August 25, 2015

Using Third Party Cloud Services in Conjunction with Windows

Laurent Slutzky


One of the great and longstanding advantages of working within the Windows ecosystem is that developers often make their desktop software first and foremost. While this was particularly true in the pre-iPhone days, it remains true today – at least as far as desktop and laptop operating systems are concerned.

While Microsoft is clearly a major player in the Cloud sector overall, a number of other services are worth looking at. Whether it’s a collaboration suite that has a feature your organization needs, or an invoicing system that has helped keep your books organized for years, you’ll find literally hundreds of cloud services to choose from.

Some cloud services work particularly well with the Windows suite. These are all services that I have used personally, or am deeply familiar with.

If you are a fan of the GTD (Get Things Done) movement, but still like to have flexibility with your collaboration tools, Trello is arguably the best service of its kind. Trello provides a robust and open-ended platform that can be used to organize projects, to-do lists, and anything else you need individually or your company needs collectively to stay organized. One stand-out Trello feature is the robust integration they offer with other services, including many cloud-based services. On the Windows front, one feature that I’ve particularly found valuable is the ability to copy an Excel document directly onto a Trello board, and having that board know exactly how you want that data formatted.

Basecamp is similar to Trello, except it does not offer a free option (other than a fully functional trial period). Basecamp also integrates quite well with Office 365 documents, but some of the more intuitive features on Trello (such as the copy/pasting of Excel documents) aren’t quite as developed on Basecamp. Nevertheless, this software is a highly effective way to organize members of your team while protecting that data on a cloud server. Just remember, Microsoft is an industry leader in data security, so you should probably transfer critical data to OneDrive as often as possible.

I spent years trying to find a time-tracking service that had enough useful features to confidently recommend it to others. It seems that I am good company in recommending OfficeTime, as it also happens to be a PC Magazine Editor’s Choice as well. Like other cloud-based services, OfficeTime helps protect your critical data (in this case how much you should invoice your clients) while simplifying the process of tracking your (or your team’s) billable hours. For companies that want a comprehensive time-tracking, invoicing and expense-tracking suite that is fully integrated into the Windows ecosystem, look no further.

There is no doubt that Microsoft’s Azure is an increasingly robust solution for data and storage; for many business data storage functions, it is the only solution you need. However, for some specialized functions, it can be useful to have a third-party solution that is specifically designed for the task at hand.

Hightail is my favorite third-party solution for transferring large files, particularly when they are needed on mobile devices or laptops out in the field. Hightail is specifically designed to send large files — up to 10GB — quickly and securely, while letting users track exactly where those files are going and who is seeing them. However, the feature that makes Hightail my top recommendation that it is fully integrated into Outlook. A Hightail plugin, installed into Outlook, lets you send large attachments without ever needing to leave Outlook. Essentially, Hightail makes Microsoft’s existing solutions more robust. Eventually, we could well see Microsoft incorporate these features themselves, but in the meantime, I prefer using the best option available to me. Not only that, but if Microsoft sees that a sizable number of their users are paying a third party for a service that could be offered natively on Windows 10, it could very well accelerate product development.

Slack. one of the newer cloud-based solutions, has been receiving a lot of press over the past year or so. Initially dubbed the “email killer” by tech journalists, Slack is a chat room and private messaging platform for organizations large or small. It has a robust suite of features, including industry-leading search functionality and integration with dozens of other cloud services. While I wouldn’t say that Slack is an “email killer” per se, it certainly can significantly reduce internal emails. It is hard to describe what makes Slack such a great service, and I myself am still figuring out exactly how best to use it. What I will say is that, if you haven’t already, create an account and test it out, even if it’s just for a friend or hobby group (but preferably for a business or other organization, which is where it truly shines).

LastPass is my favorite cloud solution, and proves that simplicity and needed functionality are all you need to make a “killer app.”

Back in the early days of computing and the Internet, it was possible for me to simply remember my passwords. Back then, we didn’t need to worry much about including at least one letter, number and symbol in every password. However, as the information those passwords provided access to became more valuable, and the ability of hackers to crack passwords increased, the need for ever-more-complex passwords developed. In order to keep track of my passwords back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I used to keep them on a 5″ x 8″ index card in a locked desk drawer. While this wasn’t the most efficient method for storing my passwords, it was effective, and I did not have to worry about anyone finding those passwords — at least digitally.

However, as the years went on, the number of accounts, passwords, and logins that I use on a regular (or occasional) basis has exploded. In addition, the mobile revolution has led to me spending much more time using computing devices away from my desk. In any event, the index card had to go.

While I have tried a number of password storage services over the years, LastPass has been the one I have stuck with ever since I found it. One thing I like about LastPass is that even they don’t have access to your account. While this does mean that the loss of your “master password” means that your account is permanently irretrievable, it also means that your data is protected by AES 256-bit encryption. Even if (when) LastPass is occasionally hacked, those hackers will have zero access to your data.

As far as functionality, LastPass integrates into any web browser, including the new Microsoft Edge. Since it is a cloud service, all you need to do have all of your logins and passwords automatically pasted for you is to install the LastPass plugin on whatever device you’re using and enter your username and master password into the plugin. After that, any time you type a username and password into a service, LastPass will ask you if you want to save that information, so that any time after that point, the login information will automatically be filled out, on any of your devices, without any additional input from you.

It should go without saying, but your master password should be shared with absolutely no one. Also, while LastPass is arguably the best password management solution out there, you are always going to be safer if you don’t use a password management system, and simply remember your passwords yourself. Ultimately, it comes down to a choice between convenience and maximizing your security.

If you have other cloud-based services that you are using, and you think are great, please send me a message. I am always looking for ways to improve the computing experience for myself and others!