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.