Understanding the Cloud

An introduction to the Cloud for people who don’t care how it works but want to know how it might be useful for them.

There are basically two ways in which computers are used:

  1. Personal computers which are used by one person (or sometimes a family) and which can store data, run applications and so on.
  2. Shared computers where the computer is shared by a number of different people and which, usually, provide quite specific services. You will often have an account and have to log on to shared computers but this is not always necessary.

Shared computers run software programs that are called ‘servers’. A web server is used to distribute web pages to anyone who connects to it (this is an example of a server were you don’t need an account); a print server may be used in an office to allow several people to share a printer; a phone company may offer a customer account server where you can login and check the calls you have made, pay your bill and so on.

Until quite recently, when a company used servers, the computers that ran the server programs had to be in the company’s computer room. This is still the case for many servers - when you connect to your bank, you are connecting to a server that is in the bank’s IT centre.

Servers provide ‘services’ such as an ‘account service’ on demand to users. But sometimes there is very little demand and, when that’s the case, the computer on which the server runs is doing very little. Companies are paying for computers which for a large part of the time are actually doing nothing.

In the early 2000s, this was a major issue for Amazon. They had to have thousands of computers to cope with the high demand at peak times, such as Christmas. This cost a lot so they wondered how they could get some return on this investment.

So, they decided that they could provide ‘servers for rent’ where anyone who needed a server could rent it from Amazon for as long as they needed it and they only paid for the time that they used. This was only possible because of the growth of relatively high-speed Internet connections. People who wanted to rent a server, accessed them over the Internet.

Amazon devised some clever technology that supported the renting of servers. The computers that ran the servers enabled by this technology became known as the ‘Cloud’. Other companies jumped on this bandwagon and there are now a number of cloud service providers.

So, in a nutshell, the Cloud is a (huge) cluster of computers that runs software that makes it possible for people to rent rather than to buy these computers.

Why use the cloud?

If you run a business, using the Cloud means that you can rent rather than buy the computers that run servers saving up-front capital investment and paying for computers that are idle for a lot of the time. But individuals don’t run servers so what does the cloud mean for them?

People don’t need servers but, to do the things they want to do, they sometimes need to have a ‘service’. An example of a service is a ‘calendar service’ which maintains an electronic diary for you. Of course, this can run as a program on your PC but what if you want to access your diary from your phone or share it with your family? However, if this is a cloud service, this means that it runs on a server in the cloud so can be accessed from anywhere with an Internet connection.

So, in another nutshell, the benefit of the Cloud for individuals is that it allows them to access and share services between mobile devices and other laptop and desktop computers. It also allows you to access specialised services that you might only use occasionally so that you don’t want to buy a program specially to do this (e.g. a service that allows you to create a photo album).

If you use a web browser to read your mail or a calendar on your phone and PC, you are already using cloud services. The ‘rent’ that you are paying is that the companies running these services get information from you that they use to target advertising, etc. So, what people often mean when they say ‘what can the cloud do for me’ is ‘should I pay for some cloud services’.

For individuals, there are two main types of paid-for cloud services:

  1. Storage and sync services such as Dropbox, iCloud, OneDrive and Google Drive. These vary in detail but they all let you store information on the cloud (actually on a storage server) and sync that information across registered connected devices. All offer small amounts of ‘free’ storage as a taster then have subscription plans that allow you to rent more space.
  2. Software distribution services such as Adobe’s Creative Cloud that allow you to rent software from them such as Lightroom and Photoshop. You may a monthly fee and the software is automatically updated with new versions. They usually also offer some specialised storage and sync services, included in the monthly fee.

Whether these are useful for you depends on a number of things.

  1. Do you care about if the information on your mobile devices and computers is consistent? Some people enforce their own separation e.g. ‘I never edit photos on my phone’ so it really doesn’t matter.
  2. Do you care about having the most recent versions of the apps that you use on your computer?
  3. Do you have enough disk space on your computer? If not, you can move rarely used information to the cloud (but it may be cheaper to buy another disk). For example, if you make and edit videos, the clips etc. take up lots of space but you rarely access them after you have completed the final version of the video. This is an example of something you might store on the cloud ‘just in case’ you ever need them again.
  4. Are you disciplined in doing backups? Services such as Dropbox allow you to save the entire content of your hard disk on a cloud storage server so if you lose everything (or even lose a few files), you can restore these from the cloud. Restoring a whole disk would take a long time (I estimate 2 weeks at UK broadband speeds) but this might be better than losing everything.

There is a risk involved in moving all of your information into the cloud. You are at the mercy of whatever policies and procedures may be used by your cloud provider. While their security policies are usually quite good, they are not infallable. Your cloud-based information may be accessed by malicious ousiders or damaged by accident by the cloud provider. I prefer to maintain local as well as remote copies, which is one reason why I gave up using a cloud-based web platform (Wordpress) in favour of a local solution (Hugo). But many people are happy to entrust all of their information to the cloud and this is probably a more reliable storage solution for people who are not interested in technology.

My cloud use

I pay for Dropbox storage and syncing which costs about $12/month for more storage than I will ever use. Dropbox copies your local filestore to the cloud and can replicate it on other computers. It can then sync inforation to keep the files on each computer consistent. The syncing is the most critical for me and Dropbox is, in my view, does this better than the others. Dropbox on its own is NOT a backup service - these exist but I have no experience of them.

I also pay a hosting company for hosting my websites - I could move them all to Dropbox and reduce this cost but there is quite a lot of work in doing this and I have better things to do with my time.

If you use Apple devices, iCloud is seamless but I don’t like the fact that you can’t access individual files from the Finder. I pay for a small amount of storage on iCloud, which costs less than £1 per month, because my phone copies some things to it and it’s a pain to manage phone storage.

I also pay Adobe for a Creative Cloud photography service, which gets me the latest versions of Lightroom and Photoshop. This is about $10/month. I think that all ‘paid for’ apps that run on PCs will move to a cloud distribution and subscription model within the next few years.

And I use gmail and some other Google services that I pay for with my data.