Q: I recently bought a song from Amazon and it asked me if I wanted to add it to the ‘cloud.' I didn't know what they were talking about, so I said no. Is this something I should use? - BJ
A: The ‘cloud' has become the marketing catch phrase of 2011. In general, the way it is being portrayed, it's as if it's some revolutionary technology that is just now hitting the scene.
The reality is whenever you hear anyone referring to ‘the cloud' they are by and large referring to an Internet resource of some sort.
Since the beginning of the Internet, whenever a network engineering diagram was created, the Internet was always represented by a cloud.
Using ‘the cloud' in your daily activities is actually nothing new. Millions of people were operating on a hybrid ‘cloud' service for years when they used AOL. By default, e-mails, contacts and attachments all lived on AOL's servers and only the program that allowed access to the data lived on the user's hard drive.
Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Gmail, Yahoo Mail and lots of other commonly used services are essentially cloud services because everything is stored and accessed via the Internet.
Music services are also moving toward cloud models to make it easy for you to access your music from any Internet-connected device you own.
In the past, when you downloaded a music file, it existed on that single machine and had to be manually synced or moved to other computers or devices. With copyrighted music files, you also had to jump through various authorization hoops and the number of devices that could play the files were limited.
In the case of the Amazon Cloud Drive service, you were being given the option to store a copy of your music on Amazon's servers so that you can access it from any Internet-connected device from anywhere in the world.
Apple's iTunes will soon include an iCloud feature for iTunes music libraries, while services like Spotify store their entire music catalog ‘in the cloud' for their users and offer a premium service that allows you to create offline playlists for when you don't have an Internet connection.
One of the great benefits to cloud-based services is that the burden of security and backup falls to the provider of the service. This means that you must trust the service provider to be responsible for the security and backup of your data, but in all likelihood, they will do a better job than most users ever could.
A downside to cloud-based services is that if you don't have an Internet connection, you don't have access to your files (like on an airplane or if your Internet connection goes down).
And even the biggest cloud service providers like Intuit and Google have had temporary service outages, which isn't a big deal unless you need access to your files at the moment they are down.
In my opinion, the best scenario is a hybrid of traditional storage and cloud storage, which means that a copy of your important files exist in the ‘cloud' and on your own computer's hard drive or your office's server.
The key to evaluating any ‘cloud' service is to go through the ‘disaster' scenarios to see how it will impact you.
What would happen if you lost your Internet connection or the service has a temporary outage? Would not having access to your files be a minor inconvenience or will your life come to a screeching halt?
Do you have a local copy of your critical information to fall back on or will it be all or nothing with the cloud service?
Many businesses use powerful cloud services to lower startup costs, eliminate issues with updates, and make it easy to get to corporate info from anywhere.
The tradeoffs include what I've already covered and the likelihood that switching to another solution could be very difficult, so business owners should choose their cloud solutions wisely!
Ken Colburn is president of Data Doctors Computer Services and host of the Data Doctors Radio Program, noon Saturdays on KTAR 92.3 FM or at www.datadoctors.com/radio.
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