The cloud – what is it? How do you get it? Why do we even need it? All good questions. All of which I’ll attempt to answer in this post. Hopefully more.
When I mention to people in passing that I’m trying to manage a lot more of my business ‘in the cloud’, most people offer up a rather blank expression. Followed by one that says “I know I don’t need to know about this, but I’m guessing I’m about to hear about it anyway”.
The first and most obvious question that comes to people’s mind is ‘What is the cloud?”. So…
What is the cloud?
There are lots of explanations on the web that you could look up for a definition or to get a historical breakdown of how cloud computing came about. Forget that. You’ll get bogged down. Simply put, the cloud is space on the internet to put your stuff. Anywhere that you upload files normally stored on your home (or any single) computer/device to somewhere on the internet, that you could later access using another entirely different computer/device over the internet….is cloud computing. You already use it with Facebook and Youtube. The complexity with which you access and manipulate your stuff is the only thing that makes it any more complicated.
Just think of it as a big space up there in the ether where you can put things you want to be able to access from anywhere in the world using just a browser.
Why do we need it?
I can’t vouch for everyone because everyone has different and varying needs when it comes to managing their files and documents. But there are a number of circumstances when having access to cloud storage would be extremely helpful.
The primary reason for using it is mobility. If all of your files are centralised up there in the cloud, as long as you can get to a computer/mobile device with a browser and internet access, your physical location is irrelevant. Which means no need for remembering to transfer everything to a USB stick, no more emailing yourself files from home so you can pick them up in your email at work, no more “Ah crap, it’s on my home computer” moments. It makes you prepared and it makes you flexible.
Storing files with reputable cloud storage services is arguably more secure than keeping them on your home computer or USB stick. You can delete files from your computer and they are gone forever. You can lose a USB stick and they are gone forever. Because cloud storage services are handling other people’s (sometimes extremely important/sensitive) data, they are very hot on security and use high end data encryption making it almost impossible for other people to find and get access to your files. Now ask yourself what could happen if someone sat down at your computer and guessed your girlfriend’s/boyfriend’s/pet’s name to log in. Ask yourself what could happen if you lost your USB stick or it broke. Scary isn’t it.
Nearly all cloud storage services allow you to recover deleted or modified versions of your files. So even if you accidentally deleted one, you can get it back.
Using the same practice as above, you can also keep track of changes made to your documents and roll them back if you were happier with previous versions. While this is not considered full-on, business-level version control, it certainly gives you enough to manage your files safely and securely. More so than your home computer at least.
One of the coolest features of services like Dropbox and Box.net is the sync feature. What this means is that, with Dropbox as an example, if you open up a file you have stored on their server and edit it, once you save and close the file it gets synced across all computers and devices where you have Dropbox installed. So the next time you open up the file from another location, it will be the most up to date version with all your latest changes. All you need to do is save and close – like you would do anyway :D
One of the limitations with using software stored on your computer (like Microsoft Office for example) is that you’re tied into it. Those products won’t improve until a big update is pushed. Quite often people run into problems when running those updates as their computer or OS has changed in ways that can affect the upgrade process.
If you use a cloud-based service like Google Docs (a direct alternative to MS Office), updates are rolled out quicker, more frequently and usually with little or no interruption to service.
Companies like Google recognise the importance of the transition from static file management to something entirely more helpful and flexible and therefore make services like Google Docs compatible with MS Office. What this means is that any document you created with an MS product – like Word docs and Excel spreadsheets, can be opened, modified and saved in Google Docs, totally seamlessly. Also, files created with newer versions of MS Office (with extensions like .docx and .xlsx) won’t even open on some computers with earlier versions of the same software (MS Office 2003 for instance) without the user downloading an addon. How mental is that?
Google Docs has no such limitations, allowing you to do what you like with any versions of MS Word, Excel, Powerpoint etc docs, from any computer, anywhere. Sweet.
Levelling the playing field
Cloud computing can really level the playing field for smaller companies and startups. Those companies can leverage the power, technology and wealth of much larger companies by renting storage space, functionality or just about any kind of service now.
Renting near unlimited amounts of disk space in the cloud is just one example of the benefits of cloud computing, but what else can you do with cloud computing?
You’re already using it manage your social profiles on sites like Facebook and Twitter. But you can also rent your own help desk and integrate that into your company website. You can make real-time video and audio calls over Skype to anybody who also has Skype installed for free. You can manage your entire business’ financial accounts and invoicing on services like Harvest and Freshbooks. You can manage any type of project with multiple users on applications like Basecamp, Lighthouse and Active Collab. If you’re a web developer, you can even manage your entire development environment online through services like ShiftEdit and Kodingen. The possibilities are endless.
How to get it
There are plenty of cloud storage services on offer. Some are free and some require a (usually small) monthly fee.
Free cloud storage space:
- Dropbox (up to 2GB, up to 8GB if you refer friends)
- Box.net (up to 5GB)
- Google Docs (up to 1GB)
- Windows Live SkyDrive (up to 25GB)
- Memopal (up to 3GB)
- ZumoDrive (up to 1GB)
Paid cloud storage space:
As you can see, most services offer a free trial or small amount of free storage to entice you to upgrade to their premium packages. This is cool because you can then sign up for a free trial and play around with it to see if you like it enough to upgrade to a paid service. Or you could stick with the free version if you don’t need a lot of storage space.
This is the future not just of the way we work, but eventually the way we live. More and more aspects of life in general are being pushed online through web and mobile apps, and services are cropping up all over the place to cater for things you didn’t even know you needed or were possible. As it becomes easier and quicker to get a net connection from almost anywhere, the barriers to entry of becoming cloud-focused get smaller and smaller. It’s not something to be afraid of. It’s an endless supply of opportunity and it’s something to be embraced. The quicker we get on board with it, the more chance we have of staying flexible and agile in our working and living arrangements – whatever they may be.
Check out these posts for further reading on cloud computing and its uses: