Studio Sense: On The Cloud

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It seems that when Apple releases a product, it eventually becomes "easy." For example, there are mobile phones, and there are iPhones. The latter just seem to work better and interact with the user more efficiently than most other devices.

Such is the case with cloud computing. With Apple's recent announcement of iCloud, it got many of us thinking about the possibilities of remote data storage for audio, now made easy.

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Simply put, cloud storage is when your data is stored on virtual servers, hosted by companies that operate large data centers. Yes, your information is stored somewhere out there in the cyber world on someone's giant hard drive other than your own — in a cloud. Hopefully, that data is also redundant, called synchronous replication, where if one data center becomes unavailable, it will seamlessly switch to another. Either way, all you, as a local end-user, see is some form of interface on your desktop to their cloud, allowing you to post and retrieve your files. You, of course, have to pay for this service, and prices will vary depending on how much storage you need.

Let's think about how most of us have managed audio in the DAW age. We have piles of drives (mostly FireWire) and USB data keys. Some of the larger facilities use additional data backup systems such as Synchronize Pro X, or Retrospect with DLT drives, etc. Overall, we drag, drop, list and try to keep track of what files for whose project are where. Personally, I hate it, but it's a necessary evil of our audio world.

Currently, I do use some type of "cloud" storage: by dropping mixes and small files on Apple's iDisk. iDisk is a file hosting service for its MobileMe members with 20 GB worth of e-mail and 200 GB monthly of data transfer, for $99 a year. But MobileMe will be phased out and will only function until June 2012. The iCloud is replacing it, and while it does not currently offer audio data storage (for our professional needs), its model is worthy of explanation and exploration.

Apple's iCloud will effectively "demote" our PCs and Macs to become just another device, making the cloud the center of our "digital life." Take, for example, a typical Mac user that has a main computer (laptop or tower), an iPhone and possibly an iPad. All of these devices must be manually "synced" to share data such as a song purchased on iTunes. But remember, all these devices have communication built into them. With iCloud, your song (or pictures, video and files) will be stored in the cloud, and with the press of a button, will wirelessly "push" it to all three devices (up to 10 per user).

As of now, nine free apps constitute iCloud, including iTunes in the Cloud, Documents in the Cloud and Photo Stream. Planned for release this fall, iCloud will also offer something called iTunes Match ($24.99 a year), where software will scan your iTunes music collection and offer you free versions (256 kpbs AAC) of the songs you've "ripped" that are already in its library. It will also upload other songs (unlimited) that are not in its library and allow you to sync them to all of your devices. Note that Amazon currently has a similar feature for $50-$200 a year, and Google has not offered a price yet for its upcoming service.

There's, of course, more to it than this, but I'm just trying to make a point: Cloud storage is here now and becoming fairly easy. In fact, as I was finishing this article, a friend sent me an e-mail about a service called Gobbler. While it's still in a "working beta" stage, Gobbler is a cloud storage service geared toward audio professionals that can back up both from an external drive and an internal drive. With just a few mouse clicks, Gobbler encrypts your files and puts them up on its cloud (called Soundcloud). In its GUI window, if you see your filename with a small lock next to it, that means Gobbler backed up both on your drive and on the cloud. It's also easy to reconnect files that are not backed up using a Locate On Disk button. Interestingly, it also takes snapshots of your work, which allows you to go back to previous versions. [Note that it is offering a free 25 GB trial account at gobbler.com].

Gobbler screenshot

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What about the questions of file security and reliability? Reliability is often referred to as "uptime," and, for example, most of the apps in Google's current cloud structure have a 99.9 percent uptime guarantee. Of course, every service will be different, but that's a fine "uptime" goal to set — basically, 100 percent. Gobbler noted that it uses "military-grade encryption," and the data is stored on Amazon Services S3, with a redundancy factor of 99.9999999. That's pretty good!

As for file safety, we all know everything is hackable, but for the most part, the majority of sessions are information that few people would want. Sure, as an engineer, if I put, for example, No Doubt's latest session and mixes up on the cloud, I would be nervous about someone stealing it. But these are all details that will be worked out over time.

Browser-based cloud storage for the audio pro is undoubtedly an issue that will see innovation and advancements in the near future. What Gobbler and Apple have in store for us is only the tip of the data iceberg and certainly a good starting model for where we need to go. The possibilities for us professionals are great —inexpensive, reliable, redundant file storage and manageability that will give us another weapon in the endless data battle.

Rich Tozzoli is a Grammy-nominated engineer, mixer and composer as well as PAR's software editor.