If you're not a techy person, you may have started hearing the term "the cloud" thrown around in reference to data storage in the past years and thought it sounded very scary. We get it. "The Cloud" sounds like one of those metaphorical names that disguises a very dense and intimidating concept. Like "the web" or "the Matrix" or "the cyber." That's a common misconception; the cloud is actually a pretty simple concept, and one that you probably use everyday. Ironically, "the cloud" was meant to be a name that made the idea less intimidating, but cloud-based storage is so prevalent and so marketed now that people tend to think it means something really special and technical. It doesn't.
Like so many other things, cloud-based computing only seems complex and intimidating until you start learning a couple things about it. That's why we're putting together this primer on the whats, hows and whys of The Cloud. Even if you're just a roguishly handsome copywriter whose job has nothing to do with computer knowledge, knowing a bit more about the way contemporary internet usage and storage works can help give your work context in a lot of unexpected ways. You might even end up writing a blog about it!
What It Is
The Cloud refers to the metaphorical place where you send data that you access via the internet. Essentially, the Cloud is a kind of hackneyed metaphor for the internet itself. Any data that's stored via the internet is stored in "the cloud." That means whenever you use a data storing or media streaming service such as Netflix, Spotify, Drop Box, SkyDrive, Evernote, iCloud Steam, or Google Drive, what you're doing is accessing data that's being stored somewhere far away from you by connecting with it via the internet.
If you're watching a movie on Netflix, for instance, what you're doing is connecting with Netflix's servers through the internet, then accessing the data stored there remotely. It's called "streaming" because instead of downloading the movie directly onto your harddrive, you're just using a secure connection to play it from their servers. That means you get to access the movie without having to first download and store it in your own hard drive, which would take time, money and space. Netflix owns the data, but when you pay their subscription fee they let you use it. Services where you create and upload data work the same way. Google Drive owns the space you're using to keep your files, but they're loaning it to you.
Think of the service you're using to store/access data as a bank or a self-storage unit. The data you're storing or accessing are the valuables you're keeping with this service. The internet, or the Cloud is the highway you use to get to the establishment and to ferry the stuff you have there back and forth. Your computer/internet-accessible device is the car. You are the driver. More metaphors.
How It Works
All the data and processing resources on "the Cloud" are, in one sense shared. Cloud-based storage makes use of a vast network of servers all around the world. Cloud-based servers are, by definition, all connected to the internet. I guess we call it a cloud because it rolls off the tongue better than something like "the giant tangled mess of connections," but strictly speaking that would be more accurate. Think of the internet as we know it as a giant "center." At the outer fringes of this center, sticking out like points on a star, would be servers. When you access a particular server, you're using the center to move to the outer point. Everything is connected. It's very zen. Hey wait, if you "surf" the internet, then why is it called "the Cloud" and not "the Ocean" or "the Sea?" There's all kinds of junk in the ocean! Junk like spam and random websites! There's nothing in the sky! Did we just come up with a better metaphor than the Cloud?
...Anyway, the really cool thing about cloud-based computing is, when servers are connected to the Cloud, they share their processing power and storage capacity. Services that own a lot of servers, like Google, connect all their servers via this internet-based network and can split the work of handling all the data they receive between all of them. This gives Google the ability to handle a lot more data without their servers getting fried. In turn, that lets them provide more space for their customers to use. As a customer, that means you get relatively cheap access to a ton of space--the amount of space that would otherwise necessitate you buying and maintaining your own servers. That brings us to...
Why It's Used
Now that you know what Cloud-based data storage is and how it works, you should be able to fill in what makes it so attractive to providers and consumers alike. Providers can use the Cloud to make their servers considerably more efficient, allowing them to handle a lot more data than they otherwise could. More importantly, it gives them the opportunity to make their huge reserves of space, and potentially the huge quantities of data they store in this reserve, available to their customers. Netflix is able to get you their whole library of media without flying you out to Northern Virginia to plug into a stack of servers a mile long, for instance.
On the consumer end, you can get access to a huge amount of storage for your data, while paying considerably less than you would have to if you had to host that data yourself, on your own servers. You can also access that data from anywhere where you can get an internet connection. In the brave new world of digital companies, that means you can have employees working together on the same documents at the same time, from all over the world. If you've ever checked your gmail address from your phone in a coffee shop, or worked on a company document from the comfort of your home, you were connecting to the Cloud.
Obviously, this is a high-level, basic overview of the way the Cloud works and what it's used for. If you have more questions about how to make sure of this technology, or you want help bringing your business into the 21st century, we can help set you up with electronic document management systems. If you think you might be interested, but you want to know more about the kinds of services we can provide first, consider our free consultation. Finally, if you're interested in more technological tips and tricks, check out our technology blog.