How "The Cloud" Works and What Else to Know

A cloud
Christy Matte

Cloud computing has been around for decades now, but with the rise of online services, we've been hearing more and more about "The Cloud." Many people still seem confused by the idea of the cloud and what it actually is.

What is "The Cloud"?

When people speak of the "The Cloud," it may bring about visions of our data floating around in the air around us, beaming down to our computers when we need it.

The truth is much less romantic. The cloud is just a massive collection of Internet-connected servers, or powerful computers that are designed to store, process, and "serve up" large quantities of data.

If you understand that an actual cloud is a large quantity of individual water droplets or ice crystals, cloud computing makes a lot more sense. It's just a whole lot of computers connected to each other. But it's important to remember that these computers aren't all housed in the same physical location and they don't have the same owners. 

The Cloud and Your Privacy

When you store information on the cloud, whether it be photos, email, music, or other files, you're placing your information on someone else's computers Before this happens, you're typically asked to agree to a privacy policy which will tell you in legal terms what they plan to do with your data.

It is always smart to read this before agreeing to use a service.

While it's typical to have a clause that they can use your data to provide the actual service (i.e. they need to be able to access a photo in order for you to edit it or print it in a book), you don't necessarily want your information sold or shared with third parties. 

Security and the Cloud

Anything connected to the Internet poses a security risk.

Period. This includes anything submitted to the cloud. As we see the rise of online access to medical records and other sensitive information, this is a concern. While having immediate access to your information wherever you are is convenient, you should weigh it against the risks. 

Why Do We Need a Cloud?

There are a few reasons for cloud computing on a consumer level:

  1. Easy Access - The cloud gives you access to your data online without having to take care of the security of your information. Not only is someone else concerned with preventing hackers, but backing up data. If all of your treasured photos are backed up in the cloud, it's one less thing to worry about in case you experience a fire, flood, or other disaster in your home. And you can access everything while on vacation, at work, or at a coffee shop.
  2. Processing Power - The cloud also provides processing power. We're seeing more and more software packages cropping up online with subscription services. This means that users always have access to an up-to-date version of the software, but they also don't have to worry as much about having a souped-up computer to work with.

    If the processing happens on the server side, you just need a decent Internet connection for things like editing video and images. This is also true for other applications. Cloud computing can be used for complex math and science applications that require massive amounts of computing resources. These can run in the background on underutilized machines, rather than requiring dedicated computing power. 

    Should You Avoid the Cloud?

    It is getting more and more difficult to avoid storing information in the cloud. And, generally speaking, that's fine. Most of the information we put out there is benign. Shopping lists and calendars and pictures from our recent cookout aren't necessarily things we'd choose to share publicly, but they won't cause any harm if they are exposed to the world.

    You may want to put more thought into sensitive information like medical records, social security numbers, and any information that could harm you if it ends up in the wrong hands. Security breaches can lead to identity theft, as well as the release of personally compromising/harmful information.

    In 2015 a hack into a VTech Database gave access to children's photos and other records containing their names and addresses.

    You can protect yourself by limiting the information you provide to cloud-based and online services and avoiding using your real name and location where it is not necessary for the service provided.