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You’ve probably heard about cloud computing, or cloud storage, or cloud players. You may even have some nebulous (get it? Cloud joke!) idea of what it means. To tell the truth, it’s much simpler than it probably seems. The hype around the concept, and the use of the term for everything tech-related of late, has obscured the truly simple underlying concept.
So, how does this cloud thing work? Cloud service companies offer their software and/or storage, which you pay a regular, recurring amount, to use. Everything is done off site. The cloud service company’s computers run the software and their servers hold the data. You access everything via the Internet.
It’s kind of like streaming video. When you stream a video from a site like YouTube or Netflix, the video itself is hosted on a computer somewhere else. You use the Internet to transfer the data, in this case video and audio, to your computer a little at a time, as you need it. The video is never stored on your computer in anything more than temporary memory. As soon as you disconnect from the service or close your browser, it’s gone.
Cloud computing works the same way, only instead of video, you’re streaming software. Your computer is sending data to and receiving data from a computer at another location, over the Internet. The other computer is doing all of the work, you’re just telling it what to do, and receiving the results as they happen.
If everything is off site, how do you use it? The cloud service provider will supply some sort of User Interface (UI). Most likely, it will be a browser, or something like it, much like the one you use to navigate the Internet. You’ll most likely use the same interface to use every program you “stream” from the cloud.
Why should anyone use it? There are several advantages to using cloud-based software and storage. Instead of installing every program you need on every computer at your work site, you only install the UI. This means less work for you and the IT team because you won’t have to worry about software conflicts, codecs, and other little software bits that have to be installed to make other programs run effectively. It also means your employees only have to learn to navigate a single UI, not several. Perhaps the biggest advantage is that your hardware doesn’t have to be top of the line to run high-end programs. The off site computer will meet the minimum specifications. Your computers only have to be good enough to run the UI and, chances are, those minimum specs are pretty minimal.
If it’s so great, why didn’t it take off before? The answer to that is simple. It couldn’t. Cloud computing requires stable, high-speed Internet. It wasn’t until broadband and fiber optic infrastructure that cloud computing could ever be a feasible alternative to the standard software model. Now that high-speed, always-on Internet is commonplace, it’s possible to use it to “stream” software and data to your business from the cloud servers and back again at speeds nearing real time.
What are the downsides? Cloud computing requires access to the Internet. If something happens and you lose your connection, you’ve also lost your ability to use every program or access any data you “stream” from the cloud. Also, trying to navigate several clouds at once can be problematic. While it may be possible to get everything you need from one service, it’s unlikely. Instead, you’ll be negotiating two or more UIs representing multiple clouds. It may also not be possible to neatly and efficiently use data between multiple clouds. Thus, using some result from a program on one cloud in a program on another cloud may not be as easy as you are used to.
So, what’s the final verdict? Whether the advantages outweigh the downsides will be different for every business. The advantage of being able to work “on the go,” run minimal, on-site hardware, and pay less for software are all powerful incentives. Whether they’re worth the risk of not being able to work at all when the Internet goes down, or having to figure out how to make programs work across multiple clouds, is entirely up to you. If you aren’t sure, a hybrid solution may be the answer. Try using just a few programs through a cloud service (preferably all the same service) and see how you like it. If you find that it works for your business, you can expand your cloud later.