You’ve heard of people storing their pictures and files in the cloud. At work, they may say that the software you use is in the cloud. Almost everything seems to be moving to the cloud.
But what is the cloud? And how can you get the most out of it?
How do you define something that is intended to be ambiguous? Since at least 1977, when a computer network was drawn a cloud icon was used to represent unknown resources outside the immediate network. You know it’s there, you just can’t see inside of it much like a real cloud in the sky. Often, it just represented a connection to the internet.
That’s really what the cloud is – the internet and all the things it connects to, that aren’t in your home or office. Maybe you’ve heard someone say, “The cloud is just someone else’s computer.” That’s not far off the mark. It’s more computers, servers, routers, switches, and all sorts of technology. It’s everything that makes the internet work and then some.
Depending on how old you are, you might remember hearing about time-sharing on mainframe computers. That’s something that started in the 1960s. You could submit a job to a mainframe. The mainframe would run the job when it wasn’t running someone else’s job.
It could take minutes, days, or weeks before the mainframe had an open timeslot. They were massive and powerful for the time, but very underpowered compared to even the computers of the 1980s.
When the personal computer came along, mainframe computing became less of a thing. It was easier, faster, and cheaper to run your programs right on your desktop. But this was merely a contraction of networked computing. The Internet would change all of that.
As networking and computing technology became cheaper, it made sense for tech companies to start offering mainframe-like services again. Everybody was already using the Internet, why not make it the machine that does all the work?
Companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Google created massive warehouses full of powerful servers. They built amazing programs on them that we could use from home. Internet speeds went from a drizzle out of a tap to a torrent out of a firehouse. It was all too big, too fast, and too full of possibilities to describe it all, so it got referred to as the cloud.
If you’re reading this, you’re already using it. There’s cloud storage, cloud computing, and cloud infrastructure. What can’t you do with the cloud? To get the most out of the cloud, you need to have a high-level understanding of these things and what services are available to help you get the most out of them.
Where you may have stored all your files on your computer or an external hard drive, there are companies that provide storage on their servers. They’ll have an app to download that will seamlessly keep your files backed up to the cloud and give you instant access to them.
The upside of cloud storage is that if your computer dies, you’ll still have access to all your old files, pictures, and videos. The downside is that there is usually a subscription fee.
There are several that offer free accounts with some limits. You can pay to upgrade these plans if you’d like. Google Drive offers 15GB free. Microsoft OneDrive and Apple iCloud both offer 5GB of free storage.
Instead of programs running on your local computer, cloud computing means you’re working with programs that are on the internet somewhere.
You see everything that happens on your computer but the real action is happening on a server that could be thousands of miles away. It’s like watching the news. You see it locally on your TV, but all the work of the newscaster, meteorologist, and camera operators are in a studio somewhere. The TV is just your window into it.
Anything that you can do with a computer can be done with cloud computing services. If you’ve used things like Google Docs, Microsoft Office 365, Apple’s iCloud, or any free email service, you’ve used cloud computing. You can also do professional-level music production, host video chats, share your screen with other people, and a host of other things.
Just like remote servers running your software, remote servers can also act like hardware and the parts that make up a network. The average home user probably doesn’t need cloud infrastructure, but it’s good to know that it’s there.
Here’s an example of how cloud infrastructure might help you. Imagine you’re thinking about getting a Mac. But you’ve never used one. That’s a lot of money to spend on something you’re not sure about. There are such things as cloud-based Macs. You access a server that’s running virtual Macs and you use it like you would a Mac sitting on your desk.
You can also use the cloud as your personal media server to view your movies and tv shows, and listen to your music from any computer in the world. The Plex Media Server is a great example.
Reading articles like this is the first step. Get a feel for what services are available to you. Think about the things you do on your computer and then search to see if there’s a cloud service for the same thing.
Compare the pros and cons of that service to what you’re already doing. Which is cheaper? Which has the features you need? Which do you trust? When you start asking these questions, you’ll find the best mix of your computer and the cloud for you.