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What is Cloud Computing?

Posted on May 14, 2011
There are certainly a lot of buzz words in the computing and technology industries, with some terms and phrases fading in and out of the limelight on a daily basis. One of those phrases that has been around for a while now – and is likely to stay – is “cloud computing.” But, what exactly is cloud computing and how does it relate to the average computer user?
The actual definition of cloud computing is about as fuzzy and intangible as a cloud itself. Basically, the “cloud” in cloud computing refers to the Internet, which is often depicted by a drawing of a cloud in diagrams and other various artwork. So, in that sense, cloud computing is just Internet computing – but what does that really mean?
Perhaps the best way of thinking about the concept is through an example. If you purchase a word processing application, install it on your personal computer, and use it to write a letter, then you’re engaging in desktop computing. That is, all of the software and files related to the task you are performing are present on your own personal computer. On the other hand, if you choose to type that same letter by opening up your web browser and using Google Docs, you’re utilizing a cloud computing service. Even though your web browser is installed on your PC, the word processing program in Google Docs is not. That program is stored on one of Google’s many servers – you’re just using your PC and the Internet to access and use it.
On a larger scale, the business you work for may buy and install accounting software to be used on several of your company’s computers. Once again, each of these computers stores all of the materials – both software and data files – which a bookkeeper needs to do his job. Alternatively, the business may decide to subscribe to a cloud service in which an accounting program is installed and maintained on a server by a third party, and employees access that software by logging on to that party’s servers through a web browser. The latter case is another example of cloud computing.
Cloud computing presents a number of attractive benefits. For one thing, most cloud services are set up so that you only pay for what you use. This makes it possible for both businesses and individuals to have access to high-powered software solutions that would otherwise be out of their budget range. Additionally, cloud computing offers the flexibility of letting you access software and data from any computer with an Internet connection. This can be extremely advantageous to the highly mobile crowd and to those who regularly work on multiple PCs.
Furthermore, since the software resides on the provider’s servers, you don’t have to worry about purchasing high-end computers or upgrading hardware to support the software. In most cases, you only need a computer with an Internet connection and a web browser. It doesn’t even matter which operating system you’re using.
On the other hand, there are some very definite risks associated with cloud computing, particularly in the areas of security and reliability. When software applications and data are stored on your own personal computers or servers, you have much more control over who has access to that information and what measures are in place to protect your files. With cloud computing, you have to depend on the host provider for these things and more.
If you do go the cloud computing route, it’s important to make sure that the providers you choose are reliable and stable in addition to taking security and backup protocols very seriously. That is, you don’t want to try to log in one day only to find out that the company has gone out of business and all of your data is gone. Even if complete backup copies of all of your data are available, you would still be left in a lurch with no access to the software on which you’ve become dependent. On top of all that, any time and money that you spent on training and integrating the software would be totally lost. Sound scary? It should, because situations like this happen every day in the world of cloud computing.
Despite these risks, cloud computing can still be a very good solution, on either the personal or the business level, as long as you put enough research into choosing your provider. Just be careful not to jump on the cloud computing bandwagon because it seems like a cheap way to solve all of your software problems. In this case, the old adage, “You get what you pay for,” applies more than ever.

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