If you want to start a document on your laptop and revise it on your phone, you can. If you'd like to listen to your music library from either your tablet or your work computer, you can do that, too. Gone are the days of being tethered to a single device. The reason for this: the cloud.
Simply put, cloud computing involves storing data and applications on remote servers and accessing them via the Internet rather than saving or installing them on your personal computer. You can use the cloud to house text files, photos, videos, music and the like, either as primary storage or backup storage, often for free or for a nominal price.
But the cloud isn't just about storage. In this age of Web mail, social networking, online bill paying, automatic phone backups, multiplayer online gaming and video streaming, a lot of us are already performing a variety of personal and business activities in the cloud, whether we realize it or not.
Many businesses are using the cloud to handle some or all of their information technology needs as a more inexpensive, efficient and flexible alternative to purchasing, running and maintaining in-house computing equipment and software.
But the cloud is not without its pitfalls. Here are five factors that can affect, and sometimes impede, your ability to access your data.
There are several types of cloud service, and which one you are using can affect how and how much you can interact with your data. Three common categories are Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) and Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS).
With SaaS, you are simply accessing software over the Internet that is offered and maintained entirely by the cloud provider. The type of software can include e-mail, content management systems, productivity software and business applications. SaaS requires the least amount of setup on the end-user's part, but also provides the least amount of control and flexibility as far as system functionality, and what can be uploaded or downloaded from the cloud.
With PaaS, the cloud host provides a hardware and software platform on which you can develop, install and run applications, Web sites or other services. You don't have direct access to the backend servers, but you have more control over what you can do on them.
With IaaS, the cloud host provides computing resources including physical or virtual servers, storage space and networking capabilities over which you have a lot of control. You are basically renting access to a portion of a data center's network and servers, and you can install and upload anything you want to them. You don't have the responsibility of maintaining or upgrading equipment, but do have to configure the servers and set up any software you might need. An IaaS service can be a public, private or hybrid cloud. Public clouds are shared by a number of users who select and access service over the Internet; private clouds allow users to have dedicated servers on a private network; hybrid clouds involve a little of both.
The types are not always mutually exclusive, as an SaaS provider might house their software on PaaS or IaaS cloud services, and a PaaS host might use the services of an IaaS provider. This potential nesting means that problems of a provider you don't even know you're using can cause issues with getting to your data or services.
And which type of service your company is using may determine things like who you contact when you have a problem -- someone in your own IT department versus a third party. It also impacts things like security, which, as you will see next, can affect your ability to work with your data.
Security isn't just about protecting your identity and financial information, although those are important. It is also key to preserving the integrity of and access to your data and applications in the cloud. Things like firewalls, encryption, backups, isolation of resources, the strength of authorization at user interfaces and screening of employees and other customers can determine who can get to your resources, how they can do so and what they can do with them.
There are many disruptive things that a malicious intruder can do. A denial of service attack, which involves bombarding a system to the point where it is inaccessible for normal usage, can render your cloud services temporarily unavailable. A hijacked account could lead to your data or business transactions being redirected for ill purposes, or loss of access to your own services. A compromised system could allow a virtual machine housing your applications and information to be migrated to a malicious server, leading to exposure of information and possible loss of data. Malicious software (malware) can infect the system and disrupt operations, or even compromise your home or work computer if it spreads.Even if an attack doesn't cause you to lose data or access, any security breach will likely lower your comfort level with storing or retrieving information from the cloud.
Unfortunately, there are no entirely unbreachable systems. Anything accessible via the Internet is vulnerable. But the tougher a cloud provider's security and the better its ability to detect and recover from breaches, the less likely you'll be to lose access, data or peace of mind.
And security is not all up to the cloud host. Personal lapses, such as succumbing to a phishing scam (where you are tricked into giving away login credentials) or downloading malware from another source can have consequences for your cloud access as well. Vigilance is required on all sides.
The cloud can give you access to hardware, software and infrastructure that would be prohibitively expensive for a person or company to purchase outright. But what you are able to do with it depends upon how much you are willing to pay for the privilege.
While there are lots of free cloud options for individual users -- quite useful for things like e-mail and document and photo storage -- most of them start to charge you monthly or annual fees when you want to store more than a few gigabytes' worth of data. You could easily hit your limit right in the middle of transferring the 100 or so pictures you took of your children, pets and meals this week. Of course, the error message saying you have run out of space is likely to be accompanied by instructions on how you can purchase more.
Cloud services geared toward businesses offer a lot more space and capability, with various types and levels of service. Companies can pay for things like per-gigabyte storage or database space, rental for dedicated servers (physical, virtual or both) with varying amounts of memory and storage on an hourly or monthly basis, hosted software applications on a per-user basis, network bandwidth usage, additional IP addresses and IT management services. The ability to ramp up service quickly and pay only for what you use or think you will use are big advantages. However, if you underestimate your needs and don't opt for enough space or enough servers, you could run into issues while working with your data. Hitting a storage wall is a lot worse when you are uploading time-sensitive customer data than when you are saving your dog photos.
Still, if you're willing to pay for it, you can always add more. And some cloud setups will scale automatically as your usage changes. (Although this might result in sticker shock when you get the monthly bill.)
The cloud may come with usage fees, but cloud services aren't the only ones keeping track of how much you're uploading and downloading. Many Internet service providers (ISPs) have implemented bandwidth caps, which are limits on the amount of data you're allowed to transfer over their network each month. The caps vary by provider and plan, but amounts anywhere from 100 to 250 GB per month are not uncommon. Aside from file transfers, you're using up bandwidth anytime you surf the Net, play games online or stream Netflix or Hulu videos, among other things.
Reaching your limit comes with penalties. Your provider might charge you per-gigabyte fees for whatever amount you go over the limit, throttle your bandwidth speed (i.e. slow down your connection) or even cut off your service. The latter two would definitely put a damper on your cloud upload and retrieval capabilities. And sometimes usage is capped during certain times of the day on shared networks like cable and satellite, so heavy users might experience slow-downs during peak usage times.
There are other things besides usage level that can get your data throttled, too. Many major Internet providers have begun using the Copyright Alert System to penalize people suspected of uploading copyrighted material for piracy purposes. After a few offenses, your ISP can do anything from sending you warnings to throttling your speed to blocking your service. The system reportedly monitors for uploads of known copyrighted files over peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing software, and tracks those files based on IP address. Anyone using your service could get you into trouble, so be sure to secure your WiFi and be cautious about sharing your Internet access. However, you can get around the monitoring by masking your IP address using a virtual private network (VPN).
Cloud services are by definition remote, so you have to be able to connect to them over a network connection. There are multiple potential points of failure, including issues with your home network, your Internet service provider, the cloud provider's network or even their own ISP, not to mention obvious things like your power going out or your computer dying. If any one of these things goes down, you are out of luck getting to your data or applications.
Network congestion will also affect how quickly and easily you can upload or download via the cloud. Extreme slowness can be just as bad as an outage when you're trying in vain to get to data you need right away to finish that last-minute presentation or paper.
Sometimes catastrophic disruptions occur over entire data centers, or portions of data centers. Services can be interrupted by a weather event or other natural disaster, a power outage, equipment failure or simply unscheduled downtime for repairs or maintenance. While cloud hosts strive for 100 percent uptime, this is a lofty goal. Things happen, even to the big players.
Amazon, an early pioneer in the cloud service area, has had several highly publicized outages from 2011 to 2013. Some of them took down or impaired well-known sites including Reddit, Netflix, Coursera, Foursquare, Instagram, Pinterest, Flipboard, Vine and even Amazon itself. They have been attributed to thunder storms, power outages, human error and even a glitch in a single networking device in one case.
Microsoft's Windows Azure service had an approximately 10-hour disruption in February 2012 caused by a leap day-related software bug. Google had an outage of only a few minutes in August 2013 that took out all of their services, including the search engine, Gmail and YouTube, and reportedly cost them around half a million dollars [source: Bloomberg]. According to the analytics firm GoSquared, the outage also reduced global Web traffic by 40 percent [source: Bloomberg, Mack].
For a person at home trying to watch a movie on Netflix, outages can be an annoyance. But for a business, even short disruptions can have a major impact on revenue. It's a lesson that anyone relying on the cloud should spread their service over multiple data centers, or even multiple providers, if possible. Backing up data regularly in some automated fashion is also a good idea. Redundancy is key. It comes with a price tag, but it may be worth it if you need constant access to your data and services.
Google is redesigning the way we use email. HowStuffWorks delves into the changes.
Author's Note: 5 Factors That Affect Cloud-based Data Upload and Retrieval
I gradually -- without even noticing at first -- moved many of my activities to the cloud. My e-mail is entirely Web-based. I haven't had a physical photo album in years. And I'm even reading most of my books via Kindle's cloud. I've also switched to writing most of my articles and other documents in Google Drive -- including this one.
But I have a slow computer and a finicky cable modem that I have to reset a lot, so I make it a habit of downloading my work frequently. And I occasionally move it to a thumb drive for good measure. I'm sort of half on and half off the cloud anytime I'm on the computer. The cloud is incredibly useful when it works, and most of the time it does -- but it's always good to have a backup plan.
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