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Pros and cons of cloud storage vs. physical storage

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When you need to store digital files, you have two basic options: cloud storage and physical storage.

Cloud storage lets you save files over the internet on servers operated by a cloud storage provider. These companies typically make backup copies of your files in multiple data centers and secure them using sophisticated encryption. You can access your files in the cloud from any internet-connected device.

Physical storage, also known as local storage, is when you save your files on local servers or storage devices that you control and operate yourself. This includes hard disk drives, solid-state drives, and USB flash drives.

Both types of storage have advantages and disadvantages. In this article, we’ll briefly run through a few of these.

Cloud storage pros
Cloud storage cons
Physical storage pros
Physical storage cons
Conclusion

Cloud storage pros

The benefits of cloud storage usually outweigh the tradeoffs for most people. That’s one of the reasons it has become ubiquitous and oftentimes automatic, such as when your Apple device backs up your photos to iCloud by default. Cloud storage can help you save space on your devices and give you better access to your files. 

  1. Access your files from anywhere — Cloud storage providers let you access your files from any internet-connected device, and some even offer offline access to your files if you don’t have an internet connection. Proton Drive has apps for Android, iOS, and Windows, with Mac coming soon.
  2. File sharing is built in — With physical storage, you need to use a separate service for transferring files. With cloud storage, you can usually share your files with anyone directly from the storage interface.
  3. Collaborate on files with colleagues — Since sharing is built in, you can also collaborate with others on the files you’re working on. For instance, Proton Drive lets you sync files and folders from your computer(new window) to your cloud storage account, where you can then share them with friends, family, or colleagues. 
  4. Security and data recovery for your files — Cloud storage is extremely secure, especially if you use a provider with end-to-end encryption(new window). Your files are also backed up across multiple servers, so data loss is unlikely, particularly compared with local storage.
  5. Add more storage anytime — Unlike physical storage, which requires you to buy more servers or devices to save more data, cloud storage lets you add more data to your plan whenever you need more. If you’re running a business, the ability to scale up quickly is essential, but it’s also convenient if you’re just backing up personal photos and videos(new window).
  6. No maintenance required — With cloud storage, your subscription fee covers the cost to the company to maintain and improve its servers. 

Cloud storage cons

Crucially, you should watch out for cloud storage providers that don’t protect your privacy and don’t make it easy for you to secure your account. These are some of the key disadvantages of cloud storage, but fortunately you can easily mitigate them.

  1. You need to secure your account — Unauthorized access to your account is the biggest cloud storage security risk(new window). But you can prevent hacks by choosing a security-focused cloud service that offers two-factor authentication(new window), using strong passwords(new window) with a password manager(new window), and being alert for phishing attempts(new window).
  2. Requires internet access — To upload files to the cloud, your device needs to be connected to the internet. While many services offer offline mode(new window), you will need an internet connection to download your files to your device, and they will take up storage space on your device.
  3. Some providers are weak on privacy — Providers like Google Drive, iCloud, and Dropbox are not private by default. The companies can access and scan all your files, including photos and sensitive documents. This can also be a security risk. You can eliminate this problem by choosing a privacy-first cloud storage provider that uses end-to-end encryption by default, meaning not even the provider can see your data. 

Learn about end-to-end encryption(new window)

Protect your files with end-to-end encryption with Proton Drive

Physical storage pros

Whenever you buy a device, it comes with a certain amount of local storage. But this space can run out fast. Before cloud storage became popular, people often turned to external hard drives or flash drives. External drives are a convenient way to back up your files without the need for a subscription service.

  1. No need for an internet connection — You can save your files directly to any device without any internet connection. This offers both convenience and security benefits because your files don’t need to be protected in transit and at rest on a third-party server.
  2. No recurring subscription fees — Cloud storage providers make money by charging a recurring fee to keep your files on their platform. With physical storage, you pay once up front for your hardware.
  3. Total control of security and privacy — If you don’t want anyone else to have your files, encrypted or not, then physical storage offers the most privacy. However, physical storage presents other security risks, such as losing your device. (You can mitigate this by encrypting your drives(new window).)
  4. You can still use cloud storage, too — Many people back up their files both in the cloud and on external drives. This gives you extra peace of mind that you won’t lose your files, though it will increase your attack surface if you’re very concerned about security. 

Physical storage cons

Cloud storage is so popular in part because of the tradeoffs below. If you’ve ever lost a hard drive or a smartphone before cloud backups, you know how painful data loss can be. And physical storage is much less accessible if you’re on the go. 

  1. Files are vulnerable to loss or damage — Cloud storage providers use data centers that take major precautions to prevent physical damage, tampering, and data loss. Owning your physical storage means taking on those responsibilities yourself. Theft and device damage (from overheating, fire, etc.) are serious concerns.
  2. You can’t access your files from anywhere — Unless your drive is internet-connected, you won’t be able to access your files on any device like you can with cloud storage.
  3. Space isn’t scalable — When you need more space, you must buy more hardware. This is particularly challenging for growing businesses.
  4. High up-front costs — Though digital storage costs have decreased over the years, purchasing and setting up a server can cost thousands of dollars. External hard drives, however, are relatively inexpensive.
  5. You might need IT support — For businesses, you will likely need to hire ongoing IT support to maintain, troubleshoot, and upgrade your physical storage. 

Conclusion

Most people use both cloud storage and physical storage, depending on their use case. If your top concern is data loss, creating multiple backups of your files on the cloud and on external drives is a good idea. 

If you’re looking for a trustworthy cloud storage provider, we designed Proton Drive as a privacy-first alternative to non-private services like Google Drive.

Proton Drive offers multiple features focused on privacy, security, and convenience. Here are a few:

  • You can enable two-factor authentication either by using a smartphone authenticator app or with U2F or FIDO2 security key(new window). We also offer end-to-end encryption by default using elliptic curve cryptography(new window), which prevents anyone but you from seeing your files. Additionally, Proton Drive is open source and has undergone third-party security audits(new window), so you can be sure our code does what we claim.
  • Your files are accessible from anywhere using the Proton Drive apps for the web, Windows, Android, iOS, and soon macOS.
  • File sharing is simple. You can share files through a link and enable security features like password protection or an expiration date. 
  • Proton Drive also offers version history(new window), so you can save previous versions of your files for up to 10 years. This is helpful so you can recover your data even if it’s been altered, stolen, or destroyed, such as a malware or ransomware attack. If something happens to your files, you can just download an older version.

Learn more about Proton Drive

Proton is dedicated to building a better internet where people’s privacy comes before profit. To that end, we’re building an encrypted suite of products to help you protect your emails, passwords, calendar events, internet connection(new window), and more. 

When you create a free Proton Account, you can start protecting your privacy right away. By upgrading to Proton Unlimited, you can access more storage and all paid features.

Protect your privacy with Proton
Create a free account

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Ben Wolford(new window)

Ben Wolford is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in major newspapers and magazines around the world. Ben joined Proton in 2018 to help to explain technical concepts in privacy and make Proton products easy to use.

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