An introduction to cloud computing

Cloud computing: marketing buzzword or the future of the Web? CNET UK is kicking off cloud computing month, and here we take a look at the basics -- including the dangers lurking in the cloud...

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
5 min read

Cloud computing has been the next big thing on the Web for a while, but this week it's truly hit the headlines with the announcement of Google's Chrome operating system. So what does cloud mean, how does it work -- and is it safe? We take a look at the basics of the cloud concept and give you some tips to keep yourself and your data safe and sound.

What is cloud computing?

The 'cloud' represents the Internet: instead of using software installed on your computer, or saving data to your hard drive, you're working and storing stuff on the Web, in cyberspace. Data is stored on servers run by the service you're using, and tasks are performed in your browser using an interface provided by the service.

Guess what? Your head's already in the cloud

Web-based email services such as Hotmail or Yahoo were among the earliest popular forms of cloud computing. If you use Facebook to interact with friends, Flickr to store photos, or Googlemail to send email, you're already storing your data in the cloud and using a service whose behind-the-scenes magic is cloud-based too.

Cloud surfing

Just as the sky covers you wherever you are, you can reach into the cloud even when you're not at your own computer, by logging in to a Web site or service from wherever you happen to be.

Cloud computing

Getting into the cloud

The success of the netbook -- and the mobile Internet -- goes hand-in-hand with cloud computing. Netbooks and mobile phones by definition are low-specced so they consume less power and can be more portable. A netbook wouldn't be able to run Photoshop well, or store vast quantities of music. But thanks to the cloud they don't need to -- all a netbook needs is a browser and an Internet connection and music, photos and email can all be accessed from the cloud.

So if all you want is to type a document and maybe include some basic formatting, you don't need all the power of Microsoft Word -- you can simply log in to Google Docs. Just as the cloud doesn't care how powerful your computer is, it isn't bothered what brand your computer is either. Crave's Nate and Rich both write in Google Docs from PCs in Crave Towers and Apple MacBooks at home, and many services can be accessed via your phone or even have their own iPhone or Android apps.

Two's company, three's a cloud

Just as you can log in from any computer, a friend or colleague can also log in and work on the same document. Google Docs is just one of the office-type services that allows for collaboration. Some even let people in different locations around the world work on the same document at the same time. That twists our melon, that does.

So that's the silver lining, but is there a cloud over the cloud?

Cloud computing may sound great, but there's a few things to consider before committing your whole life to the cloud. As open-source guru Richard Stallman points out, your data is handed over to third parties, and is outside of your control.

Is it safe in the cloud?

The first possible issue is security. Companies with unscrupulous designs on your data are rare, but it's best to research Web sites and Web services and look for those recommended by trusted experts, such as Lifehacker or your humble Cravers.

Even if a service is reputable and trustworthy, technical issues can and probably will rear their head. Earlier this year, Google Docs suffered a glitch that shared some private documents. Services such as Spotify can be a target for hackers after your user details.

Cloud safety

Fortunately, a smidgeon of common sense and some simple computing good practice can minimise the effects of such security lapses. Avoid putting your really confidential data in the cloud, and if you do, such as when banking online, avoid using shared public computers like those in Internet cafes, schools and libraries. Don't be too free with your real-world contact details either, and avoid using the same password for everything, even if you only change one letter for each different login.

Cloudy intervals

The second major issue with cloud computing is the potential loss of access. A company holding your data could leave you without access for a period of time, perhaps due to a server hitch. Twitter is notorious for occasional downtime, resulting in the notorious 'Fail Whale' symbol when the site is in trouble. Even worse, you could lose your data entirely.

Not a cloud in sight

In the very, very worst case scenario, you could look to your cloud data and find yourself staring at a cloudless blue sky. Great news if you're off for a picnic, terrible news if the company looking after your stuff has folded completely. This happened last year to the Linkup and the blogging platform JournalSpace. You'll probably be safe with a really big company, such as Google, but then customers of Northern Rock, Woolworths, UBS and the entire population of Iceland probably thought that too.

Even when a company is still solid, it may simply choose to shut up shop on a particular service. Google recently announced it was closing down its note-taking Google Notebook service. But the Internet is endlessly adaptable, and in no time at all the similar service Evernote had announced a tool to import your data from Google Notebook.


Layers of cloud

Again, however, a little common sense and general good practice can save the day. The fact is, if you're not backing up your stuff, you really should be. If you're not convinced, just open iTunes, if you have it, and start scrolling through your library. Keep scrolling... keep scrolling... keep scrolling... just think how long it'd take you to rip all those CDs again, if you even have them still -- not to mention the ones you've borrowed or the MP3s you've bought. Imagine if you woke up tomorrow and they were all gone. Still, at least you can get music again: lose those photos from your birthday or wedding or that time you drove a tractor in Sweden wearing a kimono and they're gone for good.

A combination of physical backup with cloud-based backup to an online service is the bare minimum if you want to avoid nasty data-related surprises. The cloud backup will sort you out if your external hard drive fails or your house burns down, while the hard drive has your back should the online service blow a server or run out of money and close down.

Send in the cloud

So that's the basics of cloud computing. If you're already on cloud nine, doing everything on the Web -- or if you wouldn't entrust your data to the cloud if your life depended on it -- let us know in the comments. We've kicked off a series of cloud computing guides here at CNET UK, so keep these basic tips in mind and come along with us to delve deeper into the cloud.