“The Cloud: is a term that most people have heard of, and many of us use cloud services daily. However, it’s fair to say many others are still using computing the old-fashion way. At times, it may sound like a marketing gimmick, but “cloud computing” is real and it can bring real value to just about everyone who has an internet connection whether it is on a computer, mobile devices and preferably all at the same time! In this article, we are looking at four critical aspect of your digital life that can be improved using cloud services: data access and organization, creative collaboration, data protection and gaming.
What is Cloud Computing?
First of all, let’s define what we mean by “cloud computing”: it is the use of resources that are delivered as a service over a network (the Internet, most of the time). Cloud infrastructure abstracts the hardware to the point that its use can be invoiced based on actual usage (pay for the computer cycles, storage, bandwidth you use). This has allowed a large number of Internet services to be created since the cost of using a cloud infrastructure is much lower than the previous alternative: building and owning the infrastructure. A huge number of startups have been created because of the improved economics.
Data Accessibility and Organization
Data accessibility is probably the most popular aspect of the Cloud since it uses a basic building block of cloud computing: cloud storage. The idea is that your data resides on a remote server run by a web service that can be accessed anytime, anywhere there is an internet connection. This is very handy, but this cloud-backed service has truly exploded when smartphones started to reach their full potential. With multiple devices and the ability to connect 24/7 the need for central data repositories, and OS-agnostic data synchronization mechanisms has skyrocketed, and the Cloud became the answer.
For you and I, this translates into services like online file hosting/sharing services that people use as “online hard drives”. This lets users open and work on files without ever thinking about copying or synchronizing them. They enable a simple form of turn-by-turn collaboration (one participant can modify the file at any given time), but don’t quite allow full-blown collaboration yet (more on that later).
Other services (like Evernote) let you organize and synchronize all kinds of notes and photos in the Cloud. The most powerful among them are equipped with a character recognition feature which can extract information from uploaded images, and make those text-searchable. This is very powerful. I use that for all kinds of things, like business cards archives, receipts management etc… This makes things easy to find when my accountant asks.
Interestingly, many of you have been using a cloud app before Cloud was cool: corporate hosted email remains a powerhouse when it comes to having online contacts and emails that sync with all devices. Most people think of that as an “enterprise” service, but these days, there are plenty of affordable such services that have little to envy to their “pro” counterparts. They work with nearly all smartphones, so you won’t have to worry about losing your contacts again if your phone is gone. There are free alternatives as well but they sometime don’t support features like Blackberry sync.
If you have followed the recent string of high-profile web services hacks, you should realize that you absolutely need to use secure passwords to safeguard your cloud accounts. For this, I like using passwords managers, and while there are a few options, you can look at something like Lastpass, which is a cloud-based service.
With one master key phrase, you can decrypt and access all your passwords. If you want to choose a strong master pass phrase that is easy for “humans” to remember, but hard for robots to guess, try something like “Yesterday afternoon I went to the 49ers game with Jeremy!”. It will work much better than trying to replace “o” with “0” which make things hard for humans to remember and easy for machines to guess.
While cloud file sharing services are handy, they often don’t allow a real collaboration in the sense that many people can work on the same document simultaneously. Fortunately, there are web-apps that let users edit documents at the same time, whether it is a white board, a text document, or a spreadsheet.
We use this type of apps all the time to edit product reviews, or fact-check one another. While someone is writing a paragraph, someone else can add a comment or a paragraph elsewhere. This is one of the things that could hardly be possible at this scale without solid cloud technology behind it.
Data Protection / Backups
Documents on the cloud tend the be cared for by the provider of the service you use, but you should always have a backup strategy for online and offline documents as the fruit of your work is the most precious thing in your digital life: ideas can be lost forever, and photos can never be taken in exactly the same way. Before the rise of consumer cloud services, only enterprises had access to data protection schemes that included automated offsite backups with encryption and replication. They can withstand catastrophic events like fire etc… Now, it’s easily available to everyone.
With consumer-level Cloud backup services (like Crashplan or Carbonite), backups in the cloud are far more resilient and require much less attention than pretty much anything most individuals could come up with. Those services have full-time staff, power generators and procedures that were once off-limits to regular folks. And most of them offer near “infinite” storage for non-enterprise customers, so there is no need to spend time setting things up. Just backup “everything”. It’s easy, everyone should consider that option.
Because of its complex “high-performance” nature, gaming has been one of the last area to be truly transformed by cloud computing. It’s because gaming is averse to latency (or “lag”), which can be induced by networks, one of the fundamental building blocks of the Cloud. Eventually, cloud gaming has caught on and its most spectacular form is game streaming with services like OnLive or Gaikai.
Streaming allows high-powered games to be executed by powerful “gaming” machines in remote data centers and streamed back to the user. This lets pretty much anyone with a fast internet connection play on a much more nimble hardware such as a set top box, TV, tablet or smartphone. The concept has been proven to work and the technology exists. In fact, game streaming may be key to running legacy console games in the future as it has proven nearly impossible to preserve game consoles’ backwards compatibility as of late.
Also, online games are keeping millions of players happy (and busy!) by allowing them to connect and play at anytime, on any machine. They can reconnect with any computer and pick up the games where they left off, which is hugely convenient. Best of all, most of those games can be played for free. Without a massive and cost-effective cloud infrastructure, this would just be impossible.
We’ve come a long way, but this is only the beginning of cloud computing. If you haven’t done so yet, you can boost your digital life today by using various cloud services that will make your life simpler. I’ve only mentioned some the most popular (and critical) types of cloud services here, but there are new startups releasing cloud-based services every single day, so the sky is the limit. There is something for everyone, and if there isn’t, someone is probably working on filling that gap.
Keep in mind that given the publicly accessible nature of the Cloud, security is paramount, and your password is the first line of defense. As networks speed and latency improve, the nature and quality of cloud services will also mutate and rise, so there is no telling what will be possible just a decade from now. We just know that it will be vastly better.
How do you use the Cloud to make your digital life better? Give us some tricks and tips : what are your favorite services and how do you use them?