Cloud computing is a new way of using your computer where most things are done remotely — your local computer works more like a terminal. The key difference between cloud computing and regular computing is that your software applications run on networked servers instead of your local machine. All your local machine is used for is input and output. Input is taken from the keyboard and mouse and sent to the server program. The server program then processes that input and sends your local computer the information about what to display on your monitor. All the computing that goes on behind the scenes is done by the server computers running the application.
This is a whole new way of working. You no longer have to buy applications and install them on your computer. You just run cloud based applications using your web browser. This has many advantages. For one thing, you don't need to get the application running. For another, you are always using the latest version of the application — there's no upgrading. All you need is an internet connection and a fairly simply computer — or even just a phone.
Another way to think of it is like the electricity that runs into your home or office. To use it, you just plug into an outlet, whether you want to run a copy machine, a TV set, or an espresso maker. Like electricity, which is metered, with cloud computing you just pay for the services you use. But many services are free.
How It Works
You may already be using cloud computing without even knowing it. Do you have a web-based e-mail service like Yahoo! Mail or gMail? The software to compose, send, receive and store all your messages is in the cloud. As a customer, you have reliable access to your email 24/7 and never have to update the software. It's all done for you. Most people don't really care where everything is physically located as long as it works.
Here's another example: Millions of people use Microsoft Word to create documents. An alternative is Google Docs, which gives you some, but not all, of the same features as Word. Google Docs is hosted in the cloud. You access the word processing program through your web browser, just like you would a traditional webpage. Once you've created your document, you can do all the normal things you are used to with a word processor: print, save, edit, and so on. You can also e-mail the document's location so that others can read it, or even edit it — if you give them permission. Instead of the document residing on your hard drive or your company's network, it's stored in the cloud.
Many businesses are moving to cloud computing because it frees the IT department from having to install, maintain, and upgrade software on all the company computers. It can also save money on software, because access to applications is priced by the amount of time it is used.
Cloud computing has a lot to recommend it:
1. Lower cost computing
Because the software is online, you don't need as powerful a computer to run the application. Your local computer only has to deal with input from you, and displaying the output sent from the cloud.
2. Reduced software cost — no more updates
There's no need to buy and update software. Use the most up-to-date applications, and pay as you go.
3. Unlimited storage
All your data is stored online, so you don't have to worry about the capacity of your hard drive. If you exceed the amount of space allotted to you, it is a simple matter to buy more without any other changes to your system.
4. Technology is handled behind the scenes
There's no need to deal with technical support to troubleshoot software problems.
5. Worldwide access
You can access the applications and your files from anywhere.
6. Easier collaboration
Having everything online fosters collaboration. For example, it is easy to share documents because they don't need to be sent back and forth; everyone involved is editing the same copies.
7. Device independent
Whether you use a PC, Mac, or smartphone, applications will run just the same — allowing you to use and share files.
Of course, there are drawbacks too:
1. Requires an Internet connection
Cloud computing is dependent on having a reliable connection — almost certainly a broadband connection. Because cloud computing can be data intensive, dial-up connections don't work well.
2. Slow speed
Even with a broadband connection, computing can be slow when servers are heavily trafficked.
3. Limited features
Online applications may lack some of the features that similar desktop applications offer.
Many people question the security of data stored in the cloud. How secure is your data? Who has access to it? If you have sensitive information, you may not want it floating around the internet — even with extensive security measures like encryption.
5. Lost data
Although storing your data files online means you never have to backup your hard drive, online data can be lost.
There's no doubt that cloud computing is here to stay. Whether you want to dump your desktop apps and head into the sky really depends on your needs. But for many common applications like word processing and spreadsheets, working in the cloud offers a good (and often free) alternative to the tyranny of the traditional desktop.