Cloud computing: Choosing a personal cloud service

Personal cloud services provide users with a clear path to data, and even some apps, regardless of platform. CodeLathe's Tonido and CloudEngines' PogoPlug reviewed.

When discussing cloud computing on any level it's important to understand just what kind of cloud you're talking about. Essentially, for single users, cloud use comes in two categories: online storage and online applications.

Whenever you work in the cloud, there can be drawbacks. The typical cloud storage model, for instance, operates something like this: you upload the files you want to share to a remote server, which will then be available for you to access later via a browser interface. Handy, but uploading the files to the remote server can be a slow process, you may have concerns about the privacy of your files, and there's the very real chance you could upload the wrong files, leaving you high and dry when you're coming into the cloud remotely.

[ Related link: Storage in the Cloud: You can find safe, reliable storage in the cloud for all your personal needs if you look carefully]

What if you could flip the notion of the cloud around and get it to be a more personal service? Instead of interacting with a remote server somewhere out there in the tubes that comprise the Internet, you could access your files directly on your computer from wherever in the world you happen to be?

That's the idea behind the concept of personal cloud services, which provide users with a clear path to their data, and even some apps, regardless of platform.

This is a burgeoning sector of cloud space, with new services coming out all of the time. Two of the most promising offerings are Tonido from CodeLathe, and PogoPlug from CloudEngines, which have a strong overlap in features, but approach the customer in different ways.

Tonido Shines Sunlight on Your Desktop

CodeLathe's Tonido is a client-based cloud service that can be installed directly on a user's computer on a multitude of platforms: Windows, OS X, and Linux.

Once installed, users can then register for a new Tonido account, which immediately creates a straightforward URL that will redirect to the client machine from any web browser. The local app not only allows remote access to the machine, but also installs a small portfolio of apps that can be accessed by the client either locally or remotely.

Installation of the client, tested on Windows 7 and openSUSE Linux 11.2, is very simple. The Windows install, like most things Windows, just revs up and installs without any intermediate configuration. With Linux, your do need to initially start the Tonido service, though there are crystal clear instructions for a pleasant variety of distributions on how to do this and how to have the service auto-start whenever you boot.

All of a system's files can be accessed with any browser, and there's even a mobile/iPhone link on the account home page that smartphone browsers can use to get a slicked-down version of the file Explorer.

One very nice feature included in Tonido that's a brilliant addition for beginner users is the addition of a Remote Relay service that negates the need to open ports on your network firewall. The Relay Service shunts all of the traffic in and out of your network without port forwarding. It should be noted that CodeLathe is indicating that this is a free, beta service, which sets off the "this service may cost money later" alarms. Fortunately, there are clear instructions on port forwarding for routers, which power users can implement right away.

Whether using the relay network or direct port access, there was barely a difference in transfer speeds.

Tonido provides several free apps for users, some of which are useful, and others perhaps not so much.

Certainly the file Explorer and Backup tools are helpful. Once Tonido is running on the host computer, then users can log in through other machines to the same account and access all of the files on the host machine, including removable drives. Backups can be done remotely, too, and across multiple Tonido clients, through the use of Backup groups. None of these backups are hosted out on the cloud--you have to specify a local drive to save the backups.

The Jukebox app was useful, as well, though very rudimentary. After you point it at a music folder, the simple player did a fair job of letting me organize my music that was located on a machine across town.

Other applications include desktop Search; Thots, a simple blogging/memo client, and Workspace, a decent personal information manager. There is also a Photo sharing app, a web-based Torrent manager, and a personal Money management app.

None of this latter batch of applications is going to ever replace their native equivalents, mind you, but they are pretty good ways of getting data from wherever you are to and from wherever your primary work machine is. I did get the sense, though, that the Money app seemed a bit like a jump-the-shark product. With really robust and online tools like Mint.com and Quicken, I really don't see the point in a finance tool that has less features.

Another drawback of the Tonido system is the fact that you will need to have the host machine up and running whenever you want to access it remotely. This is not a huge barrier, but something to consider.

Of course, you can work around this and other security concerns you might have by buying a TonidoPlug, a plug-in embedded device (sometimes called a wall wart) that runs a complete instance of Tonido out of the box. Just plug it in, connect the Cat5 cable, and off you go. USB ports allow you to plug in as much removeable storage as you need, just as if you were using a PC or Mac.

The US version of the device runs for US$99, with a little extra for the UK and EU models. You can also buy a full LAMP instance to install on TonidoPlug, so you can run a web site right from the device.

PogoPlug Bounces into the Cloud

While Tonido has emphasized the cloud-from-client model, PogoPlug comes from the other direction, primarily offering a wall wart device first, with access to "traditional" machines offered as almost an afterthought.

This shift in emphasis is a distinct difference from Tonido, and at first it seems a big disadvantage, particularly when you factor in PogoPlug's bigger US$129 price tag. A little exploring reveals that this may not be as big of a setback as you'd think.

Like the TonidoPlug, the PogoPlug gets plugged into the wall, into the network, and into an external drive, and off you go. Even better, there's four USB ports on this one, which makes up for the hot pink color scheme. Once the hardware is configured, you surf to the PogoPlug registration site and enter the unique registration code for the device and your account is set. Since storage is handled with external devices, you can scale up to your heart's content. File sharing is available to other users, and the PogoPlug file browser interface is richer than the Tonido Explorer.

Here's where the savings come in, especially for those concerned with security. PogoPlug uses SSL encryption out of the box, something TonidoPlug doesn't do. In fact, to get the added encryption, you must pay an extra $19.95/year to Tonido. So, in two years, the cost of a secured Tonido device exceeds the PogoPlug.

Even though emphasis is placed on the wall wart device, you can download clients for the desktop trinity (Windows/OS X/Linux) that will enable you to access files on those devices. There are also clients for iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, and Palm.

Here's what you don't get -- yet: apps. Though clearly plans are in the works for adding applications, right now PogoPlug is a personal storage devices and that's all.

Fear not, though, because the PogoPlug's strict utilitarian function is making it an attractive component for other vendors. Last year, for example, SeaGate used the PogoPlug as the main component in its first commercial network access storage device, the FreeAgent DockStar.

Moving Forward

Which service is best for users depends on how they want to use it. Those without a lot of existing removeable hard drive space should opt for the Tonido service, since it nicely taps into existing PC/Mac hard drives without needing to buy hardware.

Beginning users might also be attracted to Tonido for some of the applications. These aren't the most robust apps in the world, mind you, and they should not be the deciding factor. Not, at least, until they are more mature.

If storage is what you need and that's all, you should give the PogoPlug a go. It's fast, it's easy to configure, and does its one thing very well. True, so does the TonidoPlug, but the PogoPlug is secured right from the get-go, which is an immediate, critical plus and an economic advantage over time.

Whatever option you pick, personal cloud computing affords a simple way to gain privacy and flexibility for your data.

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