Online or offline data storage – which is best?

The choice between online or offline data storage is increasingly being made for us, but each option has its own merits and pitfalls

Wednesday, 13 October, 2021

As the internet expanded into every area of our lives, it was inevitable that data storage would evolve into an online service.

For many years, owners of PCs had been used to saving documents to the internal hard drives of their devices.

Gradually (and without many people noticing), rising home broadband speeds saw a choice emerging between online or offline data storage.

Today, tech-savvy consumers may regard the latter as almost quaint. Yet there are undeniable benefits to retaining data locally, rather than uploading it to the cloud.

These are the key merits of both options, helping to determine whether online or offline data storage is the best option for you.

The advantages of online storage

The greatest benefit of hosting documents and data in the cloud is that everything can be accessed from almost any web-enabled device.

Rushing to finish the day’s last email on an office Mac? Proof and send it from your phone on the bus home. Received an urgent reply? Log in on your Chromebook to read and respond.

Data is never siloed when it can be accessed online. Millions of people have relied on this principle to work remotely during the pandemic via intranets, VPNs and browser extensions.

The compartmentalised nature of online storage means nobody else can view your data. In theory at least, it’ll only be visible to you.

However, it’s easy to share data with colleagues or relevant third parties. There’s no burning of discs or posting of data keys – just an emailed hyperlink to the relevant folder.

Platforms including Dropbox have become the industry-standard for media file sharing, powered by ultrafast servers and using beginner-friendly software interfaces.

They’re largely immune to malware and viruses, which could obliterate the contents of a hard drive – offering peace of mind if you don’t have any other form of data backup.

Many online file storage platforms even provide a certain amount of cloud storage for free, which is great for startup businesses looking to minimise setup costs.

The advantages of offline storage

If you have a flaky internet connection, the biggest advantage of storing data locally is its guaranteed accessibility.

You can remain productive even if the internet connection is lost. Otherwise, you’d be kicking your heels waiting for connectivity to be restored before work could resume.

An ADSL broadband connection is immensely frustrating when trying to upload large-volume files, whereas offline data storage tends to save at several megabits per second.

There’s greater privacy when storing data locally. Although it should be confidential online, storage companies may have to release it to agents of the state on demand, or even on suspicion.

That’s not great if the material is highly sensitive, classified and confidential, or simply potentially damaging. On a local C: drive, only a hacker could find it.

Durable and affordable storage media choices include USB flash drives, external HDDs and DVD-ROMs. Many feature 256-bit AES encryption, making them effectively uncrackable.

RAID disks support real-time backups, with multiple drives creating mirrored data. Even a catastrophic hard drive failure shouldn’t pose a significant issue.

The middle ground

If both options sound appealing, there is a best-of-both-worlds hybrid model.

Microsoft OneDrive is perhaps the best-known example of this. As data is saved locally into a OneDrive folder, it’s automatically synchronised with a mirror account online.

If the internet connection is lost for any reason, local OneDrive files remain accessible while Microsoft keeps trying to update the mirror files.

Once an internet connection is re-established, it will begin synching the cloud-hosted mirror with the local device.

This means users get to continue working during an outage, using their preferred device. However, they’re also able to check and edit documents remotely, on other machines.

Google Drive offers a similar (if less intuitive) take on this, with local files remaining on a specific device while a synched copy is uploaded to the company’s vast data servers.

However, it’s worth noting that any concerns regarding either method of data storage will both be valid in a hybrid storage model.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!