What is “the cloud” and where can I find it?

A good friend, Laura Z. wrote and asked me, “Can server farms for the cloud be anywhere? Is there a Serverfarmville in some low-rent state?” It’s a good question. The term “cloud” is a metaphor, and the cloud is actually a service, rather than a specific location.

 The cloud is one of those topics that starts out seeming fairly simple, and ends up looking something like the Winchester Mystery House by the time you look at all the components. Having space for our computer files is kind of like closet space – we just keep filling up the space we have and then need more. First we purchase bigger hard drives, then we purchase external drives for even more storage. In addition, we want our files backed up so that if anything happens to them we have them in another location – which creates another need for space. When using the cloud for storage, we are able to purchase as much or as little storage as we need, and smaller units are often available for free to individuals, paid for through advertising. Some clouds specialize in the type of content they store. There are clouds designed for email storage, clouds for digital photos, some are small operations and some are huge.

Another important component of cloud storage is redundancy. At the risk of getting too basic here, redundancy means that if one system fails there is another system ready to kick in and take over. So in the case of cloud storage, the data is stored in multiple places – not just one. That way if the power is off in one place, you can still access your data. For security purposes, the exact location of servers is generally not something that is advertised or made public. (Sorry Laura! I guess today is not the day we will learn Serverville’s exact location.)

Chances are good that you already use cloud storage whether you’ve thought of it that way or not. If you store your photos on Picasa or Flickr – you’re storing your photos in the cloud. If you use Hotmail or Gmail or any of a number of web-based mail servers, you are storing your e-mail in the cloud. Google apps and Google docs are also stored in the cloud.

There are several benefits to using the cloud. Cloud computing is good for the environment. It saves money on hardware, software, and energy consumption. Cloud computing strengthens a company’s ability to offer telecommuting – which in turn means more of us sitting around in our jammies working from home rather than driving by ourselves in our cars to work each day.

Given all the positives, what is the downside of cloud computing? In short there are two major concerns: privacy and security. With respect to privacy the question is: who has access to that information? Are your files encrypted? Are you the only person with access to the information? Are you sure some bored employee working for the cloud host isn’t reading your files while on the midnight shift? On the security side there are a number of questions. What happens to your data if the company goes out of business? What happens if they fall behind on their bills and the site where your data is stored is compromised in some way? How secure is your data from hackers? What about natural disasters? Did you realize your data was in a flood zone? Since cloud storage is relatively new, there are not any hard and fast answers to any of these questions.

Cloud storage is big business, with billions of dollars being pumped into the industry. According to a study commissioned by Microsoft, cloud computing is expected to create 14 million new jobs worldwide by 2015. Susan Wilson does a great job of summarizing the data in her article on BLORGE.

I suspect soon we will not even differentiate between what we call “computing” and “cloud computing.” It seems to me that it is technical evolution taking place at an accelerated pace.



3 Responses to What is “the cloud” and where can I find it?

  1. So, are you going to be addressing cloud privacy and security in future blogs? This question just came up the other day in a conversation with a friend re security and privacy and cloud storage after her son’s computer crashed with all his business data (not backed up unfortunately). I have a question on this given my line of work (legal field) and privacy concerns. Please do address this and how cloud companies address this.

  2. Another benefit of the cloud may be the cost.

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