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What is "cloud computing"?

Answered January 28, 2012

Cloud computing (mp3)

What is "the cloud" and how can you use it? For starters, understand that "the cloud" or "cloud computing" are just fancy ways of saying "programs and files that you store on the Internet rather than on a particular computer."

The idea of "cloud computing" isn't all that new. For years, people who have bounced from one computer to another have stored their files on websites or in their email so that they could use them wherever. In fact, email itself is often a "cloud"-based service already, if you're using a webmail service like Gmail or Yahoo or Hotmail to get to it.

Cloud computing is an attempt to take that one step further, and lodge everything on servers that can be reached from anywhere with Internet access, rather than from one home base.

For the people *selling* cloud services, the idea is that they can convert their customers from people who pay *once* for their programs into people who pay over and over for an ongoing service. It's really an attempt to make computing less about *products* and more about *services*.

For the people *using* cloud services, there are two significant advantages over the conventional way of doing things: First, if you're using a cloud-based service, you don't have to worry about problems like program incompatibility or getting the latest security updates. And when you're operating on the scale of many large companies, the idea of making those technical issues someone else's problem can be very appealing.

The second customer advantage is mobility: Many people either travel for work or split their time among different offices, or between the official workplace and a home office. Cloud computing allows them to get the same work done, no matter where they are or what computer they have with them.

There are some disadvantages, though. The first is that cloud computing, because it's based on service agreements, can lock customers into contracts that become ever more difficult and expensive to escape -- in case they turn sour. Second, many cloud-based programs and services still lack many of the features that come with conventional programs, though that should improve with time. Third, there's an element of unpredictability. You can get plenty of assurances from your service providers that they'll be around for the long haul, but as everyone knows, the Internet is built on change...and many of yesterday's big names are nowhere to be found today.