Cloud Rising

by Adam Crawford

June 01, 2011 — Saving our images is one of the most important administrative practices we do in photography (even in the past with the film negative). Now with digital imaging as the unequivocal standard for professional photographers, safekeeping beyond a memory card has become a game of cat and mouse. In the early stages of digital, many of the practices were the same as they are today. You uploaded photos to your computer, which is sometimes painstakingly slow, and kept them on your hard drive and hoped for the best. But computers crash and discs fail—and sometimes the result is a trove of images lost into the ether.

Of course, as digital photography evolved, we’ve evolved our own best practices for saving photos. Most people rely on three methods of storage such as these options: keeping images on hard drives, optical media discs (DVD and CD), external hard drives, thumb drives, RAIDs, or uploading to Facebook or Flickr accounts. While these are all well and good, the future of image storage has a new destination—the cloud.

You’ve seen the Microsoft commercials with the trademark, “To the Cloud!” You’ve probably even heard a snippet from Steve Jobs, Apple Inc.’s CEO, using it as a word to describe the future of coordinating all your devices and media via the Internet to make data retrieval easily accessible from anywhere.

But there are distinctions when it comes to what the cloud can be used for, from email to social networks, to using a word processor online instead of on your desktop, etc. What we’re focusing on here is cloud storage, which saves image caches. To further explore the cloud we talked to a few CEOs and founders of cloud-based companies eager to clue us in to what cloud storage is, and what its future will be.

What is the Cloud?  
You probably use the cloud every day, maybe even multiple times a day. Think Facebook, Gmail, Flickr, Vimeo, YouTube, etc. These are cloud-based applications that you can access remotely from anywhere with an Internet connection, i.e., they are not local to you, but instead they are stored and backed up on multiple servers all over the world.

Allen Murabayashi, CEO and cofounder of PhotoShelter, a cloud-based storage company and provider of other photographer utilities, says, “The cloud is one of those terms being batted around in the press right now that has a lot of different meanings. To me, it doesn’t mean using Amazon services, it simply means that your information is stored in a managed environment on the Internet. Cloud storage for photographs provides geographical redundancy (in addition to accessibility), which reduces the risk of losing an image. I think it’s just one component of an overall backup strategy for images.”

Erik Zamkoff, CEO of MiMedia, another cloud-based storage company, explains, “What the cloud is, and there are all sorts of different definitions, in general, is a place where you can store or run applications that aren’t local on your desktop. We’re getting to a point where, with the bandwidth that is available downstream and the availability of massive data centers that have really good economics on storage, folks are taking things that run in-house or locally and running them from a central location. And that has a lot of benefits, particularly in our case. Media that used to be accessible in one specific area or place (you had to carry it with you) is now available to you anywhere. In the case of email, you can log in to your Gmail account on any computer in the world. You can now perform various functions that used to run locally or you had to build on your own. There’s a utility component to it as well.”

David Friend, CEO and cofounder of Carbonite, another cloud-based storage company, says, “Cloud storage providers have built data centers that are accessible via the Internet (i.e., the cloud) and, for a monthly or annual subscription fee, allow businesses and consumers to store any type of digital data in these centers. The advantage of doing so is that, first, cloud-storage providers have a vested interest in maintaining the most sophisticated and reliable security technologies for their sites—their uptime generally far exceeds that of individual businesses that store data on their own servers. Second, the password-protected data is available anytime from anywhere in the world. Finally, of course, cloud storage provides secure offsite backup. If a photographer’s hard drive crashes, he can download all his images onto a new computer just by logging online and downloading his files.”

A Microsoft company spokesperson had this to say about the cloud: “The shift to the cloud is a long-term trend. Some applications can migrate to the public cloud today; others will take time and rely on enhancements to the public cloud infrastructure—including security and compliance—that will occur over the coming years. Cloud computing is about delivering new opportunities to help people learn, decide and take action. The cloud can and should take advantage of smarter devices while enhancing social and professional interactions and it should drive advances in server technology that, in turn, spur advances in cloud computing.”

Think of cloud storage as a way of uploading images to a remote server but with multiple geographic locations that are secure like Fort Knox; safeguarded with firewalls, routers and NSA-level encryption. You upload your images to these geo-redundant locations and these servers make multiple copies of your data so that if one fails it is still saved elsewhere. It’s sort of like a RAID system that mirrors your data across various hard drives. With cloud-based storage, it is offsite, and accessible from anywhere—not local to your computer.

Roadblocks
Although Internet bandwidth has increased dramatically since the dial-up days, the sizes of digital images are getting bigger, as are our HD video files. Image caches for most professional photographers can exceed into the terabyte space, and uploading that to a cloud server can take months, making the initial upload to the cloud tedious, to say the least.

Zamkoff of MiMedia says, “I think photographers moving to the cloud is inevitable, but the upload issue is a big hold up for them. Your photo and media collection is actually growing faster than that bottleneck is going away, so I think the issues are going to be there for a while. Obviously networks are going to get faster, but the folks that run the networks are more focused on improving downstream speeds, which can be monetized, rather than upstream speed, which is pure cost.”

Murabayashi of PhotoShelter says this about the future of Internet tech and the cloud: “[We’ll need] faster connections for sure. When we started the business, you were lucky to have an upload speed of 768 kbps. Now I can get over 13 times that speed. I think people are already getting acclimated to uploading images because of services like Facebook. None of the systems are perfect, but they all have great utility to their users.”

MiMedia also has a good way of allowing customers to get these large image caches onto their servers—the Shuttle Drive. This option allows users to dump their images on a company-provided external hard drive that connects to their PC (a Mac version won’t be available until June or July 2011). Once there, the user simply sends the drive back to MiMedia and the company automatically uploads the images to its cloud.

Security
With geo-redundancy across multiple data centers, cloud storage ensures your image data is safe, right? A couple of months ago there was a cloud crash on Amazon Web Services, a behemoth cloud service provider (among many other services) that is host to many different Web sites and applications. Its East Coast data center crashed, taking down many Web sites for a day or more. The good news is, no data was lost. No harm, no foul, right? Not necessarily. The crash begs the question; will our data always be safe in today’s cloud infrastructure?

When asked about the Amazon scenario, Murabayashi explains, “It would be naive for us to say that a problem with our storage system couldn’t happen. However, I think we mitigate risk by not being reliant on a third-party service. We have many redundant systems in place that we fully designed and control, so in that sense, I think we have a smaller risk profile.”

Zamkoff purports that MiMedia has Bank-like security. “We ensure that the data is safe. On the upload you have NSA-level encryptions (256-bit). We have Tier 1 data centers and biometric security to get into the data center. Your stuff is protected by router and firewall. From that perspective I think we’re solid in terms of the security of people’s data.”

David Friend of Carbonite agrees. “We have implemented the most sophisticated security technologies available to online companies—comparable to the standards used by Tier 1 banks and credit card processors. Our built-in redundancy for power supplies, Internet connections, Web servers and data distribution help ensure that customer access to files is preserved, even when local power outages or other disruptions beyond Carbonite’s control occur.”

Beyond Storage

There are other benefits to the cloud that go beyond the safekeeping of photographs. It can be used as a way to download any image from a photographer’s cache, via any Internet connection, anywhere. This means you can use it as a way to deliver images to your clients. The cloud is also available to back up your sensitive customer data. And the list goes on.

The bottom line is, in the next five years you will see a proliferation of cloud-based applications and storage. Many companies, in fact, already use the cloud as a cheaper way to control their IT overhead, as it is less expensive than a local server system. You may even see yourself moving to the cloud with your own business to control costs. If that’s the case there are a bevy of companies out there that allow you to store your data in their cloud systems. They vary from the amount of storage space they offer, to the prices they charge.

If you’re not yet convinced of the growing necessity of the cloud, Zamkoff stresses, “Your average network-attached hard drive has a 5 percent failure rate in year one, and a three-year average life. So when it comes to storing valuable data, like a pro photographer storing their photos on a hard drive next to their computer, it’s the same thing as you and I storing our money under a mattress. You’re just asking for trouble. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have the local storage component. But storing your stuff on geo-redundant, RAID-squared architected enterprise class servers in Tier 1 data centers is a lot better bet in terms of peace of mind, security and reliability than that external hard drive. [If you don’t use the cloud] you’re playing roulette with your precious stuff.”

Why leave your images up to chance? Now is the time to add another ingredient into your back up system. The future of digital imaging is the cloud.


Adam Crawford is the Associate Editor of Rangefinder magazine.

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