In past columns, I've written about online backup and storage alternatives for small-to-midsized businesses (SMBs) and enterprises. Some of those products have worked their way down to the small office/home office (SOHO) market as well, and a few have even developed pricing models suitable for the home user. But this month, AOL has set a new standard by making its basic service--including 5GB of user storage provided through the Xdrive online storage service--free. I recently started using Xdrive, and so far I'm pleased with its performance and ease of use.

To use Xdrive, you simply go to http://www.xdrive.com and log on with an existing AOL or AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) account name. (You don't have to be an AOL member, but you do have to have a free AIM account.) The service can be deployed in two ways. You can access your storage files from a Web interface that loads on demand from the Xdrive site. Browser-based loading means that the data can be uploaded or downloaded in the same manner from any computer that a user can access. Alternatively, you can install the Xdrive desktop client, which lets you treat Xdrive as if it were a local drive. You can also schedule automatic backups to your Web-based storage via the Xdrive client. However you decide to deploy Xdrive, you don't need to hassle with FTP technology; Xdrive handles all data transfer for you.

In general, when I need to deliver large files to clients, I create a private directory on one of my Web servers and send the directory's URL to the client. By using Xdrive's service, I avoid logging on to my Web servers. For example, recently I delivered around 1GB of images to a client, directly from the job site, by uploading them to Xdrive, then sharing that directory with Xdrive's directory-sharing feature. The sharing mechanism generates an email message, prompts you for the recipient's email address, and sends the message containing the directory URL. Using the Web interface, rather than the desktop client, I can still upload data without needing an FTP client, which is far simpler than using the command-line FTP utility built into Windows.

Lately I've been traveling quite a bit while doing a lot of writing and research. Usually I'll back up my daily work to a CD-R, but by backing up my files to my Xdrive after I finish a day's work, I save a considerable amount of time. Were I willing to use the desktop Xdrive client, I could save even more time, but I prefer to explicitly upload the files I'm using to make sure that the backup finishes.

To provide a bit more protection, Xdrive stores your deleted files for 30 days from the point you delete them, so that you can recover accidental deletions. This feature alone can make it quite valuable for a sole proprietor who doesn't have another reliable backup mechanism.

The free service is supported by banner ads that appear at the bottom of the Xdrive Web interface. To get rid of the banner ads (which also improves the performance of the service), you can opt for the pay version of Xdrive that provides 50GB of storage for just under $100 annually. If you're considering a paid storage service, you might want to evaluate some of the other vendors in this market, such as AT&T, Carbonite, and Iron Mountain.