Cloud computing has been the next big thing on the Web for a while, but this week it's truly hit the headlines with the announcement of Google's Chrome operating system. So what does cloud mean, how does it work -- and is it safe? We take a look at the basics of the cloud concept and give you some tips to keep yourself and your data safe and sound.
What is cloud computing?
The 'cloud' represents the Internet: instead of using software installed on your computer, or saving data to your hard drive, you're working and storing stuff on the Web, in cyberspace. Data is stored on servers run by the service you're using, and tasks are performed in your browser using an interface provided by the service.
Guess what? Your head's already in the cloud
Web-based email services such as Hotmail or Yahoo were among the earliest popular forms of cloud computing. If you use Facebook to interact with friends, Flickr to store photos, or Googlemail to send email, you're already storing your data in the cloud and using a service whose behind-the-scenes magic is cloud-based too.
Just as the sky covers you wherever you are, you can reach into the cloud even when you're not at your own computer, by logging in to a Web site or service from wherever you happen to be.
Getting into the cloud
The success of the netbook -- and the mobile Internet -- goes hand-in-hand with cloud computing. Netbooks and mobile phones by definition are low-specced so they consume less power and can be more portable. A netbook wouldn't be able to run Photoshop well, or store vast quantities of music. But thanks to the cloud they don't need to -- all a netbook needs is a browser and an Internet connection and music, photos and email can all be accessed from the cloud.
So if all you want is to type a document and maybe include some basic formatting, you don't need all the power of Microsoft Word -- you can simply log in to Google Docs. Just as the cloud doesn't care how powerful your computer is, it isn't bothered what brand your computer is either. Crave's Nate and Rich both write in Google Docs from PCs in Crave Towers and Apple MacBooks at home, and many services can be accessed via your phone or even have their own iPhone or Android apps.
Two's company, three's a cloud
Just as you can log in from any computer, a friend or colleague can also log in and work on the same document. Google Docs is just one of the office-type services that allows for collaboration. Some even let people in different locations around the world work on the same document at the same time. That twists our melon, that does.
So that's the silver lining, but is there a cloud over the cloud?
Cloud computing may sound great, but there's a few things to consider before committing your whole life to the cloud. As open-source guru Richard Stallman points out, your data is handed over to third parties, and is outside of your control.