Removable media, peer-to-peer, clouds, hyperlinks, downloads, file-sharing. These are very 21st century terms. Sure, some of them have been around since the Middle Ages (of the Computer Era), but for most people they could just as well be Anglo-Saxon terms for weather reports. When clouds contain too much moisture they produce downloads, right?
Not exactly. These are all terms that describe in some way the process of sharing files between computers. Sharing files is not quite the same as file-sharing, and the big difference has to do with ethics and legality. The term file-sharing has become synonymous with copyright infringement, particularly as it relates to music. Napster, Megaupload and other departed file-sharing groups come to mind.
Sharing files, on the other hand is usually perfectly legal as well as being quick, convenient and so prevalent that half the time you are not even aware that you are doing it. Yet every time you attach a document to an email you are sharing a file. Every time you download a photograph, a song or a program from the Internet, you are sharing a file. Every time you load a picture on to Facebook, you are sharing a file. Every time you click on a hyperlink, you are sharing a file.
Some of these files – photographs in particular – may be copyright protected. In most cases, though, files that can be downloaded are in the public domain. Otherwise, you have to pay for them. In that case, it is a commercial transaction just like buying goods and having them sent to you. In the case of downloaded files, this form of sharing is the most convenient for all concerned.
Other ways of sharing files include removable devices, peer-to-peer networks, centralized servers and hyperlinks. The information to be shared needs to be stored digitally somewhere. If, from there, you can find a way for the user of another computer to gain access to this information, you are sharing files. The information may be in the form of documents, images, audio or video files, computer programs and even electronic books.
The earliest method of sharing files was using removable devices such as floppy disks. The first ones really were floppy, but even the later rigid, 3” disks were called floppies. After that came CD’s, writeable CD’s, DVD’s and writeable DVD’s. The advent of the USB port made it possible to load photographs directly from a digital camera to the computer, or to use a USB device commonly known as a flash drive (also Jump drive, memory stick or data stick etc) to copy data off one computer, physically move the flash drive and plug it into another computer and then load the data on to the second computer.
The next development was networked computers. These can either be peer-to-peer, or client-server. In the former the various computers in the network have equal importance, or status. In the client-server network, one computer is designated as the server and it feeds information and services to the others while receiving information from them. In either case, the computers are physically linked by wires and cables, or they are connected by a wireless device. It is possible to have simple networks like these in the home or office. Data files can easily be passed from one machine to another (peer-to-peer) or loaded on to and stored on the server from where any computer in the network can access the files. While there is inherent security in having all your files accessible only to the network, there is also a danger in putting all your eggs in one basket by storing all your data on one machine. Servers have been known to crash or temporarily lock up.
This problem can be overcome in the short term by always having the data backed up on to an external device, such as a tape or a disk. To be safe this physical device should be stored off-site, a practice that is not particularly convenient. Otherwise the disks should be in a fire-proof box in case the computers go up in smoke. Many companies have gone one step further and they keep their data on an external site. The advantages are that there is virtually unlimited storage, security is high and downtime is virtually non-existent. At the same time all the files are available to anyone on the network. There is no danger that files will be lost if one of the network computers has a problem. At worst, the only loss will be the last work session.
The ultimate in file sharing for businesses is cloud computing. Instead of buying a computer product such as software packages to load on individual computers, the company buys a cloud service which provides everything – software, information, resources – shared over a network, usually the Internet.
Sharing files is the current standard for communication between individuals and businesses. It is usually free, usually legal and always easy.