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Tech Untangled: Personal cloud storage device provides subscription alternative

July 29, 2015

technology-bourRetaining your important data exclusively on the hard drive of your computer is a recipe for disaster. To assist you, there are myriad subscription data backup services available today, such as Carbonite and iDrive. One thing they all have in common is cloud storage. Your data is sent off to some unknown location in “the cloud,” and it can be retrieved any time you need it ... that is until something goes wrong. Internet service can be interrupted and servers can be maliciously hacked. Stories appear in the news regularly about data breeches and security failures. While these risks arguably may be outweighed by the benefits, there is still something that leaves me uneasy about trusting my sensitive and important files to a cloud service.

Today, we will look at a cloud alternative that allows you to keep your precious data under your personal, physical control. Better yet, there is no yearly service fee required. The product is the Western Digital WD My Cloud personal cloud storage device. Essentially, the My Cloud is simply an external hard drive. However, its functionality goes well beyond the typical USB drive.

As an extra safety net, I have regularly used USB hard drives to retain copies of essential files and folders from each of my computers. The discipline comes in remembering to plug in the drives and freshen up those files on a regular basis. While that process may be inefficient and less than ideal, I do appreciate knowing my backup data is physically right at hand. The My Cloud addresses some of these shortcomings by providing one central location and the process to back up every computer in a small network. This can be useful as a solution for backing up all the computers in a home or small office, especially for the laptops that come and go.

Out of the box, the device looks like any other full-size external USB hard drive, but in addition it has built-in hardware that makes it work as a centralized network backup/storage device. To begin, you simply plug in the power and attach the LAN cable to your network router. After a few minutes, the device is recognized and accessible from any computer on your network.

The full utility of the device becomes apparent after you download and install the WD My Cloud software and the companion SmartWare backup software. At this point, I wish I could say that setup of that software was simple and without incident, but it struck me as non-intuitive and not as user-friendly as it should have been. It took a few tries and a few phone calls to get all the computers properly set up to access and share the drive. Configuring the SmartWare backup protocols took some effort, too. The backup process itself was a bit glitchy at first, but it did eventually smooth out.

Using the default backup settings, each connected computer will automatically back up Documents, Mail, Movies, Music and Pictures. In this mode, it seems that this device is perhaps primarily intended as a backup drive for the home. For business, I chose a manual backup configuration with folders for just my important work files. The initial backup process is slow. I think the unit tries to perform the backup in the background so as not to bog down your entire network during the process. After that initial backup, only new and changed files are written to the drive and that is much faster, although it is still not instantaneous.

Due to the length of the process, I was planning to complete my initial laptop backup from home via the Internet after I left the office. This, unfortunately, was not possible and was my biggest disappointment. While you can at least access the My Cloud drive remotely through a password protected Web portal, you cannot run the SmartWare backup protocol unless your computer is communicating on the same network as the My Cloud drive.

Smartphones and tablets were a different story. It was relatively easy to install and use the WD My Cloud app to back up and then continuously sync new photos from my phone via any WiFi (or 3G/4G) connection. I especially like that this drive communicates with all your mobile devices, and not just the computers. Your stored data is also shareable with others. You can easily share files in a Dropbox-like fashion through temporary access invitation codes.

Only after all my initial setup struggles did I later discover an instruction card in the box that touted WD’s Concierge Service, providing a special phone number with free, step-by-step technical support, and even remote access setup assistance. I think this card was added as an afterthought and is a tacit admission that setup of this device turns out to be a bit harder to deal with than it should be.

Is it a perfect solution? No, but after the initial purchase, there is no recurring subscription fee. My Cloud is $99 for a 1TB unit and only $149 for 2TB. If the drive gets close to full, you can economically add a standard expansion drive via the USB port on the back of the unit. I like the peace of mind provided by knowing where my very important data is physically located, instead of just out somewhere on the nebulous cloud. For that feature alone, the WD My Cloud is worth consideration. Learn more at wdc.com.•

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Stephen Bour (bourtech@iquest.net) is an engineer and legal technology consultant in Indianapolis. His company, the Alliance for Litigation Support Inc., includes Bour Technical Services and Alliance Court Reporting. Areas of service include legal videography, tape analysis, document scanning to CD and courtroom presentation support. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author.

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