When people refer to the "Cloud" in a computing context, they are usually referring to a space within the Internet in which data can be stored and programs can be run independent of the user's hardware; it's where files, movies, music, and programs can be kept on servers and located online. Many of our current Internet hangouts, including social networks and media streaming websites, are based on Cloud services. This makes accessing, viewing, and retrieving data from anywhere with an active Internet connection easy; but, while using the Cloud can make life and work easier, it can also present some challenges.
The inspiration behind the Cloud's name came from old business presentations about computers and networks. In those presentations, the Internet was depicted as a free-floating cloud hovering above computer infrastructures and delivering information. Advances in technology have made physical computers and the Internet almost synonymous with each other. While they might have been considered to be separate back then, they are increasingly becoming one and the same.
Just a few years ago, files needed to be stored on physical pieces of media, like hard drives, to be accessed and used. Cloud storage means that users can access their data from anywhere, and from any device, as long as it is connected to the Internet. While the Cloud has recently been receiving a lot of attention in the news, the idea of the Cloud has been around for a long time. Web-based email, for example, has functioned as part of the Cloud for many years. In the same way that your parents were able to access their email from any computer 10 years ago, you are now able to retrieve your files from any device today.
For a great number of people, the Cloud and the Internet mean the same thing. Many types of common Internet services, like Facebook and music or movie streaming websites, rely on the Cloud to provide their services to users. In some cases, these services can depend on users to upload their own data, while others may allow members to access the data that they own or license for a specific period of time. Data like files, pictures, and music is stored on servers associated with the website or program used with them.
Some basic advantages of the Cloud are accessibility and ubiquity. The Cloud allows you to view, edit, create and upload files with a compatible device anywhere where an Internet connection exists. Increasingly, programs granting access to the Cloud have included sync features that update files across devices, so that any changes made to files on one of your devices can be seen on your others, as well. In addition, because files are stored on separate servers, if your computer ever freezes or crashes, you can rest assured that your data is safe and that you can access it again from another internet-connected device.
Instead of relying on available hard drive space and the technical capabilities of any user's computer, applications can be run on the servers associated with the Cloud. This allows less powerful and inexpensive machines to do much of the same kind of work that would usually be completed on a fully-loaded desktop computer. Computers that are marketed as working directly with Cloud services typically require an Internet connection to function. While generally cheaper than the average computer, they may come with less hard drive space, no optical drive and non-standard operating systems.
Despite the potential benefits of using Cloud services, there are also certain disadvantages to be aware of. Since the Cloud is dependent on Internet connections and the constant transferring of data between servers and computers, bandwidth use can be an issue. Internet service providers who cap their customers' bandwidth can block their activity when they've gone over their allotted data usage. Streaming a lot of movies or playing Cloud-based games can quickly put users over their bandwidth caps. Security can also be a concern: the Cloud's accessibility makes it susceptible to hackers and others with ill intentions, if users don't choose strong passwords to protect their data.
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