale price, I picked up two.

So, what exactly is a Chromebook?

A Chromebook is a laptop computer that runs Google’s Chrome OS operating system. Important to note is that a Chromebook will not run Windows and MacOS software. Chromebooks are intended to be connected to the internet and store data on cloud based sites such as Google and Dropbox, among many others.

If you’ve used the Chrome web browser then you already know the look and feel of a Chromebook. Even if you have never used Chrome, it’s easy to get accustomed to working with a Chromebook.

But I don’t have kids, should I get a Chromebook?

A Chromebook makes a great companion to your regular laptop or desktop. If you’re just checking email and browsing some websites while travelling or even sitting on your couch, a Chromebook can more than meet your needs. Lots of software runs online now, including Google Docs and Microsoft Office 365. This means that you can still do work in a word processor or a spreadsheet using only a Chromebook. I will say that these online versions are more limited than something like the full version of Microsoft Word or Excel but you may find that the features you need are more than covered by a Chromebook.

Chromebooks come in numerous configurations and sizes so it’s best to search online or go visit your local computer store for more information. They all work the same way, but some have larger screens and even touch screens.

Great, I’m tossing my Windows laptop and buying a Chromebook

Not so fast. If you have software that you use on either Windows or Mac plus lots of files such as pictures and documents, you may still want to hang on to your main Windows or Mac computer. At this time, a Chromebook is a great companion to a primary computer. If you store your files in the cloud, then accessing them from the Chromebook is easy. There are some people who could use a Chromebook as their only computer. If you have your email online and don’t work with any programs loaded on your computer, it’s possible that a Chromebook could be your only computer.

How my kids are using Chromebooks now

It’s been a few months and I would say that the Chromebook purchases are a big success. Both kids bring their Chromebooks to school on a regular basis. They don’t even have to charge them every day which means the battery life is more than adequate. They can access all the Google resources for school and I discovered that they both use Google Docs for a lot of their projects and other work.

We’re getting closer to a time when everything will be easily accessible in the cloud and we just need a device to connect to it. Chromebooks are a solid first step in a cloud based world and I expect we’ll be seeing more of this type of computer.

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Winter away and can access all my files by moving to the cloud

Bonnie spends much of the winter in Florida. For a number of years, she has kept her computer at home powered on and she used remote control software to access her computer remotely. Years ago this was a good solution when there wasn’t an easy way to access your data outside of your computer. A lot has changed since then so I helped her figure out a way to leave her computer off while away yet still have access to all her important data. In order to move to the cloud, there’s some analysis to do.

What data do you need to access

The first question when it comes to moving your data to the cloud is what do you need to access? In Bonnie’s case, it was all her documents, such as Word, Excel, and PDF files plus email. Let’s go through how we made this work.

Files and documents

Bonnie’s computer runs Windows 10. Her files are are stored in “My Documents” which makes it easy to find and eventually relocate them. She has a free account from Microsoft which gives her 5 GB of space in Microsoft OneDrive. This means that all files moved to the OneDrive folder will be automatically synced to her OneDrive account. Then, when OneDrive is installed on her Florida computer, all these files will automatically get download to that computer. Any files changed while in Florida will then get synced up and back to her home computer. We moved all files to OneDrive and they appeared online in just a few minutes. As time goes on, she may need more space and can pay for additional storage on OneDrive when required.

Email

Bonnie uses Microsoft Outlook for mail and all of it gets downloaded to her computer. While this is very convenient for day to day communications, it’s not so good for being able to access her folders remotely. Bonnie has an email address with her local internet provider and did not want to move yet to a new address. She does have a Gmail account so we set it up such that Gmail folders appear in Outlook. We then moved all folders from Outlook into Gmail, using Outlook. It took awhile, but now Bonnie will file all messages in Gmail and can use Outlook to do it. As long as Outlook is set up on both home and Florida computers, she can see the same Gmail folders.

Additional Benefits

With her mail and files moved to the cloud, in this case OneDrive and Gmail, Bonnie no longer has to rely on using one computer and making sure that it’s turned on and available all the time. If she puts the OneDrive app on her phone and connects her phone to Gmail, then she can access her files from any device including mobile ones. The next step would be to identify other files such as photos and get them available online too. A proper backup scheme is still required as just having files on the cloud isn’t enough.

Do you have a reliance on one computer? What files do you need to move to the cloud?Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Google Photos, great in the cloud, not so good from your computer

I recently read an article about Google Photos in the New York Times. There are numerous places online to store your photos and while I had tested out Google Photos a few years ago, I hadn’t continued to use it as an every day photo system. In this article, the author talked about the advancement of artificial intelligence and how accurately it was able to determine pictures of the same person. One of the main problems we face with taking so many digital pictures is that we can’t find them and end up not looking at them. Google has been working to solve this problem and their solution is to have you upload all your pictures and let Google figure out what is related, be it people, places or things.

This got me thinking about how I could use Google Photos along with the method I already use for storing and organizing my photos. I still prefer to have my master copy of photos and videos on my computer, stored by year, month and events. It’s backed up in numerous places, including offsite. What if I could have the best of both my system and Google? It was worth a try.

Syncing up to Google

I already have a Gmail account and I have uploaded numerous photos over the years, but more as standalone albums to share with people online.The first decision to make when putting your photos and videos in Google is cost. You can let Google compress your videos and photos and then there is unlimited storage, but if you keep them at their original size then you’ll have to buy space at whatever the current rates are.

I looked up the compressed rates and they’re pretty reasonable – 16 megapixel for photos and 1080p for videos. If you use this as secondary storage, then it’s not an issue, and for most cases, these are good enough quality unless you are doing professional photo or videos work.

Setting up the sync

First, before doing anything I made sure that my master copy of photos was backed up. I have a regular process where the external hard drive of my photos is backed up to network hard drives in my house. Once this was done, I continued.

I installed Backup and Sync from Google. It walks you through the steps for installation including deciding what you want to sync and what not to sync.

A few items to note in the screenshot above:

  • I clicked on Choose Folder and picked my external drive where I keep photos. That is the box that is checked on the list of folders
  • I chose the High quality, free unlimited storage option
  • I set it to don’t remove items, so that it would upload only and not affect files on my computer

I then started watching as photos and videos started getting uploaded.

Note that you can click on the Google Sync icon in the taskbar, shown above with a red circle.

Something isn’t right

As I watched the screen scroll with photos and videos being uploaded, I occasionally saw the word ‘deleted’ or ‘failed’. After awhile, it stopped and couldn’t sync a whole bunch of files. I knew it couldn’t be close to done as I have over 50,000 photos and videos! I use a program called FreeFileSync to back up my photos and videos to another hard drive so I used it in reverse to show me what files were on the backed up hard drive and not on my primary one. It showed about 60 pictures that somehow got deleted. That concerns me as I specifically chose the option to NOT delete files. I was able to put everything back because of the backup.

I am still experimenting with the software but at this time I cannot recommend Google Backup and Sync for anyone to use with their main copy of photos and videos. If you want to get your photos and videos into Google Photos, I would suggest something along the following lines:

  • Copy all of your photos to a temporary location
  • Install Google Backup and Sync
  • Point Google Backup and Sync to the temporary location
  • In future, install the app for your phone and let it sync from the phone directly

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When the cloud goes down

Last week my mom got a new iPhone so this was a perfect test for her to see how well iCloud backs up all her data and can easily restore it a new phone. When we went to restore her iCloud backup to the new phone, it showed that there wasn’t one. I checked closer and discovered that she had run out of space in her iCloud account, even though she had upgraded it from the free 5 GB to 50 GB of storage space. This ended up as a positive, as I saw that my dad also had upgraded to 50 GB and if they pooled their resources, they could share a 200 GB storage plan for about the same cost. They made the switch and then I kicked off a backup from her old phone.

The first lesson – check your backups

Once you have a backup system in place, make sure to check it regularly to ensure that your precious data is actually getting backed up. There’s no point in paying for something that isn’t working properly.

Waiting for the backup to continue

So before she could use her new phone, the backup had to complete on the old phone. I suspected it would take into the night so I suggested she let it run and then try the restore in the morning. Later in the evening the backup wouldn’t run at all and it showed that she had 0 GB available in her plan. Something had gone very strange in her account. At this point I decided to check my iCloud account and sure enough, it wasn’t working either. It was then that I discovered this very helpful status site that Apple  runs that lets you know about problems within iCloud:

https://www.apple.com/ca/support/systemstatus/

By the morning iCloud was up and running and the backup finished. My mom was able to successfully restore her phone and everything worked as expected.

The second lesson – it may not only be you having a problem

Sites like iCloud provide helpful status information so that you can determine if the problem is on your side or Apple. By knowing there is an issue with Apple, you can stop troubleshooting and wait for the problem to be resolved.

The downside of the cloud

This was a short outage of iCloud so it didn’t really affect my mom’s ability to use her phone. What if she needed some data that was in iCloud for a meeting? Several hours of outage might just be too much. We have to strike a balance when using cloud services. The are very convenient to be able to access from anywhere and are likely more stable than hardware we have in our house. Still, if you need a file and it’s on your computer, it’s likely you’ll be able to access it.

The compromise

Evaluate your files and data to determine how critical each is and what are the implications of losing access temporarily. If you have an important presentation, put that PowerPoint file in the cloud and also on a USB stick. If you can’t access some family pictures for a few hours, that may not have much impact. The cloud has become an invaluable tool for data access everywhere, but some advance planning will ensure that you’re covered when the cloud is taking a break.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Microsoft OneDrive as your cloud based file storage

There are many choices when it comes to choosing a cloud based storage provider. A few of the commonly used ones include Dropbox, Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive. Until recently, I hesitated to recommend OneDrive as a place for storing your important documents and pictures. Some recently announced changes have caused me to re-evaluate my opinion.

Important to note – what I am talking about today is based on the paid version of Microsoft OneDrive. This is included as part of Office 365 so it can be a very good deal if you use all or even some of the included features. Today when I logged into OneDrive, I was given a few screens telling me about the new features. Let’s look at some of these screens to talk about what this really means for users.

Recover files from Malicious attacks

Ransomware is a particularly nasty type of computer virus. You can become infected if you go to an infected website or click on a link in an email that causes infected code to run on your computer. These ransomware viruses seek out your files such as documents, videos and pictures and replace them with encrypted copies. To recover these means paying huge amounts of ‘ransom’ money to the perpetrators. Now, if you store files in OneDrive, if you get infected, OneDrive will detect this massive amount of file change and will allow you to restore your files to the previous known good ones.

As a side benefit, if you make a change to a file and want to reverse it back, you can manually select one or more files and revert them back to a previous version.

Large amount of storage space in OneDrive

When you subscribe to Office 365, OneDrive is also upgraded from 5 GB in the free version to 1 TB (1000 GB). This is a lot of space to store many documents and even lots of media files like videos and pictures.  I keep a backup copy of all digitized photos and family videos in OneDrive.

Password protection

If you wanted to share a file with confidential financial information using OneDrive, it’s easy enough to share a link by email. This feature password protects the file so that even if someone else found out the link, unless they had the password, they could not see the file.

So why should I choose OneDrive over other cloud based storage?

There’s no ‘one size fits’ all when it comes to online storage. I started subscribing to Office 365 a few years ago in order to get Microsoft Office for myself and my family. A subscription for 5 users costs $110 CDN per year ($70 for one user). This gives you the following:

  • Microsoft Office, including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Publisher, Outlook, Access
  • Ad-free Outlook.com email with 50 GB of storage space
  • The above mentioned items for OneDrive

Up until now, I’ve used OneDrive as a secondary storage / backup location for my pictures and videos. I’m now planning to move more of my important documents and other files from a limited sized Dropbox account. The feature that put it in contention is the ransomware recovery. Knowing that I can easily recover from the potentially huge loss of files is major peace of mind. I will add that I still use another online backup service that is strictly for backup of files.

When you consider that 1 TB of storage of leading providers can cost over $100 per year, the package from Microsoft is very compelling. It’s important to evaluate your needs when it comes to online storage so make sure to read the comparison between the products that appear to fit your needs.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail