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- Access your different cloud storage providers through a common interface
- Virtual drive on desktop provides seamless access over the network
- Sync feature provides persistent offline access to files
- Encryption optionally ensures all files on cloud storage sites are secure
- Web and mobile user interface could be friendlier
- Encryption occurs on SMEStorage servers, not before it leaves your computer (although they flush your passwords from their system each time they use them)
The Bottom Line
SMEStorage links to your cloud storage providers such as DropBox.com, Box.net, and Amazon S3, and provides access through their interface, which includes accessing files through a web browser, as a virtual drive on your desktop, or through an app on our mobile smart phone. It can greatly simplify your life if you use many different storage providers. Their primary business is providing cloud storage services for companies, but their Personal Lifetime Cloud (tested here), is a win for the rest of us.
I have a number of free accounts on cloud storage providers—2GB here, 3GB there—but I do not use most of that space, because each provider has its own access method, and not all are very useful methods. SMEStorage links these accounts so that you can have centralized access to your files from many different providers.
The web interface is functional if not a little cluttered. (It definitely has a Windows feel. Zing!) You can access all the files from your cloud providers after SMEStorage has cached a listing of the files on those servers. Occasionally my files get out of sync when I switched among the web interface, virtual drive, or local sync options. SMEStorage informs me that this only affects the Mac virtual drive because of an issue with MacFUSE and that on other platforms this does not occur.
With files spread across different providers, you might find SME’s tagging options handy, which can provide listings of files across providers according to various criteria. Though I did not find I needed this capability, it may be useful to others.
From the SMEStorage dashboard you can link cloud providers to your account. Some cloud providers, such as MobileMe, require you to give SMEStorage your username and password, which they store (more securely than Sony I hope) for you. Others such as Box.net let you authenticate directly and simply authorize SMEStorage to access your files—a much better approach. Fortunately SMEStorage keeps the login information encrypted on their end, so that even in the event of a breach, your passwords are safe.
While web access is nice, the desktop integration is where SMEStorage really shines. I tested the Mac OS X integration. SMEStorage installs a Preference Pane for logging in and setting options.
SMEStorage uses the open source project MacFUSE to create a virtual drive on your Mac, which provides access to all of your linked cloud storage providers. The files are accessed “on demand” over the network, so interacting with the files and folders is not as snappy as local files on your hard drive. This is to be expected with network drives, and the Synchronization option provides a great alternative.
Synchronization allows you to create local copies of files and folders on your local hard drive for faster and offline access. This feature effectively turns any of your cloud storage providers into a DropBox clone, though the synchronizing process is not as quick as with DropBox, which enjoys tighter integration between client and server. After turning on Synchronization, you assign a folder on your local drive to be synchronized with one of the storage providers.
The SMEStorage iPhone app provides that satisfying instant gratification by providing access to all your files on your linked cloud storage providers. The interface is a bit busy, but the functionality is all there. There are also SMEStorage apps for Android and Blackberry.
After selecting a file on your phone, you have a few options of what to do with it including sharing it by email even if the underlying storage provider does not provide that functionality.
The paid version of SMEStorage offers “SSL/TLS everywhere” for your web interactions, while the free version (limited to two cloud providers) only encrypts the login process. With the attention that FireSheep brought to the problem of hijacked sessions with http connections, I would definitely want https connections everywhere.
You have the option of encrypting your files before they are stored on the cloud storage sites. This is a great feature, and of course it requires you to access your files through SMEStorage only since accessing your encrypted files through the primary cloud provider’s interface will only show gibberish. Do not forget your password. They do not save a copy of the encryption keys, so if you lose your password, you cannot recover your data. This is good from a security standpoint and requires extra vigilance on your part.
For the super-conscientious security folks, be aware that the files are not encrypted before they leave your computer but are encrypted on the fly by the SMEStorage servers and then stored on the cloud provider’s site. This allows you to keep the web interface access to the files but is not as secure as if the encryption keys never left your computer. You have to decide for yourself how much you trust the UK-based company and the associated national and international laws; by all accounts they take their security very seriously, and when you encrypt files, they do not store the keys on their server. This is an improvement over the DropBox model, which requires extra precautions.
SMEStorage offers a number of add-ons, some of which are offered individually, and others are bundled together as a package such as the $40 Personal Lifetime Cloud. The pricing system is a little confusing, but no one can say SMEStorage doesn’t offer a lot of options! These were some of the more intriguing options to me:
- CloudFTP Access. Access all your cloud files through a central FTP server (no SFTP option).
- CouldDav. Add arbitrary WebDAV providers to your account.
- File Splitting. Split large files in case your cloud provider has limits.
- FileBox Email. Email files to this address and have them saved to the cloud.
The great functionality that SMEStorage provides is tempered by the difficulty of understanding the web site and the features. Several times I almost threw in the towel, but the promise of a central access point to all my cloud storage providers was strong enough, that I stuck it out, and I am glad that I did. What SMEStorage provides is a much needed capability.
Also files can get out of sync between what SMEStorage thinks is in the cloud and what your cloud providers think. Fortunately they are constantly improving their technology and adding features to help keep the two in sync making this problem less and less noticeable. It is definitely an uphill battle for SMEStorage, which is integrating with a dozen different cloud interfaces, most of which have no interest in supporting third party access, yet this unifying access that SMEStorage provides is exactly what the cloud era needs.
Although SMEStorage lists Mac OS X 10.7 “Lion” support as Beta (Aug 2011), I found their Virtual Drive and Synchronization much more stable under Lion than with Snow Leopard. Under Snow Leopard I was too often having to relaunch the Finder.
Price: $40 (Personal Lifetime Cloud)
Platform: Windows, Mac, GNU/Linux, multiple mobile platforms
Website: Product Webpage