What is the “Cloud”?

As we create and consume more data on a daily basis than ever before, we are also making the change from storing this data on our own laptops, tablets, and smartphones to storing it in the cloud. But what does this mean, and how will the cloud change how we interact with our devices and our data?

Put simply, the cloud generally refers to huge arrays of server racks managed by companies such as Google, Amazon, Apple, and others that offer a far more efficient and low cost solution to storing and accessing data.

The price of HDD storage continues to fall at a rapid rate, but they will eventually fail and it is near impossible to fit a backup drive into anything that is remotely portable. Whilst solid state storage, like that used in your smartphone or tablet, is also falling in price, it is still quite expensive once you need more than 128GB. Cloud storage solutions like Dropbox or GoogleDrive let you store your data on their servers where the HDD space is cheap, but they can also offer redundant storage so that your data is always backed up and always accessible from whatever device you are using, whether that is a smartphone, laptop, or tablet – provided that you have an internet connection.

The cloud is more than just online file storage and universal access, however. More and more companies are offering cloud services, that similarly make use of huge arrays of server racks in datacentres, but here they are taking on the computational power as well as the storage – meaning that the tasks themselves are also performed in the cloud. This means that less powerful devices can essentially make use of the distributed power of supercomputers in short bursts, with the user only paying as and when they are using them.

It is efficiency savings that define the cloud. Users can store their data there knowing that it is being continually being backed up, and they can use services and software hosted in the cloud which may have cost hundreds of pounds to buy outright in the past, but now are just monthly subscriptions or pay-as-you-use services. As more software and services move to the cloud people will no longer need to worry about not having the latest version of a programme installed on their computers, because the version they are using in the cloud is always up-to-date with the latest features.

As with any forms of progress, however, there are legitimate concerns about cloud services. If all you services and storage are in the cloud, what happens if your internet connection goes down? If you are storing your data in the cloud and your provider is hacked, or finds financial trouble – what happens to your data? If you have very important private information on your own company or about your company’s users, do the cloud providers comply with privacy regulations?

The problems caused with a lack of internet connection shows us that whilst the cloud services may be ready from prime time, our internet infrastructure and connectivity may not quite be there yet. It is still always worth keeping local copies of data, and privileged data and user information that should not cross country borders under EU directives should also be kept locally. Companies often set up what are essentially their own private clouds of their own managed racks of servers directly under their control for just these occasions. These may not be the public clouds we hear so much about, but they are clouds nonetheless.

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