How does cloud storage work?

An abstract image of cloud storage.
(Image credit: Shutterstock/Marko Aliaksandr)

In the mood for learning and wondering how cloud storage works? Then you're in the right place. Cloud storage has become mainstream over the last several years. It has become a favorite of online businesses and anyone working remotely.  

About the author

Fran Villalba Segarra, CEO, Internxt

Clouds have many upsides, but the biggest cloud storage benefits are the ability to share and collaborate on files instantaneously. Another huge positive for cloud storage is the ability to backup files in a safe location, well out of reach of local disasters and device malfunctions. 

But how does cloud storage work, and what makes it different from saving data and digital files directly onto your computer's hard drive? There are two different types of cloud storage services now available to web users: traditional and decentralized cloud storage. On top of that, various cloud storage providers employ many other unique features.

Below we'll explain how cloud storage works, what different cloud storage features do, and what you should look for in a cloud storage service.

Cloud storage in a nutshell

Digital data needs to be stored somewhere. In the case of your computer or desktop, it is all saved locally on the device's hard drive. 

More specifically, your data is kept on an HDD, SSD, or in the computer's flash memory or RAM. How this is accomplished is a bit complicated, but all you need to know is that your device has a place to store electronic data. If it doesn't, you can't save anything.

With cloud storage, on the other hand, information is stored in data centers (maintained by third parties like Amazon, Google, Apple, and more) located worldwide. When you decide to save a file or photo to a cloud storage service, that content is sent via the internet to your chosen cloud storage provider's servers. 

Servers are large computers that store, transmit, and process vast quantities of data. All cloud services host (or rent) servers to store user data. 

Believe it or not, the concept of cloud storage has been around for a long, long time. Amazon popularized the concept with its S3 (Simple Storage Service) launched in 2006 but the ability to upload and save files remotely on a service provider's disk drive can be traced back to 1983's Compuserve offer. 

At the end of the day, you are simply using someone else's resources (part of whole of a hard drive, a solid-state drive, or even tape) to store your information.

That resource is usually located in a server housed in a data center (but not always) alongside potentially hundreds of others. The process is done over the internet over a secure connection via a dedicated app or via a web browser.

Almost everyone who has a smartphone, or an email address has a cloud storage account of some sort. One might even consider Facebook to offer a limited version of cloud storage to its members as videos and photos can be uploaded free of charge to its servers.

Traditional cloud storage 

What's described above is traditional cloud storage. With traditional cloud storage, users choose the file they want to save, upload it to their cloud providers' servers via the web, then download it from those servers whenever they (or someone they've permitted to) need access to the file. 

In short, a cloud service is like a giant online hard drive, run by someone else, that you can store things in and access anytime from different devices and locations as long as you have the login credentials. 

Traditional cloud storage is great because you can often store far more data than your computer can physically hold for a relatively small fee. Also, you can access information from multiple devices easily and conveniently. Businesses can scale quickly and can outsource hardware, and IT costs. Plus, data is often safer in the cloud. No one's going to spill coffee on a server (hopefully).

The downsides to traditional storage are a lack of control and privacy of information. Once you hand over your file or photo or whatever to the company hosting your storage, they can pretty much do whatever they want with it.

Decentralized cloud storage 

Traditional cloud storage is simple enough, but if you're worried about your privacy and don't like the amount of power Big Tech has over the internet, then decentralized cloud storage might interest you. A great example of a decentralized cloud is Internxt, whose service protects user files and information differently than a traditional provider.  

Decentralized cloud storage still sends files over the internet, but users' data is spread out over a peer-to-peer network instead of hosting information in large centralized server centers. 

A peer-to-peer network is a web of computers, servers, and other devices that host and exchange information. Often these devices host smaller amounts of data than a server, but with enough individual hosts, they can store just as much data. 

Just because your data is hosted by individuals or other users who opt into the peer-to-peer network doesn't mean they have access to the data they store. Information stored on a decentralized cloud is encrypted and fragmented before uploading into the network. 

Basically, all the information you store on a decentralized cloud is scrambled beyond comprehension, and you, not even the cloud service provider, can retrieve and access your data. 

Extra cloud storage features 

Though there are only two major types of cloud storage, there are tons of different features offered by various providers. All clouds work as mentioned above, but many tack on additional features to improve security, usability, convenience, privacy, etc. Keep an eye out for the extra features below, as they all are fantastic add-ons to any cloud storage service.

  • End-to-end encrypted storage: A cloud with end-to-end encryption scrambles data before it leaves your device, and the files you upload stay encrypted (aka unreadable throughout the process). 
  • Open-source: Open-source cloud storage means that the source code the cloud runs on is made public, so anyone can verify the service, making sure it is safe, and the provider isn't up to anything shady. 
  • Unlimited uploads and downloads: Some providers throttle upload and download speeds like mobile cell providers. If you will be moving large files, this feature is a must. 
  • Multi-device compatibility: Make sure the cloud you choose supports your devices. The whole point of cloud service is to access it anywhere and anytime. The more devices and operating systems, the better. 
  • Collaboration tools: Being able to share quickly and edit the same file is crucial in business and shared creative work. Not all services allow more than one user to access information. 
  • 2FA and other security protocols: Two-factor authentication (2FA) drastically improves the security of a cloud account. Several other security features are available as well. 
  • Redundancy: Redundancy means data is stored on more than one server and (usually) with multiple power sources. Decentralized storage has built-in redundancy, protecting users from data loss due to host hardware malfunctions or power loss. 
  • All-encompassing digital ecosystems: Many cloud storage services come packaged with other digital services (like Google Workspace) or are natively compatible with other digital services offered by other companies. 
  • User-first privacy policies: Read the terms of service or TOS of any cloud service you consider using. Make sure they won't access your data! There's no good reason to give up your privacy. 

Why you should trust cloud storage 

Modern cloud services' security and insurance positives far outweigh most privacy negatives. If you are still worried about a corporation peeking at and harvesting your data, go with a decentralized cloud, but if that is not much of a concern for you, any reputable cloud service should do the trick. 

Cloud storage frees up a lot of physical hard drive space, allows users to access files anywhere conveniently, and protects files from unforeseen disasters. The cloud is undoubtedly here to stay!

We've tested the best free cloud storage providers

Fran Villalba Segarra, CEO, Internxt.