Head In The Clouds: An Introduction To Cloud Computing

What really goes on up there? Neil Cumins investigates

The term ‘cloud computing’ has been around since 1999 with the advent of ‘’, but the concept has only really entered the public consciousness over the last couple of years. Its advocates hail it as the future of digital communications, while a recent space of cloud hacking scandals has raised legitimate concerns about data security and privacy issues. Happily, the basic premise of cloud computing can be explained in a couple of sentences, which is ideal for anyone still unfamiliar with this topic.

Cloud computing is a well-established component of daily internet usage. It describes the process of accessing and modifying data that is hosted in a central location rather than on a

specific device. Common examples of cloud computing include social media where individuals log into a designated account to view their personal information. No data can be viewed without logging in because it isn’t stored on that physical device in the way a word-processing package is stored on a desktop PC. With cloud computing, content can be accessed from any internet-enabled location.

This portability represents the single biggest advantage of cloud computing as well as the driving force behind its ongoing expansion. Most people now use a variety of different devices every day, and each can display cloud content with equal ease making personal data accessible anywhere, anytime. Email provides another common example of cloud computing. Unless messages are downloaded into a dedicated software package like Microsoft Outlook, many email accounts such as Hotmail or Gmail are hosted in the cloud. Again, people can remotely log in from whichever device they happen to be using at that time, and any changes or updates will automatically appear when the account is next viewed from another location.

An increasing number of corporate intranet systems use a private cloud where data is stored remotely (but under the employer’s control), and employees log in using a slave terminal that does little more than display content. Even that stalwart of desktop installations, Microsoft Office, can now be used via the cloud, with users buying an access licence rather than putting software on a nominated device. Many software packages are now cloud-hosted, which saves multiple licence fees because programs don’t need to be installed onto specific machines any more. A graphic designer could work on a project using CAD (Computer Aided Design) software at his desk, before adding a few amendments via his tablet while waiting for a train.

From the perspective of cloud hosts and software suppliers, cloud computing represents a cheap and easy option because only a certain percentage of users are likely to demand content at any given time. Data is generally stored on vast network storage drives in cheap overseas locations, resulting in economies of scale for the hosts. A cloud-hosted website or software package will typically come with some level of technical support making it a cost-effective option for small businesses or companies with limited funds for IT support. At the same time, employees alike can enjoy universal access to their data or programs whenever they have an internet connection – ideal for home-workers and travelling reps.

A major drawback of cloud computing is that it requires a reasonably quick internet connection – something users of Google Chromebooks will be aware of if they’ve ever found themselves in a basement room or without any remaining data allowance. Data security is a highly topical problem following recent instances of celebrity cloud accounts being hacked and highly personal information being shared among armies of strangers. Any level of security on a cloud server can potentially be hacked or breached, whereas data stored offline (such as a computer hard drive) is less likely to be illegally accessed. There are also unresolved legal issues about who actually owns the data stored on remote servers and what happens if a cloud storage company goes out of business. Even transferring data from one cloud storage firm to another can be problematic, given the propensity for huge volumes of data to build up fairly quickly.

Despite the obvious pitfalls and risks, cloud computing is becoming an increasingly popular option for accessing programs and personal data. From social media to software updates, it is destined to play an ever-increasing role in our online lives. Terminals and devices like smartphones and laptops will probably become increasingly display-driven, as greater amounts of processing and storage are managed remotely in the clouds.

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