The cloud sounds like something cute and fluffy but in reality, it’s an amazing service that can make your life so much easier. No longer will people be chained to their hard drives or USB sticks. The freedom to access your data and files wherever and whenever you want is now.

What is Cloud Storage?

To put it the simplest way, cloud storage is an online service that allows users (which can be companies or just single users like you) to store and access data and programs over the internet instead of on your computer’s hard drive. All the data is synchronized with other information on the internet and can be accessed from any computer anywhere that has an internet connection. You’d be able to access the same files from work, home, or your laptop in a café without carrying around a physical storage system like a USB stick or external hard drive. All you’d need is an internet connection.

Cloud storage also has the advantage of providing a safe backup of your data. If your hard drive crashes, your data is likely gone forever. However, if you’re using cloud services and your hard drive crashes, all your data is safe on another system.  Many people do this without realizing it, when they send emails of important files to themselves. Those emails are being stored on the cloud storage of their email service provider.

What ISN’T Cloud Storage?

Cloud storage is not your hard drive. Storing your data and running programs on your hard drive is called local storage and computing. Everything you need is physically close to you, as in it’s in your computer, and right next to all those empty cans of Mountain Dew and bags of stale chips. Of course, this means you can access your data quickly and easily. Unfortunately, you would only be able to access this information through that on physical hard drive.  If you needed to access this data elsewhere, you would have to keep it on an external hard drive or a USB stick. Whether it is just the one computer or a dozen on a local network (like at a school or IT service center). So, remember, storing your data on your home or office network is not cloud storage.

Consumer vs. Business Use

Consumers like you tend to use the cloud daily through apps and social media. Facebook and MySpace store your pictures and content through cloud storage, while email providers like Gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo!Mail store your emails on their own cloud storage servers. Users can create and store online photo albums on apps like Flickr and Picasa, which also use cloud storage. As a university student or at work, you might use Google Docs to upload documents, spreadsheets, and presentations for later use and editing.

All this is accessed and stored on Google’s own cloud storage system; Google Drive. Your company might make use of website hosting companies like StartLogic and Hostmonster to store files and data for client websites.  Then there are general storage sites that provide space for any kind of digital data you might want to save; like Xdrive, DropBox, SugarSync, and Strongspace. Some of these offer their services for free, like Facebook, Gmail, etc while other charge a flat or sliding scale fee based on what you need.

For business, there is a different type of cloud altogether, which come in three basic categories; Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS), and Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS).

SaaS is a service that a business might choose if they want a simple system that is already set up and ready to go. The apps and programs in a SaaS type of cloud are already installed, ready to use, and are maintained and updated by the service providers. The client just signs up and can immediately start storing data and accessing programs.  The type of SaaS storage the client wants can also be sized to the usage needs of the organization as well.

PaaS allows the client to create its own custom applications to be used by everyone in the company. Clients can deploy new web apps to their cloud storage quickly and reduce complexity through middleware services. Through PaaS, organizations can get their apps to market faster and move the apps between public and private clouds with ease.

Finally, IaaS is a cloud storage system that most of the big boys use. Companies like Amazon, Google, and Rackspace provide a premade structure that can be rented out by other companies. For example, Netflix provides you movies through the cloud system it rents through Amazon.

The Dirty Little Details

Of course, all the data you store in the cloud isn’t just floating around all willy-nilly. It is being housed on data servers in facilities called data centers. Depending on the size of the operation, these data centers can be as small as a single office room, while others fill up entire warehouses.

The future is now!

When you go to save your data to the cloud through the internet, the data server receives the files and records the information. When you go to get those files back, you would access the server through the internet and either get those files sent back to you or manipulate the files directly on the server itself, depending on the type of service.

Generally, cloud storage systems rely on hundreds of those data servers. Since they occasionally need repair, the companies store the same information on several machines. This process is called redundancy or data duplication. Without it, it couldn’t be ensured that you would be able to access your files any time you wanted.

Most of these cloud businesses also put their data servers on different power supplies so if one goes down, the client will still be able to access their data on another computer using a different power supply.

The Two Biggest Worries about Cloud Storage

When it comes to your precious data, there are likely two things you will worry about. Is it safe? Is the cloud service reliable? Obviously, you’re not going to trust your data to a company unless you know you’ll be able to access it whenever you want and it will be safe and secure. You also want to know that if the cloud data servers go down, you won’t be losing everything.

Cloud storage service providers tend to use several techniques to protect your info;

Encryption: a complex algorithm is used to encode your information. Only those with an encryption key would be able to decode the encrypted files. Of course, it is possible for a hacker to crack the code but they would need an intense amount of computer processing power that most people would never have access to.

Gotta keep those pesky hackers out!

Authentication processes: user names and passwords are required to access any and all of your information.

Authorization practices: only the people you say can access the information can do so. You can also have different level of authorization. Like your mom can have limited access to your photos allowing her to only see the ones where you look wholesome and responsible, while your friends have more extensive access, allowing them to see all those party pictures where you’re passed out on a slice of pizza.

"Oh, my grandchild is just the most wholesome youngster. Always at church or school."
Keep those sexy selfies away from prying grandmas!

Obviously, no system is perfect. Hackers could steal the physical machines where your data is stored or try and find an electronic back door or disgruntled employee could alter and destroy data using their user name and password. But the cloud storage companies generally have a lot to lose if they can’t protect your data so they invest a lot of money to keep their security tight and up-to-date.

Then there’s the question of reliability. As mentioned above, the companies will use the redundancy technique to try and prevent any loss of data.

Public Clouds, Private Clouds, and Hybrid Clouds; Oh My!

Public clouds are owned and maintained by companies that offer them as affordable computing resources for other organizations and individuals to rent. Tending to work off the SaaS system, users don’t need to buy hardware or software since it is all provided by the companies managing the cloud.

Private clouds are owned and operated by a single company that has control over the way the virtual resources and services are used and customized by the various businesses and groups that use them. Private clouds utilize many of the cloud efficiencies and provide the users more control over the resources. Private clouds also tend to avoid multi-tenancy. Multi-tenancy is where a cloud system has multiple users (not necessarily from the same company or even the same city) sharing the same data storage system. Private clouds avoid this and provide an individual storage system to each individual user, providing more security for your data but also driving up the cost.

Hybrid clouds utilize the private cloud foundation with the strategic use of public cloud services. This means that you and each one of your family members could have their very own private clouds, but those private clouds can also access and put files into the public cloud. So all those private romance stories you’ve been writing remain private from ma and pa until you decide to put them on the family’s public cloud for all to read. Most companies have private clouds that grew to manage workloads across several data centers, and both private and public clouds.

Oh My God! My Cloud Service Provider is Going Out Of Business!

So your cloud storage service provider is going out of business. That’s pretty bad news. Unfortunately, it isn’t new news though, there have been several examples of storage providers going dark. Last year, Nirvanix gave its clients two weeks to get their data out before the company shut down. At least they had a chance to save their data, there have been other providers like MegaCloud can just go dark, taking all your data with it.

When your cloud service provider starts to go under, the only thing you can do is get your data back as fast as possible; either back onto your own computer or onto another cloud network. Obviously, you can greatly avoid the risk of your chosen cloud provider going under by being smart with what provider you choose to go with. Big guns like IBM or Amazon aren’t as likely to go out of business. The important thing is to do your research and plan for the worst case scenario by backing up your files in several locations.

How Popular Is The Cloud?

Cloud storage is big business now, with almost 80% of all the large companies in North America looking to start using cloud storage or have already started.  Obviously there is a need for cloud storage since it allows ease of access and a reliable back-up system for user apps and data, which has allowed new types of companies providing reliable and secure cloud storage systems to start up.