What is the cloud, and why should you care?

Whether you're wanting to expand your knowledge, take better advantage of the cloud, or just impress your kids, we're going to explain what exactly the cloud is and what it can do for you.

It's much more simple than it sounds, and you're probably already leveraging the cloud today in familiar ways.  But when you truly understands what the cloud is, you'll be able to envision all of the other ways that it can make you more efficient with technology and how you'll be able to enjoy it more.

01   What is the cloud?

Do you remember the days when you had to visit the electronics store to purchase your shiny new CD-ROM containing Oregon Trail?  You would walk up and down the rows of software boxes organizes in a similar way to the videos at Blockbuster.  You would rush home, put one or more software discs in your optical drive, and within a few turns you're wagon carrying 15 sets of clothing pulled by 12 oxen is crossing the Big Blue River on its way to Chimney Rock.

While there are a lot of things to miss from those days, having to load software discs to install the latest program is not one of them.  Instead, most of the ways that we now access files, programs and data happens through a large network of remote storage servers around the world that is called the cloud.  These servers do physically exist in the same way your CD-ROM discs did, but they are certainly not near you.  They're likely locked in a compound behind more security than Fort Knox (more on that shortly).

 

The "cloud" itself doesn't physically exist anywhere—it is just the term that is used to describe the ecosystem that you leverage through the internet that holds the data you're accessing.

02   How are you using the cloud today?

 

You're probably using the cloud in many more ways than you would guess, but the most relatable way is by using Gmail.  When you use Gmail, you are not locally hosting or storing any of the data going in or out of those servers.  Gmail is a software as a service, which means that even though you don't own the application, you can access it from anywhere in the world using your web browser with an internet connection.

Another common way you could be using the cloud is to help you setup a new device.  When you purchase a new phone, how do all of your apps and data magically appear on your new device if they weren't backed up locally to your computer?  The answer is the cloud, which can also be used store files, photos and videos through services like iCloud or Google Drive.

 

Lastly, if you've ever started watching a video on Netflix only to turn off the TV and pick it back up later at the exact spot you left it but on a different device, congratulations:  you just experienced one benefit of the cloud.

03   What else can the cloud do?

Well, for one thing, if less of your data is taking up space on your device, you may not need to spend the extra money on a device that comes with more storage.  Applications, music, photos, and videos take up the most space on your devices, which in the past was an argument to purchase a higher tier device.  But now you can get a phone, tablet or laptop with just 64GB of storage for a few hundred dollars or less.  You might have other limitations with it for more than basic tasks like email, texting, and watching videos, but storage doesn't have to be one of them.

Another thing the cloud can do is allow you to share large files with other people in full quality.  That fancy new phone you have that shoots video in 4k is awesome, but 1-minute of footage eats up a whopping 375MB of storage space.  The problem is that text messages are restricted to a lousy 4MB or less, iMessage to 100MB, and Gmail to 25MB, neither of which will allow you to share the video in full quality.  Have you ever been sent a video that is so blurry you can't even see what's going on?  That's because the file was degraded to a lower resolution to be able to meet the size requirements.  Instead, you can share a link to your 20-minute 4k video in the cloud without a problem.

Lastly, you could leverage the cloud as the central repository of your data backups.  The files from your phone, tablet, laptop, desktop or any other data can be easily pushed to and organized neatly in the cloud storage of your choice.  Google, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon all offer free cloud storage up to certain limits, and their paid plans start at just a few dollars per month for more storage than the average consumer needs.

04   Where physically is your data?

This is where the geek in all of us can come out a bit.  So here's the deal.  While your data does physically exist on a drive somewhere, you're unlikely to discover its exact location.  It might even exist across several drives in several different locations.  But rest assured, your files, photos and videos do exist on a physically tangible storage device within a data center.

So what about those data centers?  Well, for starters, they're absolutely massive.  Just one of Microsoft's estimated 100+ data centers spans over 1-million square feet across 158 acres.  That one data center stores more data, draws more power, and dissipates more heat than it even makes sense to discuss.  And because these clouds rain dollars from businesses who use the cloud to do much more than consumers do, Google, Amazon and Microsoft have been waging a cloud war on each other for years.  And as an innocent bystander your data gets to reap benefits not limited to Secret Service level security, including laser intrusion systems, biometric identification, and alligators—yes, even alligators.  These services are also incredibly reliable.  Google delivers its servers to billions of users with 99.987% availability and no scheduled downtime.

So it's not even a question whether or not storing your data in the cloud is safer and more reliable than anything else you could do locally, but if there's a billing problem, if you accidentally delete your data, or if your account gets compromised then these companies aren't going to hang onto your data forever, which is why we also recommend backing up important files locally to an external drive for safekeeping.

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