But fear not. Not only is cloud computing not all that scary, but it's something you could be using to your benefit!
What Is It?
The term "cloud computing" is a reference to an old practice in system architecture design... in the design documents, a cloud symbol has been traditionally used to represent the Internet. So, in essence, cloud computing is Internet computing, where the kinds of work that is traditionally done by your own computer instead happens on some anonymous server somewhere on the Internet.
Another, more familiar, term for cloud computing is "hosted services", where your data and/or software is physically hosted by another company on your behalf.
What's It For?
Just about anything really. Cloud computing refers to the way your data and software work, but what you use that data and software for is up to you. These days, you can do just about anything in a cloud-based service that you can do with normal software, although not everyone is ready to make the full transition yet.
Let's look at one of the most common uses for cloud computing: backups.
Backing Up to the Cloud
As anyone who has ever lost data can tell you, one of the most important bits of your technology infrastructure is the ability to create and access backups. In case your computer crashes or gets stolen, you still need access to your important stuff.
|External Hard Drive|
Another common solution is to have a backup server somewhere on your network, usually sitting with the boys in IT downstairs. You might be able to access a shared drive where you can store copies of your documents in case something happens to your machine. But what if your office building burns down with both your computer and the backup server inside it?
A better option, surely, would be to save your backups somewhere far away, but still easy to get to. And that's what cloud-based backups do: you upload your files (either manually or automatically) to a server somewhere in the cloud. If something happens to your computer, you can just log into your account from another computer and be up and working again in minutes!
But what if something happens to the cloud server? Well, that's not your problem. That server has its own team of engineers and technicians whose job it is to worry about exactly that. They manage backups of your backups, disaster recovery plans and rollover servers on your behalf, so that you don't have to. Even if the worst happens, odds are the only impact on you will be that their service might be unavailable for a few minutes.
Outsource the Risk
And therein lies the biggest advantage to cloud computing: the cloud guys manage the risk so you don't have to. All you need to do is pay the subscription fee (if there is one) and they'll handle all the hard work. As long as you've got an Internet connection, your stuff will be working.
DropBox for my cloud-based backups. It creates a folder on your computer, and any files you put in the folder are automatically uploaded to the cloud. If you install DropBox on another computer, it downloads all those files to that computer and then keeps them synced. There are even apps that allow you to access your DropBox from your smartphone, and it gives you the ability to share files and folders with your friends or with the Internet. All for free (or for a modest fee if you need more space).
There are also cloud-based backups available for more specific uses: Picasa Web Albums allows you to backup and share your photos, Evernote keeps a copy of your notes (including audio and photographic notes) in the cloud and so on. And there are plenty others to choose from.
Most cloud-based backup services offer a free service intended for personal use, as well as an upgraded paid-version (with more space, added features and that sort of thing) for more active users or corporates.
If you haven't already got yourself a backup space in the cloud, what are you waiting for? Go!