iCloud v. gCloud v. Dropbox Deathmatch

With the birth of my first child, the amount of digital imagery we’ve generated has grown exponentially. Multiple iPhones, iPads, DSLRs and other sources are all contributing to this stream of documentation that we’re generating our son’s every step, laugh or gurgle.

Franklin’s first photo was taken before he even left the womb, the anesthesiologist taking my Nikon and snapping my wife’s innards as they’re still on the operating room table. Shortly after, our brand new baby boy was carefully lifted from the incision, and quickly moved to the warming table within 15 seconds. That’s when his flourishing EXIF career began.

The Focus of All Attention

Being somewhat early adopters to the digital camera / Flip cam era, we were already building upon sizable a library of images. Initially using the PC version of Picasa circa 2004, the transition to iPhoto happened at an early stage when Apple regained the stanglehold on our consumer electronic lives. The main method of archival for the next five years, was copy and pasting the iPhoto library onto external hard drives. I’d have a slew of these USB drives, in their various shades of silver and black, futility trying to perform offsite backups by stashing these drives at my parents house, stacking them on the shelf in the guest bedroom closet. Yet, like the cat who came back, so would the hard drives. My mom would eventually find them and happily return them to their rightful owner. Offsite backups were only eventual.

Robo Drobo redundantly serves me.

With the advent of Flip cameras and easy access to create high definition video, the size of the library began to eclipse what was manageable for consumer-level budgets on hard drives. Enter the 8TB Drobo, a software simulation of a redundant RAID array. This device whirred and wheezed, but backed up each drive with redundancy. If one failed, the Drobo would recognize this and allow you to hot swap it out. This solved the problem of storage space, but the offsite backup was now even more elusive. The Drobo was 5-10 pounds, and needed a software install to interface with it. Taking it to mom’s house was out of the question.

Then the clouds rolled in. With the advent of Dropbox and in early 2011, consumer-focused cloud based backup suddenly became a viable product. With early versions of Dropbox you were given 5TB free, and could expand if you invited others to the register. As the future iterations of the iPhone became more advanced, giving the user the ability to capture video, Apple began to emphasize cloud backup with their iCloud service. Lastly, with Google expanding their online Drive / Docs into a service model in Google Cloud, their Amazon A9 competitor, the field of choices was suddenly a complicated one.

What would have been ideal was some type of incorporation of iPhoto to a large scale cloud service, where it would have been seamless in the management of the Library backup. But Apple only allows you backup your Photo Stream – and it is unclear how far back that goes. On our devices, the stream is defined as being only 30 days or 100 photos in the past. Why anyone would need more than a few GB for that small of a service, I’m not sure. I’m not quite sure about Apple’s product offering. For one thing, there was no reference in iPhoto itself for large-scale library backup – all of the iCloud options were only configurable in the System Preferences of iOS, and it made less sense as to what was provided. Plus, they only advertised up to 50GB, which wasn’t even a quarter of our needs.

Upon investigation of Google’s offering, their large scale solution required python scripts to function, a level of complexity that I didn’t want to undertake. I understand the product offering, for development of crowd-generated content that is backed up on redundant servers – which wasn’t my need. My need was something a bit more pedestrian, and I didn’t want to go down a road that wasn’t easily maintainable.

Dropped everything for Dropbox.

The choice was Dropbox – a service that I’ve used for a few years across phones and devices, both at agencies I’ve contracted in as well as of my own possession. This took only minimal configuration, just set a folder to sync and away you go. This folder, however, happened to be 200GB and growing. In the end, this was the direction that I went down, paying the $1 per GB per year and using the account I already had. I just pointed the Dropbox selective syncing to the iPhoto Library and can be assured that with every photo we take, it’ll upload to the cloud without us ever needing to touch it. The cost was comparable to the other services – at about $1 a GB.

We’re using EyeFi cards here at the Cawthon household, so video and images are synced automatically to the mac mini host of the Drobo. The iPhones are also syncing to the same iPhoto library whenever we hook up to any wifi network either in home or out. Shooting and storage are all happening without our needing to hook cables up to the devices. Dropbox watches the host folder on the Drobo and syncs it automatically.

One advantage is that back on the iPhone, we can browse the iPhoto Library’s file and folder structure. So, with a little understanding of how Apple organizes their packages, one can access any photo they’ve ever taken – provided they know the date.

Although the lifespan of our magnetic drives have start to come to end-of-life, and we’re assured that we’ll not ever have a catastrophe in losing Franklin’s (as well as our own) history. Faster, more stable SSD drives are going to eventually replace the old magnetic ones, but the price point isn’t reasonable enough yet to replace the Drobo with something that has a better shelf life.

As a bit of a side anecdote – my instinct up until about a year ago has been to try and print out all copies of our photos. To alleviate the anxiety of digital storage by creating tangible artifacts. My family has already saved our archives once from a house fire, and I’m hoping that we’ll never have to go through the same thing ourselves. The desire for hard backups are always hampered by the safety of the physical environment.

Yet now, instead of trying to print out all 20,000 digital photos ranging back to about 2003, the view has shifted. We’re now going to scan all the photos that preceded us having a digital camera, to get the library’s content level on the same medium. I feel we’ve past the tipping point now that we’ve got young kids, there’s no way to keep up with keeping, editing and printing the flow of pictures. It’s best to embrace the change, scan and box up the photos so that our kids may look thorough them someday as relics of a bygone era.

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