Living in the Cloud

Posted by jwsadmin on December 13, 2014

saving time foxtrot.jpeg

tl;dr summary: I like & use Google Drive, OwnCloud, PicasaWeb, Flickr, Amazon Cloud Player, Subsonic, PlexTV, Feedly, Pocket, Disqus, and especially Trello. I hate Amazon Cloud Drive for photos now, and rant about Adobe CC's business model. Links within...

Update: Amazon Cloud Drive has fixed an issue in my rant. Now one can multi-select and download as a zip, just like google and ownCloud support. I may find a use-case for keeping with them after all...

As a modern techie, I do tend to keep quite a bit of my life on the cloud (or web 2.0, or just "the net", because in the end, isn't it all the same at heart - I have a client, somewhere there's a server, and they talk to each other and exchange data).

So not that anybody's asked, but here are my personal favorite cloud-based applications and services (some self-hosted, some only exist "out there"), for the media and things I tend to keep.

General File Storage:

I have two, currently. I was a long-time user of Google Docs, transitioning to Google Drive as they progressed, having had to learn it when my corporation went all-cloud (prior to its acquisition by a very NON cloud company, even though the product is itself a cloud service. Don't ask. I don't get it either.). Out of habit, it is still my main file transfer option when I need to get something from a work box to a home or to a friend or family member. I don't keep music or pictures on there, and video when I am sharing it with close family (ONLY) because having paid for 80 gig, which includes my picasaweb set (q.v.), it can take just about any sized file I need for the short duration of the sharing. It also used to be my checklist of choice (as in, just a single word processing file with the items in it, and edit it with strikethrough when it was done) but I did find a MUCH better option (q.v.).

I use it less for general Office type work, as I now have discovered OwnCloud, and have an install at this hosted site (no, I won't tell you where it is), and will soon set another up on my LAN at home. While the office-editing isn't as full-featured as Drive (which itself is of course limited compared to a real Office install), it is good enough for the quick documents I need to do. There are a lot of other apps available for OwnCloud that I'm exploring, especially with more of Drive exporting features to 3rd Party companies, including something as basic as PowerPoint import, and while I 'trust' Google to a point, I'm not as trustworthy of these other companies or their packages. The OwnCloud apps keep all action in a server I can look into, and most of the code is open source and has surely seen a few eyeballs here and there to look for leaks.


Adobe's cloud ideas just don't work for professionals. I really don't know why they are going that route. 100% photos in the cloud works for family members who just take shots with their phone, want to do a little polish or effects, and post, and never lose one. Yay. Works for that.

A professional taking shots on a DSLR in RAW mode at 25-35 meg per shot (even more for RAW 5x4 and mirrorless photos), and having between 20 and 200 of these at any shoot (nevermind the 12,000 I'd take on a typical two-week vacation) just doesn't work. The upload costs alone will blow through almost any home internet contract, and not do professional labs' budgets much good either. Many photographers are also very secretive of their works, not wanting them on the web until they can get a watermark on it. I just don't see them really winning the professional market, which will likely turn increasingly to Lightroom, and I see them as too expensive for the amateur. Wrong product for their current revenue, too expensive for any new stream.

So enough ranting about what I don't use.

I actually keep the vast majority of my photos off the web. I just have too darn many (I'm not one to delete, except overtly fuzzy ones), and my organizational mind requires folders of folders for stuff of that size, which few online stores (aside from OwnCloud) support while still giving easy browsing features. I also shoot in RAW too much for my main work.

When first starting out, I was using Picasa just as it became part of Google's empire, and in spite of disliking much of Google+'s approach to photo sharing (you can share it as a g+ post, but not much else), the fact that they've kept the PicasaWeb interface alive as an alternative has kept me with them. I use them for private-sharing the photos of my kid to family, and for the vacation memory albums and a more public means of sharing shots from the renaissance festival.

Facebook only gets those I really want to share for reasons of tagging or "I know my audience" there. Thus, it only gets people shots, the best-of-the-best of my kid, and some selfies or "hey, look at this" shots from my phone. The rest is shared on FB as links from Picasa, Flickr, or my blog.

I use Flickr to host my best-of-the-best shots, after having put in all the polish I want to make them as best as they can be. This becomes my host for the photos for the blog, so that Flickr can manage responsive sizes and I don't have to. I still need to pick a vanity URL over there.

For 'instant upload' (as in, save the photo in the cloud as soon as my cell phone takes it), I do use the instantUpload feature from my OwnCloud setup. It has occasional reliability issues that I hope get resolved over time - some uploads fail, though it does eventually get around to trying again and succeed later (on the Android, it is automatic; on IOS, you need to intentionally tell it to try again). But it does mean my photos remain MINE, from my phone to my cloud to my desktop, until I am ready to share them. No risk of a hacker braking into DropBox or anything like that (not that I take photos of that kind of risk).

I used to use Amazon's, but in a cloud market where all the vendors are increasing features, Amazon annoyingly and confusingly is taking features away. They are the first one I have ever heard of to have a desktop folder sync solution only to take it away. WHAT??? In short, they love you adding stuff to the cloud, but aside from music purchases (q.v.), they don't make it easy at all to download it back to your desktop. Their web app only supports one file at a time, when even the most basic service provides zip collections. So using it as a means to transfer files from the phone via the cloud back to your desktop for polish just doesn't work anymore. It has become useless for me. (I was also not happy with them when they disassociated their general cloud service from their music cloud, but at least there they didn't take any features away.)


33 years of collecting, through the collapse of Tower Records, means that no external cloud service can come close to handling my collection. They just can't scale to the near 600 gig I have, across so many genres, along with my generally particular means of finding what I want (a means that changes based on genre. How I hunt for a live concert of King Crimson is different from my thought process in hunting down a Boulez orchestral work from the 1960s). The ability to folder things is key, and none of the cloud music services support it (nor for that matter do many of the home players).

I generally purchase mp3s from Amazon (being against iTunes back when they DRM'ed everything, and not a big fan of AAC in any case, I only go there when the product isn't available anywhere else, like some classic/ancient Disney soundtracks). I keep some of my own files ripped from CDs there as well, when they go with them, to create a few playlists for when my home network drops, but that's about it. From being an old amazon cloud music customer, I'm grandfathered into an older contract that allows me unlimited files, vs the 250,000 files they offer today. But as I implied, it really doesn't scale for me. The genre's that the files default to are usually useless or overlapping, and how I look for my music changes depending on genre. So aside from downloading purchases, and a backup for when my home network services are down, I don't use it much.

I was and remain unimpressed by Amazon's Prime pre-configured playlists, where they continued to package the same "top 50 hits" as everybody else does for the genres they picked, and most of their 'radio' playlists are all insanely upbeat and utterly anti-goth (for any genre). I do keep Pandora and Live365 paid services available. While I understand how some dislike Pandora's low revenue stream, I respect them more than Spotify (or the Prime or Google Play Music's) "stream what you want when you want it" services - Pandora is still 'radio' (just with "skip this" added), where-as the Spotify model is "why buy a CD when you can just listen to what you want with a few clicks", and as we've seen, that just doesn't scale well at all in a manner by which recording artists can continue to afford recording.

Spotify's model is effectively, "I buy the CD once and then I can just share it with 2.7 million of my closest friends".

And GrooveShark wasn't even THAT generous.

What I do use is Subsonic. I have two servers set up at home, each pulling their subset of files from a network WD MyBookLive drive. They used to be just one, but the amount of time it took to rescan the folders each night was actually crashing the drive's OS (those things have a tiny linux install inside them, believe it or not). So I split them up, turned off auto-rescan, and things seem ok. The first handles rock, pop80s, new age, and the celtic and folk stuff. The second has classical (a HUGE collection), soundtracks and scores, and audio dramas like Hitchhikers and Big Finish's Doctor Who series. In each, I'm able to keep everything foldered exactly the way I want, and have some java programs that are able to extract useful playlists out of them for shuffle modes. The one free IOS player I have is a little inconsistent, but the android app works just fine, as does SubAir, and I don't really use the IOS device that much (it's my kid's iPod touch). Lots of other apps for many platforms are available, though I do wish there was something for the WDTV.

Also, being MY collection, running on MY server, I'm free (technologically) to share it with anybody I wish. Not that I do very often outside of family, but there we are. With a file on amazon, iCloud, or google play music, I can't just go "hey, check this out". Currently the share feature requires flash on the receiving end, but hopefully an html5 audio version will become standard.

Subsonic is a Java server (incorporating Jetty, but also available as just the .war so you can embed it in an existing Tomcat environment you might have), capable of running on Linux, Windows, Mac, and several home NAS (Network Accessed Storage) systems.


While I have a YouTube account, and know I can post on Facebook, I have simply given up on them both. I am so beyond being sick and tired of getting automated DMCA notices for stuff that is well within Fair Use provisions, especially for material posted privately. There is no reason for some of what I have posted to ever have seen the notice of the 'bots' from some of the complaining sources (especially not one from the BBC in London), which implies that the bots must have actually been run from within Google's servers. So to hell with both of them.

This did mean that I was somewhat limited to just exchanging raw files per the google drive mechanism, but I have since found two new options, one mentioned above.

For personal files and "hey check this out" moments, including a few videos of my kid to share with family, I now can host them on the OwnCloud service, which includes a few embedded video players. Video playing is, even for 7.x, still a bit inconsistent and browser-dependent (and even operating system dependent), so I still haven't quite found the 'perfect' format in terms of CODEC and container to use for this just yet. Still working on it.

For my large media purchases, though, I have discovered Plex. Plex is a video hosting service that effectively allows one to create their own mini Netflix type site. If you organize your files and file names correctly, it can even automagically pull down movie posters, artwork, credits, and summaries, giving the presentation a professional look to it. Apps exist for android, IOS, Windows, Linux, Mac OSX, and a number of set-top boxes (like Amazon Fire and Roku3), smart tv's (like Samsung's latest offerings), and even the XBox. The server runs on Linux, Mac, and Windows. Keeping the playback bitrate moderately low (360bps, close to the low-end YouTube rate) and video plays reasonable well even over a 4G LTE connection.

Plex also serves audio (but it is very dependent on having the ID3 tags exactly perfect) and photos (including having an instant upload feature, just like OwnCloud's), but I haven't tried either much except in putting the Big Finish Dr Who set into it to see what it takes. Playlists are relatively new, and not very convenient to create (Subsonic playlist control is in the API so I can write my own stuff to work with it), so I wouldn't rely on that much yet. Maybe it'll get easier. The other thing I want from Plex is a shuffle feature on the playlists, but that's only offered for music lists. My WDTV boxes can at least support video shuffling now (I just wish WDTV would work with Plex outside of the deprecated DNLA protocol, but oh well).

Internally, my video is distributed off multiple hard drives around my entire LAN. One WDTV box is hosting the kid's shows and movies (including Disney). Another hosts the TV shows (including the large Dr. Who collection) and the more pg13 movies. The server linux box is a 7 year old DELL XP box that I swapped XP with Ubuntu 14 and works perfectly fine. It itself hosts the documentaries and the music videos, and the network MyBookLive hosts the classical video and collection of the kid's home movies for family.

I used to use AoA's products for ripping to AVI files back when I had windows boxes, but switched to Handbrake when I got my first Mac in 2010, and use it and MakeMKV for pulling the content off the DVDs and BRs, keeping things in mp4/m4v almost exclusively now. Plex can read just about anything I've thrown at it, including unlocked wmv, most AVI, the mp4s, and all the way to a full 25gig mkv (though I usually just use the mkv as a source for ipad-quality mp4s, then ditch it 'cause that's a LOT of file for just one movie).

Network Lifestyle:

I used to read my RSS feeds in Thunderbird, back when I only had one (work) computer to deal with. Since living in the cloud, such a one-box-only solution is very, well, 90s. I originally bought my first domain, "", the whole point was to make a cloud-based RSS aggregator service that would provide a single page 'blog' like view of all of your feeds mixed together. I was only just slightly behind Google, who released Google Reader about a month later, thus eliminating my potential market, so the idea was unused for several years. When Google discontinued Reader, I started looking at some of the RSS services available in softaculous at my hosting site and was about to experiment with TinyRSS (even as a possible platform for restarting the feedmixer idea, since the baseline was open source php, the language I intended to use), when Feedly came along.

Feedly is everything I could want for a reader. Reliable, mobile apps, lots of sharing and bookmarking options, everything. Their ability to stay stable and fast as their client base multiplied by a factor of 10 or more after Reader disappeared is very worthy of respect.

For online bookmarking, I use Pocket for quick reads (bookmark the politics as I see it during the day, read it in Pocket over lunch or after dinner). For long-term use, Pocket has a lot of features, but "discoverability" is a problem. It is actually very hard to figure out how to work with things like tagging. But the basic use case of bookmark it, read it, mark it read, is insanely easy and works.

Longer term bookmarks, I use Evernote. Generally, I only am keeping things I'll need later as I get into projects, such as javascript/html5, photography, how to raise a teenager (which I won't need for about 10 years, so hopefully Evernote will still be around by then ;-) ), and the Disney Alaska Cruise we keep putting off. Its tagging and editing is good. It also has its uses for collecting research notes when writing papers, so we'll see if that use case is still valid as my kid gets older, too. More so than even Pocket, it is great for saving an interim copy of the site, should the original disappear into 404land which is pretty common with magazines and blogs.

My Calendars are all hosted by Google, where I import the ICS links from everybody else including Facebook events (annoyingly, it means I get the birthdays with it). I then can share the Google calendars into the Lightning extension for Thunderbird as well so I can see things side-by-side with my internal Work calendar (that I can't import into Google due to blockage - can't blame them). The nice thing about bringing all of those ICS calendars into Google is that it then gives me just one place to look for calendars for inclusion in my Android phone. I can't say what hassles doing this would mean for an IOS device.

For the checklist/todo/task app, I tried a LOT of solutions, from the tasks systems of various mail and calendar servers, to dedicated checkbox apps, to just keeping a flat text document on Google Drive and strikethrough the completed stuff. None were ever really right for me.

Finally, an unclutter-encouraging website (nsfw in language, not pictures) re-introduced me to something my manager had also tried to use (before an 'agile' dashboard system was integrated with JIRA): Trello. I literally can't emphasize that enough. For something so simple, this app is an absolute marvel, and I use it for just about everything, even the daily minutia of getting everything out the door each morning. It has literally become my second brain the way others use calendars. In addition to agile-programming checklists (including how I made sure that I had everything I wanted working on this site before I went public with it), I use it for:

  • Morning Mental Checklist
  • Packing for a renaissance faire weekend
  • Packing for a big vacation like our annual GARF trips
  • Planning out the upcoming 2 week California vacation (ideas, what's agreed on, have i bought the tickets/reservations yet, etc)
  • Christmas Shopping - not just who gets what and making sure no family member is forgotten, but also tracking where in the house it is so I can make sure it gets to the car before we hit the road
  • Tracking all the home cleaning projects we're doing right now, so even when the house doesn't look shockingly cleaner, I can at least look at something and go "yes, progress was made"

And even more forward looking things like "what do we need in order to be able to do a Disney cruise" (things like passports, for example). Trello has color labeling, due-dates (that can export as ICS into Google Calendar), organizations and members so I can share the family stuff with my wife, and for professionals, a few other features like card voting and aging. I really can not emphasize this application enough for its incredible ease of use and power features. About the only thing missing that I'd want is 'multiple' - select 10 items and move them or tag them.

I opted out of self-managing comments pages for the blogs, after too many years of my old Celts site being hit with "Texas Hold-'em" spam. As I've re-entered the blogging world, I opted for Disqus as my comments engine of choice. I understand others not caring much for it, but it works for my needs, so hence, you see it below.

So about the only aspect of cloud living that I'm just not up to 21st century snuff on would be cloud backups. In my case, it is for reasons of scale. Not so much the quantity of files (though that is a factor) but rather the quantity of hardware and software. With 7 boxen of various O/S's (1 having 2 on it, as it still has an XP partition for a few key reasons), 4 android devices, 1 IOS device (and 2 classic iPods - I'll sell one if they keep holding at $400 a piece on ebay right now ;-) ), it is just too much work to try to find one common solution for keeping just the good stuff working 'out there'. Some of my needs are solved by using Google Drive and OwnCloud more and more for Office documents. Picasa/Flickr can at least keep the final results of my photo work, should I lose my hard drives here @ home with the RAW contents (though I'm keeping multiple backups of them as well). Any wiped OS is going to take more time restoring software than it would be restoring data, and the DVD rips can always be redone, tedious though that may be.

So I haven't quite had a driving need to have a consistent backup formula across all systems. The Mac is protected by TimeMachine; the photo drives are mirrored; the DVD rips are recoverable. That just leaves the 'old stuff' on a few scattered hard drives, and the taxes on that XP partition I mentioned. Maybe I'll come up with something, but no solution has really attracted me just yet as far as trust goes...and this isn't trust in the sense of being hack-proof or spy-proof, but rather trust that any corporation I invest in will still be around in X years. Markets in the cloud can change rapidly.

Maybe one of them will earn my trust, or maybe I'll just set up a second OwnCloud instance that is solely to protect the 'Documents' folders of the key boxen around here. Who knows?

This has been one of the reasons why I've been more willing to look at the many open source home cloud solutions (OwnCloud, Subsonic, Plex), and carefully look at options before investing in others. I have indeed appreciated the efforts of many of the services above to be willing to pay for their subscription or add-on services (Trello, Plex, Subsonic, Google (quota), Amazon (quota)).

So that's it. My cloud lifestyle in a nutshell.

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