Living in the cloud, with South African bandwidth

roodt_fbfotoby Dan Roodt

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Ever since I lost some data in a hard drive crash some years ago, I have always been a fan of keeping remote backups online. Somehow hard drives are so fragile – especially so-called “external” ones – that even where you do have a backup, Murphy’s law has it that it too will fail at some critical moment.

Lending your external hard drive to your son for that upcoming LAN party where they are all going to exchange programs and movies is also a no no, I have found. Inevitably it will get bumped or manhandled and the result will be that sickening click-click noise indicating a damaged head.

Looking at my bookshelf, I can see a whole collection of damaged drives that I somehow keep as reminders to never trust a hard drive.

Even though I used to be a fan of the Mozilla email client, Thunderbird, I have long since given up on email clients and use online services. To the ordinary person email clients are probably useful, but with the amount of notifications, queries, asides and just normal correspondence I receive at the rate of serveral hundred a day, my email client is bound to clog up. slow down and also fill up my precious hard drive!

I am probably one of the few people who have filled up a 10 Gigabyte Google mailbox in about two or three years. Email is in itself a fascinating topic and I have tried just about every trick in the book already, in an attempt to cope with my electronic missives. That includes some very unorthodox ways too, about which I might write on a future occasion.

However, as a result of my constant need for more online space, I became an early adopter of Google’s paid service. For only $5 per year, I received 30 Gigs of mail and storage space. Then prices suddenly went up and my service was summarily cancelled in a very diplomatic letter from Google! The silver lining on this dark storage cloud was a parting gift from Google for me as an early adopter: 1 Terrabyte of cloud space, to be used as I saw fit, either for mail or storing other documents and data. That is exactly the size of my current, rather full, hard drive.

Microsoft also offers a similar service called SkyDrive which I haven’t really tried. Pricing I found on the internet for three services looks like this:

SkyDrive:

  • FREE account (7GB)
  • $10.00 per year, additional 20GB (27GB)
  • $25.00 per year, additional 50GB (57GB)
  • $50.00 per year, additional 100GB (107GB)

Google Drive:

  • FREE account (5GB)
  • $2.49 per month (25GB)
  • $4.99 per month (100GB)
  • $9.99 per month (200GB)
  • $19.99 per month (400GB)
  • $49.99 per month (1TB)
  • 2TB, $99.99 per month
  • 4TB, $199.99 per month
  • 8TB, $399.99 per month
  • 16TB, $799.99 per month

Another famous service, Dropbox, offers the following:

  • FREE account (2GB)
  • $9.99 per month (100GB)
  • $19.99 per month (200GB)
  • $49.99 per month (500GB)
  • $795 per year (unlimited for 5 users)

Clearly, my gift from Google is worth about $50 per month, which over five years is going to save me (12 x $50 x 5 = ) $3000. In rand terms, that is a whopping R30 000 saving over five years!

Ideally, I would like to store all my data online and just keep what I need daily on my hard drive. In fact, I have taken to writing online as well, using Google Drive mostly, but this very column is being typed online and saved as I write on another system. So if ever my computer catches fire, or an armed robbery takes place at my house, I will be smiling because every piece of information I own, every email or document is actually being kept in some data centre in the USA where presumably there is state-of-the-art redundancy, back-up generators, and the like. Barring nuclear war in America, my data would probably be safe. As a precaution, I use one or two other online email services where I keep copies of emails, so I am super safe, at least as far as email is concerned.

With my free “one terr” as my son calls it – it almost sounds like old SADF slang for “terrorist” – online, worth R30 000 over 5 years, I should be able to keep most essential stuff backed-up and accessible.

My dream is to go completely paperless, scan every document in sight and store it in “the cloud”. But the big question is: how feasible is this in South Africa, where we still have almost third-world bandwidth, especially outside the major cities? A few years ago a Swede casually told me that he had 100 Mb/s bandwidth in his Stockholm appartment. Most of us have to get by with one hundredth of that speed, or maybe one twenty-fifth. So Scandinavian or German or even French speeds are only a dream to most ADSL users in SA.

I am now on about my fourth or fifth ADSL provider and am changing again at the end of the month, because they do not seem to deliver on the stated speeds. “Somewhere along the line”, they all seem to have a chink in their armour, with high contention ratios or latency problems at certain times. Late at night until early morning seems to be the best time to do the heavy lifting as far as data are concerned.

As everyone knows, upload speeds are that much slower than download speeds. My current service provider gives me an upload rate of about 800 Kb/s. Over the last few days I have been trying to upload about 10 Gigs worth of data to my Google Drive and it is taking ages! On average, I manage to send 100 Mb into the cloud every 20 minutes. To upload one Gig of data therefore takes about 200 minutes or more than 3 hours. The entire chunk of 10 Gigs will therefore be uploaded in about 30 hours, more than a day.

In practice, it takes a lot longer. Constantly uploading data clogs up your bandwidth so I get irate groans and shrieks from the rest of my family. So I have to find times to let it run when my daughter is not watching some online series, my son is not playing an online game and my wife is not posting on the internet. Even during the golden time late at night, my gaming son and I now have to coordinate our bandwidth demands. During the current school holidays, he has also developed a nasty habit of all-night gaming against gaming nuts in other time zones.

In theory, the cloud is a nice concept, but is it worth the trouble, given South African bandwidth constraints? For my part, I reckon it might take three to six months for me to upload everything I want to, after which I should hardly ever have to run large uploads for hours and days.

Sitting in a café somewhere with a tablet or small laptop, I would be able to access my life’s work and all of my filing, as well as my entire music and ebook collection, by simply clicking on “Drive” in my normal email window.

Am I chasing the rainbow, err cloud, here? In a few months’ time, I might be able to report back.

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