Cloud services for students

Antonio Galluccio

17 mai 2017

Having access to all your data anytime in any place has become the norm for many users. Due to the large number of cloud services and fast home and mobile internet access, tediously shoveling data from one device to another is a thing of the past. However, for some people the negative aspects of cloud storage, like privacy issues and mistrust of certain companies, outweigh the advantages, so they don’t save any of their data on the internet. To show you how to avoid these problems and how make the best out of your cloud, I’m going to present to you the best cloud storage options for students.

University clouds

Every ETH student knows what polybox is. The ETH provides 50 GB of space in their own cloud to every student to make sure that important research data and private documents are safely stored on their servers in Switzerland. The University of Zurich offers a similar service to students and employees with SWITCHdrive. SWITCHdrive offers the same amount of storage as polybox. It can be accessed with a web interface or by synchronizing your data to your computer using the desktop app. These services are ideal to save and share seminar papers, homework, or anything else you need for your studies. Some cloud services, like SWITCHdrive, offer a deletion queue, which means that you can restore deleted files for up to 180 days. On polybox your files are completely erased 6 days after you’ve deleted them. To use SWITCHdrive, you’ll need a Switch edu-ID, which can be created using your Switch AAI-login. Members of the ETH unfortunately don’t have access to SWITCHdrive, since they can to use polybox. You can find a list of institutions which use SWITCHdrive here.

Cloud storage providers and data encryption

Naturally, you can use the popular services offered by large providers like Dropbox, Google Drive, or Microsoft OneDrive. The most important criteria to choose the best service for you are the amount of storage offered, the limitations of the service, upgradeability, the user experience, and, of course, privacy. Most cloud services support multi-stage authentication to keep your account secure, but to enable advanced features, most services will access and analyze your files in some way. Additionally, your files are generally stored on servers outside of Switzerland, where other privacy laws apply, so intelligence agencies and law enforcement may gain access to your data. Therefore, to protect your data it’s worth to take some time to encrypt your files in the cloud. Programs like Boxcryptor, Cryptomator, and VeraCrypt can help you with that. Boxcryptor is available in a free version and it’s pretty simple to use, but you can only encrypt one single cloud service without paying for the pro version. Cryptomator is open source and very simple to use, however its functionality is quite limited. The most versatile product is VeraCrypt, which has tons of features and supports multiple encryption algorithms, making it the most complicated program to use.

For most people, an encrypted cloud by those popular services is reasonable solution, offering a good balance between privacy and ease of use. However, those users who don’t want to use those services even with encrypted data may want to set up their own personal cloud service.

Personal clouds

To create your own cloud storage, you don’t need much hardware. All you need is a computer with an internet connection, for example a Raspberry Pi. You can then easily expand your cloud storage by adding more or bigger hard disks. To use the minicomputer as a cloud, simply install your own cloud software. The most popular software by far, which is also used by polybox and SWITCHdrive, is ownCloud. As an alternative to ownCloud, you can also try Seafile, Ftpbox, Nextcloud. If you want an approach that’s a little less hands-on, you can buy a NAS (Network Attached Storage) which has some kind of cloud software preinstalled. These are generally easy to use and can be set up with just a few clicks. However, this way you have to put quite some trust into the manufacturer of the NAS and their ability to maintain their product properly. In the end, the approaches with your own setup or with a NAS both are more complicated and time-consuming to use than established cloud services, so they’re only recommended for advanced users.

It’s very easy today to get access to large amounts of cloud storage, so the more difficult part is to keep all those files in a tidy order. Therefore, you shouldn’t forget to keep backing up your data since no cloud service can guarantee perfect reliability without any data loss. No matter if it’s a seminar paper, job application documents, or just a few photos from the last party, it’s always comforting when data is protected in multiple ways.

A small hint to finish with: Imagine the cloud like a virtual USB drive and use it accordingly. At least that’s what the ETH says, so there has to be some truth in it :)