Online Backup vs Cloud Storage: What’s the Difference?

Cloud laptop data connectionOnce upon a time, we backed up our computers with hard, flash, and floppy drives, magnetic tapes and even RAID setups. But now we have networks of servers and administrators with a singular purpose, to securely receive your data and to keep it safe in case of the inevitable computer crash. And while this new era of “the cloud” made backup as simple as a push of a button, it also created hundreds of different cloud services.

While this website is here to help you weed through the jungle of cloud options, it’s also important for a cloud shopper to know what he or she is looking for. These days, the chaos of the cloud frontier has coalesced into two disparate categories: online backup and cloud storage. Neither category fits everyone, as each type of service offers a very different feature set, but knowing the difference can help you to understand what to expect and what to look for in a cloud service.

What is an Online Backup Service?

Online backupOnline backup services are what they sound like. A program makes a backup copy of your files, and then saves them on a secure online server. If something happens to your computer, you just load up that program again on your new computer, hit the restore button, and all your data goes back to where it was in the first place. It’s a simple and easy way to back up a computer. And most importantly, the data is off-site, secured by redundant backups, encrypted with enterprise-level security and maintained by teams of well-trained IT administrators.

Online backup services are typically pretty inexpensive as well. Backblaze and Carbonite offer unlimited storage backup starting at $4.99 / month. CrashPlan also provides unlimited backup for as little as $3.96 / month if you buy 4-years ahead of time.

An online backup service’s biggest limitation is its simplicity. They are designed only to back up data, and then restore it after a disaster. The backups are computer specific and will not sync your files across your computers and other devices. You may not even be able to get to your backup files from another computer outside of a lengthy restore process. Also, while online backup services quote “unlimited storage,” since these backups copy files instead of taking them off your computer, you’re still limited to the storage available on your computer. Some services provide multiple-computer backups, but are normally limited in storage.

What is a Cloud Storage Service?

Cloud computing conceptWhere an online backup service stores copies of your files in an off-site cloud server as a backup, a cloud storage service gives you an online box to store whatever you want. Dropbox, one of the most popular and well-known of these services, was created by a college student who got tired of losing flash drives with his valuable school files. Cloud storage drives follow that same example by being like a flash drive that won’t get lost and can be accessed from any internet connected computer.

Many of these services are also supported by apps, allowing you to access your files from any internet-connected device including TVs, game consoles, and tablets. These apps will let you download and play media files, but you can also share a secured link to a file to your friends, family, and co-workers rather than dealing with e-mail file size limits or the security issues of sending a full-sized file.

Many of these services, like Dropbox, Syncplicity, and OneDrive will integrate with your computer so you can access and work out of your cloud drive just like any other folder in your computer. In the background, the service automatically syncs any changes made to the files in that folder to the online server. So, when you login to another computer, your smartphone, or a tablet, all your files are exactly how you left them.

However, a cloud storage service is not a full system backup service. Most cloud drives are limited to being a small amount of extra storage, and upgraded storage isn’t all that cheap. Dropbox costs $120 / year for 1 TB of storage. Apple’s iCloud costs double that. Google Drive and MEGA’s cloud drive will go all the way up to 2 TB and 4 TB of space respectably, but they each charge a whopping $300 / year for the privilege of having so much space. While some cloud storage services like OneDrive and Amazon Cloud will offer unlimited storage, they come with caveats like a smaller feature set or a higher price tag.

But, unlike most online backup services, most cloud storage services have a free starter plan that gives you a limited amount of space that may be enough for the average person. Dropbox offers 2 GB of free storage, Google Drive and OneDrive offer 14 GB, and MEGA offers a whopping 50 GB of free storage.

Figuring out the Best Option for You

When considering which type of service best fits you, it’s best to consider how you work with files. For instance, an online backup service is best for those who don’t need their data everywhere they go. If you only have one computer, or you have multiple computers that don’t need to have the same stuff, like a work and a home computer, an online backup will keep each set of data separate and keep everything organized the way you like.

On the other hand, a cloud storage service is best for those who are constantly on the go and opening their files with multiple computers, smartphones, and tablets. If you find yourself constantly e-mailing files to yourself or to others, or loading up your flash drives with pictures, movies, and slideshows, you probably want a Cloud Storage drive.

However, most people will probably want some combination of both. An online backup service is a great way to protect an archive of work files or the family computer’s treasured memories, but a cloud storage drive gives you the flexibility to take what’s important to you right now to wherever you are going. Having both will allow you to fully take advantage of both the flexibility and power of the cloud.

Mike Lohnash

Mike Lohnash

Mike has nurtured a passion for all things tech for over ten years as a hobbyist, retailer, tech supporter, and spreadsheet jockey. He’s been an optimistic evangelist for the power of the cloud since the days of server-aided file sharing. In his spare time he loves reading and writing about faraway lands, playing games within them, and has a slightly unhealthy obsession for Star Wars.

Mike Lohnash

Mike Lohnash

Latest posts by Mike Lohnash (see all)