I was asked this question recently. And I remember asking myself this question several years ago when I started seeing the terminology “Cloud computing” in tech publications. At first I ignored it as I do most buzzwords and phrases. Usually these made-up terms go away shortly after they appear for lack of catching on. But “the Cloud” didn’t go away, it kept growing and growing like a…well…like a big storm cloud!
So what the heck is the Cloud?
Sometimes it is useful to use an analogy. My analogy for the Cloud is a “shared file cabinet in the sky”. I know that may sound silly. But think about it.
Before we used computers we used file cabinets to store our data. The file cabinet had several drawers. Each drawer contained a collection of folders. Papers, documents, printouts, Xeroxed copies, photos, and more were stored in the folders, usually in some organized way.
So this worked pretty well. Data was filed away, and then when you needed to access the data, you opened up the drawer, found the folder and pulled out the file you needed. But what if you forgot to pull the files for your meeting and you were already over at the client’s office across town. Your only recourse was to call over to your office and have someone take the file out of the file cabinet, and then fax the document to you.
Now, what if that file cabinet was a Shared File Cabinet in the sky, or in other words a shared storage space connected to the Internet? You would rent out a drawer in the file cabinet and access it from any internet-connected location. You wouldn’t have access to the other drawers, and other “renters” would not be able to access your file cabinet drawer. Well folks that’s the Cloud.
In the simplest of terms, according to PC Magazine “The cloud is just a metaphor for the Internet”.
You may already be in the Cloud
The Cloud is really nothing new. It used to be called “Shared Application Hosting” or “Software as a Service” but that wasn’t sexy enough. People like mysterious sounding buzzwords.
Use Hotmail, Yahoo mail, or Gmail? That’s cloud-based mail hosting. Your e-mail is not stored on your computer; it is stored on a web server (storage location – i.e. file cabinet) and you connect to it over the Internet.
Other examples of Cloud-based services you may be using are Google Drive (formerly Google Docs), DropBox for storing documents; and Flickr or Picasa for photos.
What is iCloud?
iCloud is simply Apple’s portion of the Cloud. iCloud is used to synchronize information between Apple devices. For example you can download an app onto your iPhone, and then have that same app available automatically on your iPad. This will happen if both devices have iCloud enabled and use the same Apple ID. For me the most useful feature of iCloud is Photo Stream. With Photo Streams enabled, when I take a picture using my iPhone, it automatically shows up on my computer! It’s like magic. This feature requires the iCloud control panel installed on your computer. Learn more about iCloud features on Apple’ site.
What are the risks and benefits?
Benefits of using cloud-based services are that you don’t have to use up your hard drive space with storing all your files. You can conveniently access your files, music, movies, etc. from any location using most devices like your computer, smart phone or tablet as long as you have an internet connection. And, you can let the service do your backups for you.
Risks – what if you don’t have access to the internet? Boarding a plane and want to watch a movie on your iPad? You’ll need to make sure that movie is downloaded and not being “streamed” from the cloud, which you won’t be able to do in transit. Security and privacy are concerns, so you’ll want to choose a strong password for any cloud-based accounts. In my opinion the files aren’t any more or less secure than the files being stored right here on my hard drive. Some might argue that they are more secure due to the resources these large companies have to ensure the security of their systems. You’ll have to decide on what your own personal comfort level is regarding Apple or Microsoft or Google housing all your “stuff”.
More about the Cloud
Here are a few other articles that offer user-friendly explanations of the cloud:
PC Magazine – What is Cloud Computing? (do watch the Amy Poehler video linked in the first paragraph; very funny!)