Macs, PCs, mobile, the cloud: can they all work together?

Macs, PCs, mobile, the cloud: can they all work together?
Many of us use an eclectic combination of technology in our legal practice. For instance, I use a Windows 7 PC, an iPhone 5, a Kindle, and an iPad. Each serves a particular role.
The iPhone, for instance, is always with me when I need a file and am without an Internet connection; however it’s not the greatest tool for reading a document. The iPad is a great reader but not the best tool for writing or researching. My Windows PC and notebook computer are less convenient but do everything I need them to. The one thing that helps to bring all of my technology together is the cloud.

No matter the combination of technology I choose, I require the latest version of my legal work to be synced, saved, and secured. The cloud allows me to review, edit, and save documents from any device to one spot.

One recommended option is to use a Canadian-based cloud storage service. My current preferred option, however, is to host my own personal cloud using a device known as “network attached storage,” which provides storage of data and sharing across a network. Using a NAS allows me to basically host, customize, and control my own private cloud from my office. Although NAS is not a true cloud service, it is a viable option that puts the user in complete control of the data and is quickly gaining popularity. Most of these NAS devices also have capabilities for backup and data recovery.

What is the cloud?

Before venturing further, one must understand what the cloud is and how it differs from NAS.

Cloud computing allows you to store, access, and retrieve your data from off-site, third party servers, using an Internet connection. When you use the cloud, you are saving your information on someone else’s hard drives. Typically, as well, the data is being saved along with others data on multiples servers which are hosted at various locations across the world.

Theoretically, only you have permission and rights to retrieve your data from those servers.

Many law firms host their data and programs on off-site servers so their lawyers, staff, and clients are able to access files from multiple computers and devices no matter where they are. Popular examples of cloud storage providers include Amazon Cloud Drive, Box, Dropbox, Google Docs, Google Drive, iCloud, SkyDrive, and SugarSync.

Many lawyers, myself included, have successfully edited and negotiated contracts or prepared presentations in real-time using these different services with lawyers located in Kamloops and across North America. Some large law firms even host their own cloud software to connect their employees to the office and to interact with clients.

Public v. private clouds

Basically, subscription cloud storage comes in three forms: public clouds, private clouds, and hybrid clouds.

Public clouds store your data on servers you do not own. You have little control over your data because it is subject to your provider’s privacy policy, terms and conditions, and security features. Although many public clouds will encrypt your data, you are still subject to the laws of the geographical location and the legal contract between you and your provider.

Private clouds also store your data on servers you do not own. The difference, however, is your data is stored on a hard drive dedicated to your data only. You do not own the storage “container” even though it is dedicated to your data, and as with the public cloud, you must access your data through your cloud provider’s infrastructure.

Hybrid clouds host some of your data on the private cloud and other data on a public cloud, at your discretion. The two remain separate but can be accessed through the same portal. This option is available to assist with lowering costs.

What is network attached storage?

NAS is basically a personal external hard drive located in your office and attached to your server via the network you can access through the Internet. Unlike the cloud, you are not storing your files with other people’s files on servers located around the world. NAS is more like a personal cloud powered by your own personal hard drive.

You can securely access and upload files with Internet-connected mobile devices such as tablets, smartphones, and computers.

QNAP is just one company that sells these hard drives. The toaster-sized box sits at my desk. The system is securely connected to my firm’s network and the Internet thus giving me access from both off- and on-site. In addition to serving as a central storage portal, the device can also serve as an effective and reliable office backup tool.

PCs, Macs, and mobile devices and NAS

I have never had a problem saving or retrieving documents using my BlackBerry, iPhone, iPad, or Windows PC. Each device, however, does this differently. My PC and iPad have interfaces that will do this directly from a program downloaded from my NAS computer vendor or the Internet. Otherwise, I can access my NAS through my device’s web browser.

As mentioned, there are hundreds of NAS systems available. While some primarily share data across your network or Internet connection, others can be used for network printing, streaming media, or connecting to your surveillance system. When choosing your system, consider price, storage capacity, remote backup, Wi-Fi, and processor speed, whether it has a print server and its security features.

Can Macs, PCs, and mobile devices really work together in the cloud?

Absolutely. However, the process does require some planning. The gap between PCs, Macs, and mobile devices does not need to be a huge hurdle in a cloud-based environment. Your primary consideration should be finding a cloud service or NAS system that is secure and reliable. If your goal is to allow for quick access to your data, this can typically be achieved from any one of your modern devices provided they have access to the web and your device allows you the ability to read, create, and modify documents.

This article was prepared with the assistance of former summer student Ben Austring.

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