What is the cloud?

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What is the cloud?

It used to be you’d have a computer, and that was good enough.

Now think of all of the devices you own: a home computer, a work computer, a smartphone, a tablet, a smart watch, and maybe even more. Not only do you have more devices, but you can do a lot of the same things on all of them. You can watch videos, listen to music, and type up documents on pretty much anything with a screen.

That wouldn’t be quite as useful if, say, your pictures were tied only to your phone and viewing them on your laptop was a hassle. But you’re able take pictures on your phone and view them on your tablet with Google Photos. You chalk it up to magic and go on with your day.

But it’s not magic! It’s all thanks to the cloud – which, to many, might as well be magic. But is it possible to demystify this technology?

Using the cloud every day

There are a lot of different ways to explain the cloud. Even as a term, "the cloud" is sort of deceiving; the cloud isn’t a singular thing, but more of a concept. At its most basic, the cloud refers to decentralized computer processes. Part of the problem in defining the cloud is how limited our experience is with it.

For example, Amazon Web Services (AWS) is an extremely popular cloud computing platform you’ve never heard of. But no matter how popular it is, the only time common folk like you and I will actively encounter it is when Netflix – which runs on AWS – goes down. The cloud is responsible for a lot of behind the scenes action that makes the Internet run, letting companies store and run programs much more cheaply and efficiently than if they had to do it themselves, but it’s a technological rabbit hole that most people don’t want to go down.

Instead, when you talk about the cloud with your friends (because that’s what you talk about with friends, right?) you’re probably talking about file storage. Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud, and OneDrive are all examples of cloud storage services. The point of these services is to give you or someone else access to your files from anywhere – not just the device you created and saved the files on. So you can start writing a report on your work computer, make some edits on your phone or tablet once you leave the office, and finish up on your laptop once you get home.

Sometimes you’ll use the cloud as your primary storage. Many businesses use Google Drive, for example, to allow employees share files. Instead of having a document saved to your computer and needing to email it to a coworker or save it to a thumb drive and give it to them, you can save it to a shared Google Drive folder, where it’s accessible to other people instantly wherever they are.

Cloud storage is also great for backing up files. All of those pictures you take can be instantly uploaded to the cloud so if you lose your phone, get a new one, or have to erase your device for some reason, you’ll still be able to access your photos. Similarly, any document creation on iOS is automatically backed up to iCloud.

Let’s step into the Wayback Machine for an example.

You’re writing the Next Great American Novel. You type it up in Microsoft Word. If you want to keep working on it, you need to use the same computer every time. If you want someone to give it a read before you send it out to publishers, you save it to a floppy disk, a CD, or a thumb drive and deliver it to them in person like some sort of caveman.

Fast forward to more modern, more enlightened times. When you want someone to read it, you attach it to an email and send it out.

Double fast forward to today: you can upload it to Dropbox and have anyone access it whenever and wherever they want. Or, if you want to cut out even more steps, type it up directly in Google Docs or Evernote and share the link.

The dangers of the cloud

There are some people who find the cloud to be dangerous because it’s "out in the world." This isn’t specific to cloud storage, of course. After all, it’s not like personal computer hard drives haven’t been known to be compromised – and honestly, your hard drive is probably less secure than the cloud storage of major corporations.

But in a world of regular data breaches, people are wary of having anything personal stored outside of their control. Think back to last year’s massive celebrity photo hack: once it came out that it was caused by compromised iCloud accounts, popular advice was to turn off automatic backups.

Some people also just don’t like what they perceive as a loss of control over their files. They’d rather plug an extra hard drive into their computer and run periodic backups. And that’s perfectly acceptable! If you go this route, though, you’ll lose out on accessing files from multiple devices, it takes a lot of willpower to keep up with that habit, and it doesn’t really help if your house burns down or the extra hard drive fails. Cloud storage is often worth it for the convenience and extra protection.

Keeping the cloud safe

So you want the convenience of the cloud – instant backup, access to files from anywhere – but you’re concerned about someone accessing your racy photos and fan-fiction. What can you do?

Basic file security goes a long way, even in the cloud.

First, use a strong password with your cloud account. Use a password manager to create super-secure passwords that you don’t have to memorize.

Second, use two-factor authentication. That means if your account is accessed from an unknown device, a password won’t be enough to get in. You’ll need a randomly-generated code, usually sent to your phone, as the second step in logging in. Many cloud storage services, from Google to Apple to Dropbox, offer this option, so enable it if you have the choice.

Finally, don’t fall for things like phishing scams or spam email. These have been around since the earliest days of the Internet, and you should know by now not to click on suspicious links, but it’s worth repeating.

So there it is: your crash course in the cloud. It won’t help you understand the ins and outs of IBM’s SmartCloud, you’ll be able to talk about the cloud next time this buzzword is brought up – and you’ll know where all of your photos went.