The “cloud” is, according to most big IT firms and experts, the future of computing. It has also become one of the biggest buzzwords in the world of tech, yet the majority of people have no idea what it is.
At its most basic level, it’s simple to understand. Instead of storing files on your machine’s hard drive, you store them on an internet server. This means you can access them from any web-enabled machine, anywhere in the world.
However, these servers aren’t your average box in the back of the office. Amazon, one of the biggest operators of server “farms”, has dozens of data centres around the world, as do Google, IBM, Oracle and many other companies. And they are referred to as farms because on average, each site is vast enough to fit 11.5 football pitches in, and contain hundreds of thousands of separate servers and disc drives – enough to power dozens of huge multinational corporations.
As super-high-speed data connections are plumbed in, it doesn’t matter where the farms are, but they are usually situated in areas where power is cheap and the climate is chilly, to minimise the amount of coolant required (millions of servers need an awful lot of energy and give off an awful lot of heat). Once used only by the world’s biggest firms, it is now possible for individuals and smaller companies to rent space in these server farms for everything from their music collection to their business data.
For travellers, cloud computing can be a lifesaver. When you inevitably have IT issues on the other side of the world, all is not lost – find a net-connected PC or Mac and you’re back almost instantly, with all of your files to hand. For consumers, there’s also a plethora of cloud-based applications to make life easier, with everything from books to photos being stored online.
Cloud computing has also led to a new breed of online services being available. In the consumer space, firms such as Spotify have revolutionised the way millions of people access music by making a vast library of more than 40 million tracks available at the press of a button. Meanwhile, services such as Twitter and Facebook rely on huge amounts of cloud storage and applications to function.
For the average person, one of the most obvious, and straightforward, uses for the cloud is backup. By signing up to services such as Rackspace and Mozy, you can automatically back up your important files to a remote, secure location. If set up properly, it’s simple to operate and cheaper than buying your own hard drive to do the job.
One of the first applications to move into the cloud was email. While services such as Hotmail and Gmail have been popular with consumers for many years, the past 18 months has also seen them move into the corporate space – Google, in particular, has been aggressively targeting firms with its Google Apps service. It also recently unveiled the Chromebook, a low-cost, stripped-down laptop optimised to run its online services, which was set to go on sale last month.
Google is bullish about its prospects, and the growth of cloud services. “Chromebooks are actually a huge leap forward for cloud computing,” said Dave Girouard, president of Google’s enterprise division at the launch of the device. “We’re excited about putting more pieces of the puzzle together. Our aim is to be number one in cloud computing.”
Unsurprisingly, Google doesn’t have things entirely to itself – every major computer firm, from Microsoft to Apple, is firmly focused on the cloud. The former already has a full suite of cloud apps, and Office 365, a cloud-based version of its Office software, is already at an advanced stage. Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer recently called the cloud “a major wave in our industry”.
In June, Apple joined the fray by unveiling its platform, iCloud, which will be available from the autumn and is designed to allow people to sync their devices – be they iPods, iPads or Macs – automatically and easily. The firm hopes to be among the first to offer the cloud system to consumers and, although primarily aimed at users wanting to sync music, applications and documents and store them on Apple’s servers, it is expected to blossom into a full cloud service, complete with online apps.
It’s undoubtedly a market that’s growing fast. According to research company Forrester (forrester.com), the industry is going to increase in value from about US$41 billion in 2011 to US$241 billion in 2020, while other analysts put the figure even higher. But the biggest problem with the cloud is connectivity. Lose it, and you lose everything (albeit only temporarily), so it’s worth bearing in mind that patchy mobile phone signals or wifi connections can cause havoc when working on the move.However, many of the apps here – Google Docs, for instance – do let you work in “offline mode”, which is a godsend for flights – assuming you download your documents first.