What Is Cloud Computing?

These days, you’re probably seeing a lot of new TV commercials for gadgets and Internet services that mention “the cloud” -- or “cloud computing.” It may sound like the next big thing, but cloud computing has actually been around for a few years. Some popular examples of cloud services you may already be using are Gmail, YouTube or Google Docs.

So, what is cloud computing?

The Cloud Demystified
When people talk about the cloud, they’re still talking about the Internet. In the past, you went online to visit websites and use email, but most of your data and applications still lived locally on your computer. But now, you can store all your files on the Internet in the “cloud” and work directly on them at any time via your Web-connected devices (e.g., smartphone, laptop or desktop computer). Your PC or device is simply what’s connecting you to the cloud.

“The cloud is really about having the freedom to access and store information and get work done when you need it, wherever you are,” says Marcia Kaufman of analyst firm Hurwitz & Associates and co-author of Cloud Computing for Dummies. “No one is tied to their office or laptop computer anymore.”

Life Before and After the Cloud
You may not even realize how much the cloud helps you with your daily tasks. Consider these cloud benefits, along with what life online was like before:

Cloud Benefit No. 1: Store Your Files Online

  • Before the cloud: To store your files, you had to save them on the hard drive of your personal laptop or computer. And if you wanted to take your files with you, you’d save them on a thumb drive or CD.
  • With the cloud: Create a document within a cloud service like Google Docs, and you’ve securely stored it online. As a result, you don’t have to carry your laptop everywhere. You can access files -- and not just documents, but photos, videos and audio too -- from virtually any Web-connected computer or device. You can even use sites such as Deezer.com or Maestro.fm to store your music library in the cloud and listen to it anywhere you go.

Cloud Benefit No. 2: Get Your Apps Online

  • Before the cloud: You depended on costly software installations on your personal computer to get the benefit of various applications.
  • With the cloud: Many helpful applications now run in the cloud. Are you into video editing? Instead of purchasing costly movie-making software for pros on your computer, use YouTube Video Editor online. Or, want to jot down thoughts or links as you browse? Just log onto Evernote, a cloud-based note-taking application. The app will save your notes in the cloud for the next time you log on. You can even avoid paying for productivity software like Microsoft Office by using Google Docs or Zoho.

Cloud Benefit No. 3: Back up for Less

  • Before the cloud: To back up your files, you had to buy expensive hardware.
  • With the cloud: Rather than buying an expensive hard drive to back up your computer, try an inexpensive online backup service such as Mozy. Some cloud services you come to rely on may charge a monthly or annual subscription fee. So read the fine print to make sure you’re not signing up for a free trial that will eventually run out. Even so, if you love the service, the benefits may be worth avoiding costly software upgrades or the pitfalls of using an outdated desktop package.

Cloud Benefit No. 4: Save and Share Your Photos Easily

  • Before the cloud: You saved your photos on your personal computer. If you wanted to share them with a friend, you emailed them. And if your hard drive or external drive crashed, you lost all your photos forever.
  • With the cloud: Organize and back up your photos on multiple sites on the Web. You can control who sees your photos, and even if something happens to your hardware, your photos are still safe in the cloud. “I love sharing with Picasa Web albums,” says Milica Knezevic, a mother of two from Chicago. “You can share with family and friends who can choose to order prints from a variety of providers, set stricter privacy settings, comment on photos and upload original photos.”

Cloud Benefit 5: Get the Latest Updates Fast

  • Before the cloud: You had to wait for hours on the phone with tech support when one of your computer’s desktop applications wasn’t working.
  • With the cloud: Cloud apps are typically maintained and updated automatically by their provider, so you are less likely to encounter technical problems. And if you do, the cloud service provider is probably already working on ironing out the kinks.

The last thing you may be wondering is, Are cloud-based services safe? In general, yes. But before you trust your data to any cloud provider, be sure to read the terms of service and understand your privacy settings -- especially if you’ll be sharing content. The cloud can also deliver security services -- SaaS, aka “software as a service” -- that make it easier to keep your spyware, antivirus and other security features updated while you’re on the go for all your devices.

Is Free Public Wi-Fi Safe?

If you work remotely or travel a lot for your job, you probably take advantage of free public Wi-Fi often. Unfortunately, that probably means you’re regularly opening up your devices and your data to serious security threats. And if you’re a heavy user of cloud services, which often store your data on a remote server rather than your computer, Wi-Fi security is even more crucial.

Most people these days have password-protected networks at home, so it’s unlikely that anybody is able to snoop on your data as it passes between your device and your router. But when you’re surfing the Web via a free public Wi-Fi at a cafe, library or airport, you should be suspicious of everyone, says technology consultant Leo Notenboom of Ask-Leo.com. “It’s trivially easy for any of them to be watching your unencrypted information flying by.”

Here’s what you need to know to stay safe next time you’re surfing on a free public Wi-Fi connection.

Free Public Wi-Fi Tip No. 1: Turn on your firewall.
The cafe might use firewall software to protect your computer from outside attacks, but that doesn’t protect you from other people surfing around the same Wi-Fi network inside the cafe. Be sure your computer’s firewall is turned on.

Free Public Wi-Fi Tip No. 2: Protect your smartphone or tablet.
If your smartphone or tablet connects to Wi-Fi networks, require it to ask your permission before joining any network. A lot of people never change the default network name, so if you logged on to your friend’s “linksys” network, your device will remember that and could automatically join any network of the same name in the future -- unless you tell it to ask your permission first.

Free Public Wi-Fi Tip No. 3: Use strong encryption.

Encryption works by disguising data that your computer wirelessly sends to a router. Without it, that person sitting near you at the cafe could use special software to intercept and see all the data that travels back and forth between your device and the router. And that means everything: emails, passwords and things you search for. That’s why it’s imperative, says Notenboom, to use encrypted sites when possible.

How do you know when a site offers encryption? Instead of “http” at the beginning of the address, you’ll see “https.” You’ll also see a little padlock icon in your browser window, usually on the bottom right.

What else should you consider encrypting?

  • Your email. If you use a locally installed email program such as Outlook or Entourage, you can protect your mail and passwords by using something called SSL (secure sockets layer) on each of your accounts. This encrypts all your data when you send and receive email. Not all email providers allow the use of SSL, though, so check your provider’s help page.
  • Your Facebook and Twitter pages. Facebook and Twitter recently began offering encrypted sessions; just go into your account settings and find the option that says “Always use https.”
  • Your Google search. If you think the keywords you’re searching could be embarrassing or you prefer to keep your privacy, try the secure version of Google search. Instead of going to Google.com, do all of your searching at Encrypted.Google.com.
  • Everything. Consider a VPN service. VPN stands for virtual private network and encrypts everything you send and receive. You can download free mobile VPN software from such a site as Hotspot Shield and everything -- instant messages, passwords, emails and websites -- will be virtually impenetrable to prying eyes whenever you’re using a free public Wi-Fi connection. Or if your employer offers its own VPN, always connect to it through your computer or mobile device.

“That guy in the corner of Starbucks with his laptop -- do you trust him with your private data?” asks Notenboom. Follow these Wi-Fi safety tips, and you won’t ever have to ever wonder.

Keep Your Data Safe When Telecommuting

Thanks to the Web, more and more people are working remotely -- from home or anywhere. But not commuting anymore doesn't mean you don't have the same security issues that your corporate-office counterparts do. Here's how to protect your data, devices and computer without an IT department:

1. Back up your data in the cloud.
It’s easy to lose all your work: One computer virus or hard-disk-drive meltdown, and your important files may vanish forever. That’s why, when working from home, backup is crucial. Instead of depending on bulky hardware, try the many cloud services on the Web. They back up new content every night while you sleep, keeping your files safe and allowing you access from any computer at any time.

"Backup used to be cost-prohibitive," says Phil Montero, founder and CEO of an online resource called You Can Work From Anywhere. But these days, many online services charge as little as $50 per year, depending on your needs. Mozy even offers certain amounts of backup for free. If you’re only backing up documents, Google Docs is another good bet.

2. Protect your computer and critical files.
If your employer issues you a PC or laptop to use at home, they'll often install security software or a Web-based security service to block viruses or bar hackers. But if you are self-employed, the burden of protecting your computer and data from the increasing array of online security threats falls squarely on your shoulders.

When choosing a cloud-based security service, be sure it protects your computer with antivirus, spyware and firewall programs. It should also constantly updates to protect you against evolving threats.

You should also limit your family members’ access to your work computer. "You have to be sure that the really critical stuff isn't made accessible to someone who shouldn't have access to it," says Jack M. Nilles, founder of JALA International, a global telecommuting consulting company. "That includes the kids getting on your computer and downloading something [harmful]."

Finally, keep passwords and ID numbers private so they don’t fall into the wrong hands.

3. Seamlessly collaborate with others.
Whether you work on your home computer once a week or full time, if you need to share files with colleagues, synchronization tools can help ensure you (or your team) are working on the correct or latest version of a document. The “old” way to do this was to copy the files from your home computer onto an external hard drive, CD or thumb drive and install them on your work computer. But this process sets you up for accidentally writing over the most recent files -- and what if this external backup device you were depending on is destroyed or lost?

Cloud services enable you to sync automatically to ensure speedy backups. Or try Microsoft’s FolderShare, which allows you to synchronize files with colleagues over the Web.

There's no doubt to the benefits of Web to the home office worker. That said, you want to be smart about security issues. To really cover your bases, in addition to backing up and securing your data, Niles also says it's important to get a clear protocol from your company or clients: "We recommend that telecommuters working for a company have a formal agreement specifically stating who is responsible for what." This way, you can always fall back on the agreed-upon security plan for your best-quality work away from your IT department.

Living Safely in the ‘Cloud’

It's holiday time! Aside from a noticeable change from sunny to cloud-filled skies, this time of year ushers in increased shopping and social activities. Taking place not only in the “real world” but also online, they can expose you to possible infections.

Like most online shoppers, you may not be completely aware of how to protect yourself from online identity theft and other online threats, such as fraud, email scams, phishing and virus attacks. You are banking, shopping and living more of your life on the Web, unaware that as you access information and leave your cyber fingerprint behind, you’re also leaving a trail of identity crumbs.

But cyber threats ramp up and rain down viciously during this time of year! Can you root them out on your own? Probably not. So if you're not a computer security expert -- and you don’t have a squad of security elves waiting readily at your disposal -- how do you protect yourself from identity theft and other online threats?

Watching the Weather
Forrester Research and other business and technology analysts are predicting rapid change in the cyber security environment -- a shift from traditional software product solutions to what is referred to as “software as a service,” or SaaS. The advantage of SaaS in the “cloud” is that it gives you affordable, subscription-based access to a full suite of best-in-class security software solutions without you having to download and install bulky programs to your PC -- or pay for upgrades!

Sweet! … But what is the “cloud”? The cloud is a general term that refers to having remote access to your personal digital files and many applications from anywhere on any Internet-connected PC or mobile device, at any time, on a pay-as-you-go basis. Most importantly, being “in the cloud” means that this software floats on the Internet instead of being tied to any one of your devices, providing a protective layer between you and potential security threats. Better yet, it means you will never have to download another update, worry about losing data or wonder how your ever-rotating arsenal of digital devices will stay safe online.

Is online holiday shopping sounding safer yet? It should. Shifting the home base of cyber security and identity protection from your own much-loved but admittedly fragile digital devices to the cloud ensures that you will bask in the shade of an Internet-sized umbrella. An umbrella that will rotate to meet your security needs when you need them the most -- like now, as you send out more precious personal financial data than ever in the name of holiday cheer!

Much of what you do is already in the cloud. (You have a laptop, iPhone or Smartphone, you access webmail, backup files online, or share and store photos on Facebook or Picasa, then you are already living in a personal cloud or soon will be!) And guess what? More cloud services are headed your way!

The Cloud Has You Covered
Cloud computing is like having your own handler or personal assistant to take care of all the tasks you don’t like to do or aren’t good at -- and luckily, security is at the top of your delegation list. Imagine not having to worry about the latest virus attack, drive-by downloaded worm, key loggers that steal your passwords or even “scare-ware” that looks like a legitimate alert from your security software but ends up infecting your computer instead. The cloud keeps you safe, offering you these advantages:

  • A total security umbrella. It completely protects your private information; blocks spyware, adware and Trojans; proactively detects and rejects viruses and worms; slams spam; and stops hackers. To prevent identity theft, it protects and manages your passwords, encrypts bank account numbers and monitors credit card activity for fraud. This makes your holiday shopping safer, and banking from any PC or Internet-connected device becomes worry-free all year-round.
  • Speed and performance. In-the-cloud services are always on, applications are updated automatically and the latest bugs are fixed on the fly. Processing capacity is distributed, optimizing both Internet speed and PC performance. Your music collection, photo albums and other digital documents? They’re all stored securely, accessible to you or your authorized users only.
  • More convenience and savings. You can choose from a diverse selection of applications to meet every need, and you can access them along with their private documents from anywhere on any device at any time. Services are scalable, meaning you can add more or use less depending on your needs without huge installation headaches. Like a utility, you only pay for what you use … and that leaves more money for shopping!

Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining
While securing personal identity, data and other sensitive information will continue to be a top concern for cloud service providers and their customers, the future of cloud computing is bright. As more services move to the cloud, the National Cyber Safety Alliance and other cyber crime fighting specialists are stepping up to the task of eliminating vulnerabilities, using real-time and predictive threat prevention innovations to keep your computer safe. In fact, an automated cloud-based malware research database monitors the behavior of more than 125 million executable threats and adds updated protection for more than 30,000 new threats every day!

With the holiday shopping season now here, knowing how to protect yourself from online identity theft and a host of deceptive fraud schemes is critical. Ensure you are protected by a total cloud-based security umbrella so you and your loved ones can search, surf, share, shop and celebrate the season safely. Have a safe, secure, and happy holiday season!

Can You Trust an Online Review?

It used to be the job of print, radio and TV journalists to review everything from restaurants to movies, products and customer service. But nowadays, anybody with a keyboard and a connection to the Internet can write a review.

That’s partly a good thing: The idea is that the democratic nature of consumer-generated online reviews will lead to more truthful, accurate information. But the reality is that online review sites are often filled with impostor reviews from owners who want their products to succeed -- or from competitors who want them to fail.

For example, the popular review site Yelp.com has been sued for allegedly extorting businesses with poor reviews -- allegations the company denies. Travel site TripAdvisor has reportedly been accused by a group of 420 hoteliers of failing to guard against fake online reviews and has since begun flagging suspicious reviews. But there probably isn’t a single review site out there that isn’t targeted by people trying to game the system.

So how do you differentiate between a suspicious online review and a review you can trust? Start with these guidelines:

Online Review Tip No. 1: Look for real names.
If a website encourages reviewers to post under their real names, its reviews are more likely to be the real deal. Amazon’s “real name” system uses the credit card that you have on file to determine your real name and then lets you choose some variation -- John Smith, J. Smith, J.S., etc. -- under which to post a review. A “real name” review is weighted more heavily than an anonymous review, but you can bet there are still plenty of impostors who post anonymously.

Online Review Tip No. 2: Look for real photos.

In the same vein, when reading an online review, look for accompanying photos connected to the reviewer’s profile. “If it’s a company that’s doing the reviewing, a lot of times they don’t take the time to put up a photo,” says Elysa Rice, a social media expert who blogs at GenPink.com.

Online Review Tip No. 3: Find other reviews by the same person.

If a review is attributed to a username, check whether the reviewer has written other reviews on the site. If you find numerous reviews, it’s less likely that the reviewer is a company pretending to be a consumer. Says Rice: “If there’s a person who has reviewed 50 other things, then I would take their opinion over someone who has reviewed just one.”

Online Review Tip No. 4: Expect a few low-rated reviews.

If every review glows, be suspicious. Even the best-rated restaurants occasionally overcook a steak or make people wait too long.

Online Review Tip No. 5: Read beyond the stars.

Consider why someone gave a poor rating. Recently, a critically acclaimed book received a huge quantity of one-star ratings on Amazon because it wasn’t available as a Kindle e-book. Although that had nothing to do with the quality of the book itself, those reviews contributed to a misleading overall rating of the book. But you wouldn’t realize that without reading the one-star rants.

Online Review Tip No. 6: Use your sixth sense.

If something seems off, be suspicious. For example, people who have an agenda tend to talk in hyperbole. So if a few outliers call a spa “the most amazing experience ever!” or “a fantasy come true!” you’d be wise to ignore them. “There’s content that just sounds robotic as opposed to the way humans would talk,” says Rice, and that’s the stuff you should write off.

Online Review Tip No. 7: Stay skeptical.

No review site can guarantee legitimacy, so take what you read with a grain of salt. Go with your gut.

Finally, once you find your favorite review sites, check if they offer an app you can load on your smartphone. And as with anything good, give back. Get in the mix and write an online review or two of your own: You’ll be making the system a little more honest.