Head in the Clouds

On this blog and elsewhere, you've probably come across the term "cloud computing". If you're not familiar with system architecture, the term is rather obscure... and as we know, obscurity can be a bit scary.

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
A popular solution to this problem is an external hard drive: a shiny box sitting next to your computer where you can manually save copies of your files. But what if someone breaks into your office and steals your computer? What's stopping them from stealing your hard drive too?

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.

For personal use, I use 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!


  1. One thing to keep in mind is that you pay for everything that you backup in bandwith. So unless you have reasonably fast, uncapped internet, it's not feasible to backup say, your music collection, or videos, unless it's a small amount. Then a local and offsite copy is still the best option.

    But that only applies if your documents is a lot, most users just need to backup documents, and perhaps email archives.

  2. That's an important point, Jaco, thanks.

    There are services (like Carbonite) that allow you to effectively backup your entire hard drive... gigabytes of data going up and down can be very expensive for us here in South Africa.

  3. Well, hopefully data costs will start to come down soon.

  4. Indeed. With all the fibre going into the ground in SA's major centres, as well as new wireless technologies on the horizon, I think we can probably expect to see our first affordable (really) uncapped data plans arriving in the next 24 months or so.

    When that happens, cloud computing becomes that much more compelling for us, and full cloud backups even more so.