What is the 'Cloud'?

VIDEO: ABC News explains what cloud computing really means.
ABCNEWS.com

Gartner Inc. predicted this week that one-third of consumers' digital content would be stored in the 'Cloud' by 2013. It's an interesting statistic, but you might have two questions.

The first: What is this "Cloud" that everyone keeps talking about? The second: What's so great about the Cloud that everyone keeps moving his or her digital stuff to it? Well, lucky for you, we've got the answers to that question in our first "What is" article and video.

The Cloud Explained

PHOTO: An image to depict the Cloud companies, including Google and Facebook, and their server farms.
ABC News
Hold On, What Is This Cloud Thing?

The best way to understand the Cloud is to go back to the beginning. Back in the day, your data -- your photos, your files, your music -- used to be stored on a physical piece of hardware, perhaps on a floppy disk or a CD or a hard drive in your computer.

But today, you might be looking at a photo that's on Facebook or Flickr or listening to music on a service like Pandora. You might even watch a movie on Netflix or Amazon. And if that's the case, well, that photo, movie or music isn't on your computer; it's someplace else. And that place is called the Cloud.

In the most basic terms, the Cloud refers to the Internet. Lots of engineers might yell at us for being that basic, but when someone says, "I stored it in the Cloud," they mean they stored it on an Internet service. For example, email or webmail services are in "the cloud."

Now, of course, it isn't really that simple. The Cloud or cloud computing refers to an application that is hosted on or run on Internet servers. All the companies that have these services -- Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Flickr, Apple -- have servers or server farms. That's where your media is actually stored. Apple even built a huge server farm in North Carolina for its iCloud service.

But, hey, if you want to think of it as a floating bubble or hard drive in the sky, we won't tell anyone.

Benefits of the Cloud

PHOTO: There are advantages to using the Cloud.
ABC News
What's So Great About the Cloud?

There are a lot of advantages to using Cloud-based services or Cloud computing. The first is that your media lives in a place not on your own device, so you can get it on multiple devices. You can check your email on any computer or access your photos on Flickr or iCloud on any computer. And with cloud storage services like Google Drive, Dropbox, or SugarSync, you can store your files.

That also means that those photos, files or songs are being backed up on those various services. So if your hard drive crashed, you'd have a backup of all your files instantaneously; you'd just log in on another computer to one of those services.

Another benefit? Less computing power is required. The games you play on Facebook are using some of your computer's power, but they are also running on Facebook's or Zynga's (the company that makes most of those games) servers. Similarly, because you might listen to more music through Cloud services like Pandora or Spotify, you might not need as much hard-drive space.

Cloud Caution

PHOTO: The Cloud isn't really a hard drive in the sky.
ABC News
What Should I Beware of When Using Cloud Services?

But there are, of course, some things to be mindful of when using these Cloud services. The first is bandwidth and Internet costs. Sending email or looking at photos through these services don't use a lot of bandwidth, but playing games and streaming movies can eat up your monthly data or bandwidth allocation. Make sure you don't go over your monthly allocation, if you have one.

The second is that you will need that Internet connection to get to your data. So if you are on a plane with no WiFi or in an area with no connectivity you won't have access to those files or photos in the Cloud.

Third: be mindful of privacy settings and make sure you are using strong passwords with these services. Your data now lives someplace other than the hard drive in your computer -- it lives in that fluffy blue cloud -- so you just want to be safe in case it decides to turn gray and dark.

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