An Introduction to Cloud Computing

As the resident computer geek in my family, I find myself explaining a lot of abstract concepts to people who might not have the background knowledge to fully understand them. I’ve had many people ask how I fixed a problem or what a hashtag is, and the most common response to my answers is “err, nevermind, forget I asked.” Despite this, one of the most common trends I get asked about – and perhaps one of the least understood – is cloud computing.

What is “The Cloud?”

If you’ve heard of cloud computing, you’ve probably heard some variation of “The Cloud.” You may have even heard a catchy phrase such as “put it on The Cloud”. To me, this is little more than a misleading marketing buzzword. The cloud (note: not capitalized!) is a metaphor for the Internet in general, as it denotes a large ambiguous blend of individual components linked together. Placing something “on the cloud” means little more than storing something to the Internet, an act that can apply to something as simple as sending an email. What most people mean when they reference “The Cloud” is the concept of cloud computing.

So What Is Cloud Computing?

Many people define it in many different ways, but the general idea is this: cloud computing is a shift in resources from your device (laptop, computer, phone, etc.) to another device located somewhere on the Internet. Normally your device is responsible for storing and processing all of the information that you use on a regular basis; documents, pictures, music, programs, etc. With cloud computing, service providers offer to take that burden off of your device by hosting it themselves, making it available to you over the Internet. This allows you to use those same documents, pictures, music, and programs while placing less demand on your device. The most common benefit, however, is that it removes the responsibility of maintaining that data while allowing you to use the same content across multiple devices simultaneously. For instance, you can edit a document stored in a cloud service on your laptop and pick up right where you left off on your tablet, without having to copy the document or maintain two separate versions.

The concept has existed since the mainframe era of the 1950s – 1990s, albeit in a different form. With mainframes we had terminals (which had no real processing power of their own) connected over a network to a monolithic device which handled all of the workload. The introduction of the personal computer moved us away from these “thin client” terminals to “fat clients” which were capable of much of the storage and processing responsibilities previously delegated to the mainframe. During this transition mainframes were in many ways replaced by servers, which provided much of the same functionality without having to do nearly as much work. While the terminals bulked up, the mainframes slimmed down. This new relationship between the personal computer (the client) and the server is known as the client/server model: the server provides information to the client which the client then processes and presents to the user. With cloud computing, we’re beginning to see a return to the mainframe model where files, programs, music, movies, even video games are being streamed to devices that do little more than connect to the Internet.

What Does This Mean For Me?

For the average user, cloud computing is an exciting paradigm. Cloud computing shifts the burden of managing a device from the end user to the service provider, making computer administration more accessible for those who don’t have the time or expertise to do it themselves. While it’s important to have a basic understanding of how a computer works, not everyone needs to know how to make rotating incremental backups, re-install their operating system, or recover files from a dead hard drive. Despite what they say about motorcycle maintenance, sometimes it just makes sense to let a mechanic do it.

Chances are if you have a smartphone or a modern computer, you’re already taking advantage of cloud technologies. Google, Apple, and Microsoft are pushing the cloud by automatically storing your data and device preferences on their servers. These companies are making it possible to share not only files, but entire user accounts seamlessly across multiple Internet-connected devices. In Apple’s case, you can even restore a broken computer.

Put Your Head In the Cloud

Making the leap to cloud computing isn’t as difficult as you might imagine. As mentioned earlier, if you have any kind of modern device you probably already have data stored on remote servers. When researching cloud solutions, you might want to keep the following questions in mind:

  1. What am I worried about protecting? If the integrity of your data is important to you, you might want to back up your files using a service like DropBox or CrashPlan. These companies build their trust on protecting your data, performing frequent backups and integrity checks to ensure your files are always available. Most of these services even provide versioning, which allows you to revert a file back to a previous state in case it becomes corrupt.
  2. Who do I trust? While you can mix and match cloud services, it may be best to stick with a single service provider. Companies that provide multiple cloud services typically have stronger integration between those services, making the overall experience more seamless. For instance, since Google owns the Android operating system it can integrate its apps and services directly into Android. Likewise, Apple ensures that its cloud services are integrated seamlessly with iOS.
  3. What am I willing to share? Privacy is a critical topic in an always-connected world. Companies that specialize in selling data are eager to learn as much about you as possible, and these are often the same companies that provide cloud services. How much you value your privacy will determine how much of your data you place in the cloud. The key, as always, is to find a solution that supports your everyday activities without causing additional headaches.

As we become a more digitally integrated society, the cloud will play a more prominent role in our everyday lives. Taking advantage of it can greatly enhance your productivity while removing some of the more unnecessary stresses in your life. I recommend taking some time to research different cloud technologies and how they might work for you.

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