Thoughts on Systems

Emil Sit

Choosing Online Services

Decline in storage costs, Web 2.0, and other trends have led to a profusion of online services clamoring to host your data. At this point, even if you are the most conservative user and a stalwart late adopter of online services, you have likely heard about a wide range of online services: storing and sharing calendars, lists, photos, bookmarks, full system backups and more. Accessible anywhere and having increasingly more functionality, the choices are tempting. How can you evaluate a service to decide if it is for you?

First, you should treat it like any other product you might be committing to. Do you like the interface of the application? You may be using this every day. You don’t have to explore all of its features (though the primary one should be clear and easy to try), but if this is an application you will be using regularly, make sure you can figure out how to do the most basic tasks in just a few minutes. I personally prefer companies that provide log-in free demos of their software up front; for example, calendaring app 30boxes has one of the best examples of a quick demo. Free trials are the next best thing. Least useful are screenshots, though they are better than nothing.

As you evaluate the interface, you will also have started to evaluate its feature set. One way to gauge the features it has (or intentionally omits) is to compare against competing or similar services; each may have a slightly different focus. For example, photo host SmugMug offers image hosting with unlimited storage, generous bandwidth limits and customizable presentation. Flickr is a hugely popular photo host because of its focus on tagging and sharing. IcicleLanding’s main feature is its extremely comprehensive access control system, allowing you to set access to each individual image in a gallery. All of these services work great but one may suit your needs better. Spend some time trying to find the competition: chances are an enterprising blogger has already made up a list comparing the apps you’re considering.

Apart from these traditional concerns, online services raise a new one: how much control you exercise over the data you store with the service? Can you request that your account and all associated data be deleted? Can you somehow extract a copy of all the data you’ve input (i.e., data export)? While RSS feeds are good for sharing, they aren’t especially suited for export. This may be an important consideration if you ever want to migrate to another service, at which point you might be curious about the service’s ability to import data. This may require the existence of a standard data format: easy enough for pictures or calendaring but harder for things like project management data or billing records. The best services offer an API that allows third parties (you!) to develop their own tools for accessing the data. This may solve the import/export problem, if done well.

If you are aiming to store lots of data on a service, you may wonder how reliable their servers and disks are. Unfortunately, it is hard to find real reports of people who actually suffered disk catastrophic failures and were able to restore from an online service. You can settle for learning how they maintain your data. Does the service store more than one copy of your data in geographically distributed locations? (SmugMug keeps four copies of each picture in three different states.) What redundancy technology is used? Something well known like RAID? Or something cooked up internally, like the Google File System or Mozy’s proprietary technology based on ”lots of hard math”? Do they rely on a single ISP or are they multi-homed? More redundancy will probably cost more money.

You should also be concerned with the reliability of the company itself. After all, you’re about to entrust them with potentially very personally relevant information. If it fails one day (or gets bought!) your data may disappear. How do you evaluate the character of a company? A quick trip to Google Blogsearch or Icerocket will reveal what others think, though often these are very superficial reports, rebroadcasting buzz.

If you are lucky, the company will host its own web forum or mailing list archives: you can quickly discover if there are any major problems, and the tone and responsiveness of the customer service staff. Beware that often the people with no problems may not frequent the forums; mostly, you will see three classes of people: new users, users with problems, and very experienced fans of the service answering questions. If a company has its own blog, you can see how they write and behave first hand; blogs are more informal and fun than traditional press releases but also often serve to announce important new features and document how the company responds to feedback when the inevitable bugs are found in these new features. Most exciting is to see how a company responds to a catastrophic failure of their own: fastmail.fm posted a complete description of what happened, why, and comped everyone a whole month of service.

New online services have a lot to offer; do your homework so you can best take advantage of them. Do you have your own techniques for evaluating a service? Please share!

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