The Cloud and What It Means to You

March 17, 2012 by  

I’m sure you have heard “the cloud” mentioned in TV commercials, print media, online articles, and more, and there are probably a number of you out there who have no idea what the cloud is and how it can benefit you and how you use your computer.

The cloud, in the context of computing and data processing, is pretty much what it sounds like: a place in a somewhat undefined “out there” where you can store and manage information without really knowing (or needing to know) exactly where it is. Most often, the cloud consists of banks and banks of file servers clustered together in huge “farms” in locations around the world. Apple has made some announcements over the last year or two regarding an enormous server farm being set up in North Carolina. Most likely, it will be treated as just another service in the cloud.

One of the earliest popular uses for the cloud was for backups. Initially, it was used by business to make backups of their most critical data. These services have now reached down to the retail level, where individual users can contract with any number of companies to backup their most critical files. One of the first, and in fact one of the companies that developed the standards for these services, was Amazon, with their S3 service. Users needing no more than 5GB of storage can get it for free on Amazon S3 for the first year, and pay a very nominal fee thereafter. The more storage you need, and the more data you need to transfer in and out of your S3 server will cost fractionally more. There are many similar services out there with differing pricing models. Just do a Google search for “cloud backup services” and you will find numerous articles comparing the many services available.

Another cloud service may be more familiar to you: Apple’s MobileMe service. MobileMe is a combination of backup, file synchronization, email, and other services that are beautifully integrated into the MacOS X operating system, and the bank of iLife applications like iTunes and iPhoto. For your $99 a year (cheaper if you buy from places like Amazon.com), you get 20GB of storage that you can use for anything you want. There’s even a neat public folder mechanism that permits you to share large files that are impractical to send via email to any user, whether or not they have a MobileMe account, and whether or not they are using a Mac or a Windows computer.

Author’s Note: When this piece was written in 2010, Apple had not yet introduced their iCloud service, so just ignore the previous paragraph. 🙂

There are other companies that offer cloud storage services similar to the iDisk feature in MobileMe, such as Dropbox, Rapidshare, and others. Just Google search “iDisk similar service.” One of the most popular is Dropbox, which offers 2GB of space for free. This is ideal to use for exchanging larger files without having to pay an annual fee. $9.99 a month gives you 50GB of storage, and $19.99 a month gives you 100GB of storage.

Growing in popularity in the corporate world is Software as a Service (SAAS). This is application software installed on a virtual server that you log into with a terminal application like Apple Remote Desktop—much like using screen sharing software, like the popular LogMeIn, which permits you to view the desktop of someone else’s computer as if it were local to you. SAAS is just like this but on a much larger scale. It means that your IT organization doesn’t need to deploy applications to each desktop, and that desktop users cannot modify or customize the application, which could make it vulnerable to viruses as well as unwanted service calls. This is a huge growth area in corporate computing. Similar working environments can also be accessed via a web browser or a Java client application.