There’s a load of information – and more importantly, a load of misinformation about what is and is not “in the cloud.” Cloud computing has gotten enormous in recent years and gone from a simple, basic idea into an entire infrastructure that leaves most of us – professional and layperson alike – very confused. Not only is The Cloud elusive, but many companies make it worse by not explaining exactly what it is and misusing the term. So here it is, in plain English.
The Simple Answer: The Cloud refers to any computing that is done remotely on a computer that is not local, i.e. in your house or within your company. When you are working in The Cloud, you are doing something online rather than on the machine sitting beside you, on your lap, or in your hands.
Examples of Cloud Based Computing
Even if you hate technology and are a Luddite, loud and proud, odds are you’ve still used the cloud. If you use an email service on their website, that’s the cloud. If you’ve streamed video on Netflix, YouTube, or perhaps at one of those sites specifically for adults (like CNN.com because let’s face it, kids aren’t that boring nor is their reporting that biased) then you have used the cloud. If you have a remote backup service, like Google Drive or Dropbox, then guess what? The stuff being saved there is being saved remotely, in The Cloud. The stuff that is saved on your Instagram account, on your Facebook profile, or on your Foursquare…spot? We don’t know, like everyone else, we don’t use Foursquare, but they’re cloud-based too in that they keep your stuff somewhere other than a machine that you can use offline.
So, Where is This Cloud?
Knowing what the cloud is doesn’t really explain where it is. In truth, it isn’t nearly as mystical, nebulous, or distant as it sounds. The computations that the cloud accomplishes have to take place somewhere, and that somewhere is usually a server farm that’s run by one of the companies working in the cloud. While a file might not be saved on your machine or a program might not be running locally, it’s still on a much bigger, much more impressive computer – or, more often, set of computers – somewhere far away. These massive computers are servers that are dedicated to doing nothing but storing your data and running programs for you. They are maintained, serviced, and monitored by the companies that use them, be it Google, Yahoo, Hulu, or Marty’s Cloud ‘N’ Stuff.
Why The Cloud is Great
Cloud-based computing can be a wonderful thing, because by accessing these cloud servers, you’re actually using a much bigger, much nicer computer than the one you have, unless you’ve paid many thousands of dollars for yours. It is securely maintained by professionals who often backup your data in several locations so that even if one of their servers fails, they have backups and failsafes and backups of their failsafes to keep your data secure. They pay huge amounts for people and machines that do this, and then they put that infrastructure at your disposal for a small fee, or, as is the case with email or Google Drive, at no cost to you.
Being able to get to your information wherever you are is helpful, lets you share your stuff with friends, family, and the internet at large. It lets you watch unlimited amounts of cats falling off of things or spend all your free time watching Orange is the New Black and Transparent. It makes email simple and provides you with programs like Office 365 or the online version of Photoshop without dropping hundreds on the software, unless you subscribe for a long time. There’s lots of advantages to be had.
Why The Cloud is Evil
Like all things that make life simpler, there’s a dark, stormy side to The Cloud. Leaked sex tapes or nude celebrity photos are perfect examples of how things can go horribly wrong when using The Cloud. Since you can access it from anywhere, so too can everyone else. While the companies that run cloud server farms work very hard to encrypt all your data, all your naughty secrets, and all your credit card information, the very fact that it is kept on a box that has a cord connecting it to the outside world means that by nature, it isn’t 100% secure. One sneaky hacker, a disgruntled employee, or a basic failure of security protocol is all it takes to splash your sensitive stuff all over the Internet at large.
The other issue is that when you store your data on someone else’s server, they now have access to it. That means that if someone wants it, they don’t need to come to you to get it. Should the police decide that they’re interested in digging through your personal life, anything you’ve put on The Cloud is available to them. They don’t even need a warrant like they would if they wanted to search your home computer or personal belongings.
Sure, this might not apply to you, since you probably aren’t keeping the names of all your drug mules nor a complete NOC list on your cloud account, but the notion that your stuff isn’t your own is one that should give you pause when you consider uploading it. You’re at the mercy of the Terms of Service that the company gives you to sign, and to be honest, you probably haven’t read through it, so you aren’t sure what they are and are not doing with the information you’ve given them. Even if you delete something, you have to trust that they aren’t keeping it around, just in case. It’s on their servers, and they can do as they damn well please with it.
Staying Safe in the Cloud
To keep yourself safe when using any part of the cloud, the simple rule to follow is the same as the one you should use when using the Internet at large: If you don’t want anyone else to see it, don’t store it there. The Cloud isn’t like a safety deposit box where you can put your stuff and the bank will fight to protect your privacy. It’s more like a bus station locker where anyone with a pair of bolt cutters can break in or any schlub with a key can open it. While the companies who own the servers work hard to keep you safe, they aren’t without problems, they aren’t without corruption, and they aren’t above the law. All that means you are trusting them with your sensitive pictures, videos, spreadsheets, or that unpublished novel. Odds are good that it is perfectly safe there, but if it is something you cherish, something you don’t want anyone but your partner to see, or something that might send you to prison for life, for the love of Mike, don’t store it in the cloud.
The other key to using the cloud is even more basic: Only download, never upload. This is a little more paranoid, but if you want to use the cloud to get entertainment or receive files from people, go ahead. Just don’t put anything into it, only take things out. That way, you’re completely protected from digital attacks against the servers.
Unfortunately, your computer can still be hacked or contract a virus so long as you use it to connect to the internet, but that’s the price you pay to follow Grumpy Cat’s complete lack of antics.
Future of Cloud Computing
It’s unclear where the cloud is going to go in the future, since it is mostly used for storage at this point, but it is entirely possible that more programs will move to a subscription service that allows you to use immense, expensive, corporate-level software by paying a small monthly fee, much the way you do with internet radio services like Spotify, Pandora, and Apple Music. As use of the cloud expands and proliferates, you can be assured that its utility will alter and adapt as well. For now, just know what whenever a company or a person refers to “The Cloud” they are speaking of computers that exist in a bunker somewhere and are the property of someone else.