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The end of free Google storage for education

Bye, bye, free American bytes. I took the GDrive to be levied as .EDU sighs

Opinion In 2014, Google made a remarkable offer: anyone with a Google Apps for Education account in the US got unlimited storage for free. The logic was sound at the time.

Three years earlier, the tech giant had launched the Chromebook – cheap, robust and secure, the web-browser-based kit was a natural fit for education. The cloud was its primary storage, so what could be better than making that bigger than any hard disk in a Mac or Windows PC could ever swallow?

The idea was that if you catch users when they are young, they're yours for life. The axiom had already been tested by both Apple and Microsoft, with creative types and workers in jobs with sensible shoes respectively. Google played on its own strengths as the first cloud-native platform for everyone. And lo, it was good.

Seven years later, Google has killed the deal. The tech giant announced the end of infinity in a blog post named, with magnificent chutzpah:, "More options for learning with Google Workspace for Education."

In place of all you can stash, each institution in the scheme was getting a total pool of 100TB to give to student and teacher alike. If they wanted anything more, the cash register was open. For a small primary school with a couple of hundred pupils, this was perfectly adequate. A large science-heavy university could have a single experiment using that much, however.

That announcement was a year ago, and gave existing users 18 months of grace, with new users denied the unlimited package from, well, now. Those with experience of academic deadlines won't be surprised that it has taken this long for lots of people to notice.

Reddit and Twitter are filling with cries of pain and despair. Others, though, are more sanguine. What did you expect, they ask. What did you plan for? Their logic is as sound as that which birthed the deal in the first place. There really are more options for learning.

The first point is that Google has pulled more plugs than Dignitas. Projects and products are closed without compunction: there are many who still mourn Google Reader, but there are many others who paid attention. Google's rep won't suffer further this time.

Also, the deal has done its job. Chromebook is fully afloat in education, and Google's way of working is part of the personal and business landscape. And if you need many terabytes, there are lots of affordable options. Storage prices have halved since 2014.

Some underlying assumptions don't hold. As students advance, their use of a particular educational account may increase in size but reduce in duration, which would seem to naturally limit Google's exposure. But there was lots of fraud, with "unlimited" Google accounts changing hands online for a tenner or so, and while a lab needing 100TB might have been rare in 2014, those rules of engagement have changed too.

One Twitter researcher put it like this: if you're thinking two steps ahead, this will not be a surprise. If you're not thinking two steps ahead, no matter what you're doing, you're vulnerable, especially with storage. It was very tempting for academics to assume they'd have no storage costs, either for hardware or management, when costing a project for a grant application. They're going to be in trouble now.

Say that the free tier is good for one leg of a storage strategy, with another being on-prem and the third a cheap, slow data lake, and you can keep going through a lot of disruption, including the permanent removal of one of those three and the temporary failure of another.

If you're a small outfit, you may need to be your own admin, but you'll have nobody else to blame if you don't do your disaster recovery drill. Data only exists if it's in three places, and backups only exist if they've been recovered.

The best lesson, though, is that if you're not directly involved, you most likely haven't heard that this was going on at all. Those cries of pain are muted. Google has turned off a huge commitment in a very important sector. And? Meh.

It has taken a while, and it's by no means universal, but the realisation that free can be very expensive is sinking in for users and suppliers alike. Sustainability is an absolute duty, in business as in everything, if you want a relationship to last.

In the physical world, everyone knows where the free sample leads. In the online world, we're seeing the collapse of the hidden, unregulated market in personal data as the damage it does is exposed. And do you believe the rich pastures of tech IPOs can really support a thousand unicorns? There may be less free room for academic data in the cloud, but there's a bit more reality in our heads. ®

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