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What is the "Cloud?"

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The cloud came out of nowhere.

Just like that, it seems, the term "the cloud" was part of computer and Internet talk, everyday jargon that we all understood. Today, you see it advertised in mostly business magazines and newspapers, such as the Wall Street Journal; but also you hear it more and more on commercials on the radio and TV.

Oracle, who makes business software, has its cloud. One customer said of it: "Oracle Cloud provides a cost-effective, robust and secure environment to our customers." Apple computers (and iPads and iPhones, etc.) rolled out its unique cloud—the iCloud—into the technology sky in 2011. Here's what the Apple.com website says about it:

"iCloud lets you access your music, photos, documents, and more from whatever device you're on. It's easy to set up and use. And with features that give you peace of mind and make sharing simple, iCloud is also great with just one Apple device."

That certainly doesn't tell us much, does it? What's in Apple's iCloud that makes it different from Oracle's or all the others? Is there just one big cloud in the sky?

What Do People Mean by "the Cloud"?

Cloud computing, which is another thing you'll hear people say, is a huge trend in computing, for businesses and for ordinary people. For some it could mean saving and storing our computer work files in the cloud," or saving our music (and then listening to it) from another different cloud altogether. More and more of us are using a cloud in everyday computing life.

When we hear the word "cloud," it's natural to look upward toward the heavens. In technology reality, however, you don't need to look skyward; just think of "far away" and, supposedly, safe and secure.

A cloud is simply huge computer where you store your music or documents. (Technically, it's "a" cloud and not "the" cloud because there's not just one big super-computer where the whole world stores it digital files.) Before clouds, you'd have to store everything on your own computer or another storage device like an external hard drive or a "thumb" drive.

In other words, it's a place other than your computer that you can use to store your stuff. (Now, doesn't that take all the mystery out of it?) When someone needs their stored information, it's like telling their computer to reach up and pull it out of the clouds.

Cloud computing (which you know now is remote storage and access to your data) is offered by many different providers. Some focus on business, while others focus on storage of mostly video and picture files.

Before these Cloudy Days

Before cloud storage services became available to ordinary computer users, we had to save our files—photos, letters, pictures, spreadsheets—to our computers or on our "local hard drives."

That's why the size of your hard drive mattered. That's the space you had to store all your files...after taking into account the computer programs, operating system, anti-virus software, and special programs, etc. that are needed on your computer.

So storage space on computers was an issue. But it wasn't the only one.

There was also the risk of losing all your data if your computer crashed, which is always a possibility. If all your data was on that one computer, you were out of luck if the lost data could not be retrieved. And if it's information vital to your company or finances, those records are lost for good, unless someone else has a copy. That was one reason people had external drives and backed up their files routinely.

If you had different computers and storage devices, it could get pretty confusing remembering where certain information was archived. And businesses had to spend more money on equipment and people to monitor it to maintain the work files of employees.

But for a lot of us, there was one more reason the cloud sounded like a good idea. Convenience.

Work and Play On the Go.

These days, we have desktop computers, laptop computers, tablets and smartphones that we may need to access our files from. For documents and pictures on our computers, the typical method is to save the file to a thumb drive and transfer it to another computer, or email the file to yourself so you could open it on another machine. But today, cloud computing allows us to simply save a file on a remote server so it can be accessed from any device that has an Internet connection.

How It Works. What it Costs.

There's quite a bit of complex infrastructure that goes into cloud computing, and luckily you don't need to understand any of it to use it. You do, however, need to have a general understanding of Internet usage and basic file management as well. If you've used iTunes, you're probably off to a good start.

Finally, there are some costs for keeping your data within arm's reach in a cloud, but it should not break the bank. For iCloud from Apple, for example, you can get some storage space for free, and it might be enough; if you want more storage space, you can pay for it, starting at about $20 increments.

Look at the Clouds: Do an Internet search to learn about a few well-known clouds.

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