By now everybody has heard the term “cloud computing”, but very few can define it. That’s because there is no precise definition. One can best describe it by stating what it is not. Any program run or stored on your hard drive, without having to access the Internet, is referred to as local computing, and is not cloud computing.
The lines between local and cloud computing can get blurry, as with Microsoft Office 365, a version of Office 2013, which automatically stores your data in the cloud, so as to facilitate access to your work by others working in collaboration. In this case your data is stored on Microsoft SkyDrive.
Even the experts offer nothing but a fuzzy definition. A narrow description is the use of virtual servers accessed by computers that offer everything from Software as a Service to Utility Computing to Web Services in the Sky to Platform as a Service.
No need to offer precise definitions here; these are largely enterprise solutions and beyond the scope of this article, which aims to inform you of the personal cloud computing products you’re most likely to use at home or wherever you happen to be, to access data you’ve stored in the cloud and want to have available across all your devices.
Like it or not you are already using cloud computing, whether you are using Google apps or streaming movies from Netflix. Your email is stored online on a series of synched servers running remotely. Netflix uses Amazon’s cloud hosting service, probably the largest of the services. Google apps allow you access to programs stored online, and, using a front end such as Quickoffice or Google Drive, you can create documents, spreadsheets, or presentations on your computer or Internet-connected device and store the data both locally or in the cloud.
Microsoft even offers a suite of web-based apps that you access through your browser. These include versions of Excel, Word, PowerPoint and OneNote.
The rise of cloud computing eliminates the need for powerful self-contained personal computers or corporate workstations, as the computational heavy lifting is done on powerful, remote mainframes or across vast numbers of networked personal computers.
In my article last week I wrote about the race to the bottom, or the trend toward less powerful and more diverse and hybridized computing devices. Well, the functionality of these devices depends largely on the processor-intensive chores formerly performed on your local computer, now being handled by vast server systems hosted by the likes of Amazon, Microsoft, Google and Apple.
So what’s in it for me?
I have mentioned that you are in the cloud already if you use any of the services above. But let’s look at consumer oriented cloud services, the tasks they can perform, and the costs to you.
OK, so your home or office PC can hold a terabyte of storage; your tablet and phone 64 gigabytes. Who needs the cloud? You have room to store all your vital work data, your film and music collection, your photos.
You can take it with you
But can you pull up that one critical report or spreadsheet from your home or office computer to your phone or tablet wherever you are? Not without resorting to a complex VPN network connection between these devices. With cloud storage, any device can access any file you’ve stored in the cloud.
And with the race to the bottom, devices are getting downright skimpy on both local storage and processing power. This lowers the cost of these new devices, while still providing ample storage space online for all your important data and media content.
For example, Google, which worked with Motorola to design and sell the high-specced but low-cost Motorola G, saw fit to offer non-expandable storage of eight to 16 gigabytes, but provided 50 gigabytes of cloud storage on Google Drive to all purchasers of these phones for free for two years. (Since that writing, Motorola, now owned by Lenovo, has added a 4G version of the G, with a slot for a memory card of up to 32 gigabytes of expandable storage.)
But whether your device is storage- challenged, or you simply want to back up your critical files off-site, or want to share these files with others, cloud services are the answer.
Just the facts
Here are some of the best for consumers, in no particular order:
- Dropbox: Among the first of public cloud storage services, Dropbox was the first to make the public aware of online storage and became the most popular of them all. It’s also a one-note Johnny–it simply stores files on any device you own and behaves like a network drive. No need for a browser interface, one simply drags files to its on-screen icon and they are automatically stored in the cloud, and your data is accessible to any device, PC, tablet or smartphone you own, regardless of operating system. It comes with two gigabytes for free, or 100 gigabytes a month for $9.99, or $99 annually. It’s rather pricey, but its ease of use and cross- platform capability make it one I recommend.
- Google Drive: Offering a pure cloud service, Google Drive can be used by PCs and tablets and smartphones, either iPhones or Android. In addition to storage, the service offers access to Google’s services, such as Gmail, Google Reader, Calendar and Voice. Google offers five gigabytes for free. If you upgrade to Google Apps you can use many of these services with your own domain name attached, useful for small businesses that want to project a polished, tech-savvy image. The first five megabytes are free, $2.49 a month for 25 gigabytes, $4.99 a month for 100 gigabytes. It runs on every OS except Linux, and offers the best combination of web-based apps and storage solutions available.
- Apple iCloud: Used mainly for online storage and synchronization of your email, contacts, calendar, and media storage. All of your data is accessible from your iOS devices, your Mac, or your PC. The first five gigabytes are free, you pay $20 a year for 10 gigabytes, $40 for 20 gigabytes, $100 for 50 gigabytes. It is integrated with iTunes Match, built into iTunes, and lets you store your own music collection, regardless of where you obtained it, for $24.99 a year, and it doesn’t count the latter against your standard iCloud storage limit. iCloud also synchs your contacts, email, mobile backup, and location awareness. If this sounds confusing, that’s because it really is. It’s difficult to distinguish what’s on your device from what’s in the cloud, it constantly synchs files from all devices with full read-write permission, and one wishes the designers would all get drowned together.
- Amazon Cloud Drive. The largest, in terms of overall capacity of cloud services, Amazon Cloud Drive aims to store your MP3 files and films you have purchased from this huge online retailer. The first five gigabytes are free. The price scales up in tiers of capacity, ranging from 10 to 1,000 gigabytes of storage, at a cost of 50 cents per gigabyte. Ten gigabytes would cost you $10 a year. It is not as tightly integrated with as wide a variety of devices as the competition, so I’d keep reading for more and better solutions, unless you own a Kindle Fire tablet and you’ve purchased a lot of media from Amazon.
- MediaFire: This service offers 200 gigabytes for free, but the free version includes ads, and imposes a 200 megabyte limit on file sizes. Forget about storing your film collection on this service. Also you are constrained to downloading only one file at a time. You can’t drag and drop an entire folder stored on the service to copy to your desktop. It has a subscription plan which releases some of these restrictions, starting from $1.50 a month for a one-year plan. It does not integrate with your file system, and you can’t archive your system backups. If you can live with these restrictions, you do indeed get a lot of storage for free, but that feature is about all this service offers to recommend itself.
- Microsoft SkyDrive: This service has much to offer users. You can share, save and access files, though only through a browser interface, preferably Internet Explorer, on most operating systems. The exception is Windows 8, with which it is integrated with that system’s file manager. As with Google Drive, it gives you access to web-based office software, Office Web Apps. It also works well with Microsoft Office. It offers a generous seven gigabytes of free storage, $10 a year (not month) for 20 gigabytes, $25 for 50 gigabytes and $50 annually for 100 gigabytes. It is the service of choice for Windows users, both because of its tight integration with the OS and most commonly used software, and its bargain basement pricing. Highly recommended.
All these services offer a minimum of free storage, so it costs you nothing to try them out and to see which suits you the best.
Or you can do as I do and use a combination of services in their free modes and receive a generous amount of free and permanent online, off-site storage. Of course this practice is not for everyone but my online storage needs are few and I don’t need to make use of collaborative work services, off-site system backups or huge media file storage solutions.
I write on my tablet using QuickOffice, which synchs to Google Drive, then I move to my PC, pull down the articles to edit and put the final touches on them.
I have a one terabyte drive filled with all the files I wish to keep.
But people’s needs and preferences vary and I freely admit I use the idiot’s solution. More savvy users and those who participate in collaborative projects would be well advised to use one of the services above.
I should note that these services mentioned are just a sampling of many more that are available, and you can review what else is out there by googling “cloud services.” Also I reviewed those most suitable for individual use. There are dozens more that cater to small, medium and large scale enterprises.
But there is no argument with the fact that the era of cloud computing is well underway, and soon mighty processing power will be available via the web for pennies on the dollars you’d pay for such power on-site.
The services listed above are mainly online storage lockers. They will eventually, and very quickly I might add, grow into computing powerhouses making the fast, expensive PCs we now use obsolete. They will be replaced with the 21st Century equivalent of the previous century’s dumb terminals, which were slaved to an in-house workstation or mainframe.
Things to come
This is not speculation; it is the exact direction we are headed for, and the transition is already well underway. Smart, powerful networks of computers will deliver awesome computing power at very low cost over fast Internet connections. All this using the basic technology behind the cloud computing services I’ve reviewed above. The basic architecture is already in place, all we are waiting for is the implementation.
Of course, with all this computational power linked in neural nets that replicate the human brain, there is a very good chance that the oft- discussed computational Singularity will occur, the linked computers will achieve true consciousness, and set to work evolving new algorithms to achieve intelligence of a godlike nature, and we baseline humans become enslaved, or worse.
If this happens while this article is still current, I hereby offer my services as emissary to the human race from our new Overlords.
If this doesn’t occur, I wish to reaffirm my loyalty to the human race.
Paul Croke, former newspaper editor and longtime Washington DC area freelance writer, has loved gadgets and consumer electronics since he saw his first Dick Tracy watch. He writes about consumer technology.