Where or What is “The Cloud”?

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We hear a lot about “The Cloud” or “Cloud Computing” these days, but never a good explanation of what it is or why we should care.

The easiest way to explain “The Cloud” is that it represents any data that you store that is not on your computer, or any program that you run that is not located on your computer.  So, instead of purchasing a new program, for example, you buy access to the program from a company that lets you use it over the Internet.    If you bank online, you are banking “in the cloud” because you are using a product that is not located on your own computer to do your transactions.   Or if you store and edit your photos, you are “in the cloud.”

The benefit of cloud computing is twofold.  First, you as a user do not need to know anything about the technology, you can just use the product.  Users do not need to know where things are stored, only that they can get access to them when they need them.  It reduces the “technology” background and aptitude ones needs to use an application.  Second, as a user, you do not need to worry about the administrative aspects of the application.  If a program bug is fixed, you do not need to worry about running update patches because that is done for you.  If a new version of the software is available, you do not need about purchasing that new version, because access to it is done for you.  And, you do not need to ensure your data and programs are backed up, because that is done automatically by the service.  Patches, updates, storage, processing changes are all done for you in the cloud.

You may already be using applications in the cloud if you get your email from a service such as Google.  In fact, Google provides access to a number of productivity packages, including a word processor and spreadsheet application that are run in the cloud, and thus need very little technical expertise to run.

There are some downsides to using applications in the cloud as well.  First, if the company goes away, or elects to eliminate a product from their portfolio, you have no old version to fall back on.   Second, if your provider’s site is hacked, you run the risk of having your programs not available for some period of time.  Or, hackers could get access to your strategic data.

Cloud providers tell you not to worry because these events will not happen.  If it is a reputable and profitable organization, it is unlikely the applications will cease to work.  Further, most cloud providers tell you that their security is far superior to that of its clients.  While that may be true, they also attract more hackers to their site.  It is not clear at this time where those tradeoffs lie.

So, is cloud computing good or bad?  That depends.  As a place to back up your data, the cloud is a great location (because someone will back up what you are backing up).  If the applications work the way you want them to work, and there is no delay in using the applications, they there is no reason not to use them.   If you do not want to hassle with getting and installing the software, patching it, and keeping it up to date, then the cloud is a way to achieve your goal.  If you want to share what you are doing with others who are in remote locations, then working in the cloud is good for you.  Although most cloud services are inexpensive or free to the individual user at this time, there is no reason to believe it will continue to be true in the future.  When it is not, good old fashioned cost/benefit analyses that take into consideration the costs of programs vs. services should be completed to decide which is best for you.

Backup Early … Backup Often!

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The best advice I can give anyone using a computer is that you should back up your computer often, especially  if you are storing anything important on it.  If you think someone else is backing it up, you may be wrong — and you might not find out until it is too late.  I remembered that lesson harshly today.

I also have a “smart phone” (one which can get email as well as do a number of other functions).  This phone synchronizes with my office email, contacts and calendar.  In an ideal world, this means that I always have all of my information available wherever I am.  Normally it works beautifully.  I can make changes in my calendar on my phone, and it automatically appears on my computer.  Similarly, I can add a contact on my computer, and it adds it to my phone automatically.   Theoretically, these are all backed up at work AND by my phone provider.  Imagine my surprise this morning when I tried to find a contact and learned that they were all gone! I checked my calendar on my computer and it appeared as though all of my appointments were there, but the color coding of entries (which helps me remember why I am at a meeting) was all gone.  Since I depend on my email, calendar and contact list, this information knocked the wind from my sails.  But, I knew I had backups.  So, I called the phone provider, and we could not get the backups working.  I called my work and they have provided my backups, except that there are two sets of contacts and two calendars and my phone is still synching with the blank ones.  In other words, as long as I am tied to my computer I am fine, but if I must get away from it, I have virtually no information.

I am sure that ultimately this will all be fixed and I will be fine.  As an IT professional, I had thoughts of how else I should have backed up the information.  Someone suggested printing it all out.  However, I have over 1,000 contacts, and that seemed like an excessive amount of work — even without considering the calendar!  It turns out that if you are using Microsoft’s outlook, there is a handy little feature that allows you to export your contacts to an excel spreadsheet (I didn’t look, but it probably also allows you to import from that spreadsheet too).  Of course, I immediately did that so I would be sure to have something left if the problem got worse.

This puts me in a better position, but I should not be done there.  After I get the spreadsheet, I need to back up my hard drive.  That way if my computer also crashes (it was a very bad day), I still have a copy of my phone directory.

Let’s think about you now.  While it would be quite aggravating to have to re-create my calendar and my contacts, it could be done (further, it would probably encourage me to clean out some old information that I no longer need!).  But, what if that information included photos of a grandchild, or a recording of voices of a relative who has passed on, or scans of handwritten poetry from your great grandmother?  Those things cannot be recreated no matter how hard you try.  If you do not have them backed up, you have simply lost them.

Computers are terrific tools.  But, like any tool, they need to be maintained properly.  Furthermore, like any tool, they can break.  Problems with viruses or worms, power spikes, sudden violence, and maybe even software that is poorly written can cause your computer to break.  It is frustrating enough when the tool breaks.  Don’t make it devastating by losing something important.

There are multiple ways to back up your computer.  You can, of course, copy important files onto CDs or DVDs and keep those in a safe place.  That can be a lot of work, and CDs have a tendency to get lost.  Another solution is to purchase an external hard drive and copy your documents to the hard drive regularly.  As long as you do it regularly, that approach will work.

Other people prefer to keep either their original work or a copy of their work “in the cloud.”  Many sites that print photos or allow you to search genealogy also allow you to store your information there.  The advantage of those sites is that your information is backed up and maintained without your intervention.  Some people like to have their information stored at a place they can find it, like dropbox.com.  Again, the site has the advantage of being backed up.  However, a generic site like dropbox will allow you to keep all of your copies in one place.  Whether you should back up your information to an external drive or to the cloud depends on how much control and activity you want to have in the process.

Just be sure you back up those data.  Paraphrasing my hometown’s attitude toward voting, “Back up EARLY, Back up OFTEN!”