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Tech Lab

Cloud computing in the real world

There are clouds in the forecast, in Boston and everywhere else.

A host of press reports suggest that Google Inc. will next week launch a new product called Drive, a free “cloud storage’’ service that’ll let you stash five gigabytes of data online, and access it anywhere through any Internet-connected device.

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It’s welcome news, but a bit late. More than 50 million people worldwide already use a similar service called Dropbox. There are many more cloud storage offerings, too. SugarSync, Microsoft Corp.’s SkyDrive, and a new offering called Cubby, from Woburn-based LogMeIn Inc., to name only a few of the more appealing ones that I have tried.

Why the need for so many clouds? We’re hooked on mobile devices, but our phones can only hold so much information. Put the data in the cloud, and it is always within reach. We want to share big files with friends, but e-mail does a lousy job of it. Set up a shared cloud folder, stuff it with your vacation photos, and you can grant access to anyone you choose.

Though I like cloud storage, I do not entirely trust it. After all, Dropbox suffered a major security breach last year; the company said Wednesday that has tightened its security policies and encrypts all stored data. Still, though I use Dropbox and SkyDrive, I never include sensitive data like tax records. But for research documents or family photos, the blessings far outstrip the risks.

Dropbox offers just two gigabytes of free storage. But that’s enough for thousands of documents, or hundreds of high-resolution photos. The software creates a folder on any Windows PC, Mac, or Linux computer. Drop a file in the Dropbox, and it’s copied to the cloud, where you can get at it through a browser, or apps for Apple Inc. devices, phones running Google’s Android software, or BlackBerry phones. The file is also copied to your other computers running Dropbox software, like your laptop. Get on a plane without Internet access, and you still have copies of your stuff.

SugarSync offers the same functionality, but with five gigs for free rather than two. And SugarSync doesn’t force you to drag files to a specific folder. Instead, just select any folder on your machine, and click the right-side mouse button to share it.

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Like many cloud storage services, Dropbox and Sugarsync will sell you more capacity. Dropbox will give you 50 gigs for $9.99 a month, for instance, while SugarSync offers 30 gigs for $4.99. Most cloud storage users settle for the freebie edition.

Still, more is better. Microsoft’s SkyDrive gives you 25 gigs of free storage. The service has acquired about 17 million users, but I would have expected more. After all, anybody with access to Microsoft’s popular Hotmail service gets a SkyDrive account as well.

You can get to your SkyDrive stuff through any Web browser; there are also apps for Windows Phones and iPhones. There is no official app for phones running Google’s Android software, but I like an independent app called Browser for SkyDrive - free at the Google Play online store.

SkyDrive won’t automatically share files among all your computers, like Dropbox does. Microsoft makes a different product for this purpose, called Windows Live Mesh, which works on computers running Windows Vista or Windows 7 and on Macs. Live Mesh offers just five gigs of storage, rather than 25. But that is supposed to change later this year, as Microsoft plans to combine Live Mesh and SkyDrive into a unified offering. Hurry up, guys; Google’s coming.

And so is LogMeIn, best known for making software that lets you remotely control computers over the Internet. Their new Cubby service comes with five free gigabytes of storage and works a lot like Dropbox, syncing files between multiple machines. There are some nice little tweaks, too. Like SugarSync, Cubby lets you share any folder with a right-click of the mouse. Also, the files you share among your personal machines don’t count against your five-gigabyte storage quota. So if you’ve got 100 gigs of videos to transfer, go right ahead. They will not be stored in the cloud, but Cubby will distribute them to all your machines.

Given its late start, I’ve no idea how Google Drive will fare. But they’re welcome to the cloud storage party. You can’t have too many gigabytes, especially when someone else is buying.

Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com. Follow him on twitter at @GlobeTechLab.

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