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What you need to know about cloud computing

cloud-computingYou’ve probably heard the term ‘cloud computing’ by now, but what does it mean? Where is ‘the cloud’ and how is it used? Should you be using it already?

Put simply, using the cloud means storing and accessing your data via the internet rather than just on your computer’s hard drive. It originates from early representations of the internet as a white fluffy cloud that drifts around, sharing information as it goes.

Cloud computing vs local storage

Cloud computing is very different from using hard drive storage. Saving your data to your own hard drive, or running programs from your network is local storage. That means that it’s only available on your computer or others that are linked to your local network. It also means that you keep all of your data close to you. All computing used to work this way.

By contrast, using the cloud means that all of your data is accessed over the internet. That means that it isn’t stored on your office server or anywhere on a physical, local network. Cloud computing lets you access your data from anywhere, whenever you need it. This sounds simple but it can be very complex. Even in a relatively small organisation there can be a huge amount of data involved.

Just to confuse you, some local network storage systems will still let you access information over the internet, giving it features that are similar to cloud computing.

Is your business using the cloud already?

There are some enormous cloud based operations out there. Some businesses rent out space to other companies – for example, Amazon provides cloud infrastructure to Netflix which enables their customers to access broadcast media. There are also businesses that operate software as a service (SaaS) which allows subscribers to access applications via the internet.

These are very different to the types of cloud computing which your business might be using. Increasingly, even software that you install on your local network will provide some kind of cloud computing. For example, you might install Microsoft Office 365, which gives you access to Microsoft OneDrive for storage. You can also use Office Online which allows you to use standard Office programs like Word or Excel on an internet only basis.

You might also be familiar with Google Drive, iCloud or Amazon’s Cloud Drive. The majority of Google’s services can be considered cloud computing. They offer online document and data creation and storage. Their email and calendar apps are also accessed online, along with Google maps and a host of other apps.

Hybrid storage systems like Dropbox and Box are also becoming more popular. These store an online version of documents you’ve saved locally. Systems like this allow you to access your data locally whilst having an online backup should you need it.

What hardware do I need?

You can set up cloud computing on any system. However, if you want hardware that’s designed specifically for cloud computing, the Chromebook is the main example at the moment. These laptops have minimal storage which allows them to run Chrome OS. This enables you to access everything else online. You can also plug a ChromeBit drive into a computer that runs Chrome OS. This means that you can currently only access your data where there’s an internet connection.

Advantages of cloud computing

The main advantage of using the cloud is that you can access your data whenever and wherever you need it. This might not be that important if you have one office base, but is very useful if you ever travel for business or even if you want to work from home.

Cloud based services also give you a backup if your system ever comes under attack. You can keep systems running whilst knowing that any confidential or critical data isn’t lost.

Of course, there’s also the fact that remote working is becoming increasingly common. If your team is spread over several different locations but everyone still needs to be kept up to date, cloud based computing allows you to ensure that everyone has the same synced data at any given time.

Is there a down side?

There have been criticisms of cloud computing. Using it essentially allows your internet or telecoms provider to control your access to your data. You depend on them to provide reliable, unbroken access. Accessibility also depends on having a good signal strength. To many, local storage means that your data is available quickly, even when your ISP is providing a slow download speed. There’s always the possibility that those services will crash altogether. Even big name companies such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft have been affected by system crashes in the past few years. These are usually resolved within hours but could still have an impact on your business.

If you’re looking to transport large amounts of data, sometimes physical transfer is still quicker. Arranging for a courier service to send a package of data overnight can be faster than trying to transfer it all online.

Potentially, using the cloud could cost you financially in the long run. Access to the cloud is usually free once you’ve invested in the right software. However, we can’t rule out the possibility of metered or subscription based access to cloud services in the future. This could follow the same lines as mobile phone services – the more you want, the higher the cost.

Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, has also raised concerns about intellectual property. Do you still own your data or does your storage provider? There has been controversy over Facebook and Instagram’s use of user uploaded photographs. Arguably, if you create documents within the cloud your service provider could have a claim to ownership.

At the moment there isn’t a governing body regulating these issues. Whilst there has been some consideration of cloud based copyright in the Courts, the position remains unclear.

What should I do?

When you’re deciding whether to use cloud computing in your business, cost and accessibility will obviously be hugely important factors to consider. Ultimately, it will be for you to weigh up the pros and cons for your business. What systems will enable you to work effectively?

Do you need the perfect, secure cloud solution for you business? Or curious to your options? Drop us a line using our contact form and we can recommend one of our partners.

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