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Your own cloud - silver lining included

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By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / August 4, 2011

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There’s a lot to like about cloud computing, but why use the other fellow’s cloud? Many of us save our most precious photos, videos, documents, and music on servers owned by Google or Amazon or Microsoft. But now it’s cheap and easy to create clouds of our own, with simple, but powerful servers that will fit on a bookshelf in the basement and transmit our files to any Internet-connected device on earth.

The $200 CloudStor from Buffalo Technology Inc. looks like a bigger version of those external hard drives that you plug into a computer’s USB port. In fact, it’s a computer in its own right, a specialized data server of a type that will probably be as common as microwave ovens in a few years.

Corporations already use such devices, which are called NAS, for “network-attached storage.’’ You just plug a NAS server into the network. Now you can store all your crucial data on the NAS box, which shares it with all the other computers on the network. It works just as well on the network you’ve set up at home as it does for big companies.

A NAS is perfect for data backups. You can even buy one with multiple hard drives and program it so that if one of the drives breaks, all your data will survive. And NAS boxes for the home are suddenly cheap; priced at $500 or more a couple of years ago, they’re now hitting the magical mass-market price point of $200.

Buffalo makes a variety of home and business NAS systems, but the CloudStor is especially attractive because of extra software that turns it into a personal Internet server. Store your stuff on a CloudStor, and as long as you have you have got Internet access, you can get to your data from anywhere.

CloudStor sells on Amazon.com for $146.99 or $199.99, depending on drive capacity. The device is a small, black plastic box that contains a standard desktop computer hard drive, one or two terabytes in size. The drive snaps out for easy replacement. There’s also room for a second drive, so for another $100 or so, you can double the CloudStor’s capacity.

But there’s a smarter way to use that second drive. CloudStor’s built-in software gives you the option to treat it as an emergency backup. When you add files to the device, an exact copy is saved to both drives. That way, if one of them fails - and hard drives eventually fail - you lose nothing. Just remove and discard the bad drive and shove in a new one, which is automatically reloaded with your data.

CloudStor’s installation process was rather difficult and confusing, due in part to some badly written instructions. Company officials told me they’re planning a rewrite. But once the device is up and running, it appears in your computer’s network directory, where it looks like just another computer. You can easily drag and drop files directly onto the CloudStor, turning it into a central repository for the family’s most important files.

I like the NAS concept so much that I recently built one of my own, using an old computer and some new hard drives. It works OK, but it can’t match the CloudStor’s ability to painlessly broadcast files over the Internet.

Buffalo teamed up with Cloud Engines Inc., maker of a networking service called Pogoplug that turns home computers into Internet media servers. You can install Pogoplug software on any PC or Mac. The basic version is free, while a premium edition that lets you stream music and videos from your home machine costs a flat $29 for life, with no subscription required.

The CloudStor comes with Pogoplug built in, at no extra cost. You register with the service during setup, and can then log onto the CloudStor at work, from the car, or anywhere else you can get online. Work files stored on the CloudStor are never out of reach; just log on and grab them. If you’re hungry for a little Merle Haggard music or pictures of the kids, you can snatch them out of the air, using excellent Pogoplug software apps available at no charge for the iPhone and iPad, or for Android devices.

Yes, you can do all the same stuff through services offered by Amazon or Google, if you don’t mind uploading gigabytes of personal files to far-off computers run by total strangers. But thanks to CloudStor, you can keep your data safe at home, and still get at it from nearly anywhere on earth.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.