Store files and digital information online

One of the hottest words in technology these days is “cloud.” Information is stored “in the cloud,” companies offer “cloud-based” services and gadgets from smartphones to thermostats interact with “the cloud” in some way. But, what exactly is “the cloud”? How do we go about using it and what considerations should we keep in mind when doing so?

What is the cloud?

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Consider your home computer; it has files on it (pictures, videos, etc.) and it runs specific programs (a word processing program, a personal finance program, etc.). When you want to access these files or use these programs, you simply sit down at your desk and get to work.

Now, imagine that your computer is located in a warehouse on the other side of the country; you can’t physically access it, so in order to use your files and programs, you connect to it (using another computer or device) over the Internet. Voila! You’re now accessing those files and programs in the cloud.

Using the cloud

One of the most common uses of the cloud is to store files or other digital information (email, calendar appointments, etc.). By storing files in the cloud, you can access them from anywhere using a variety of Internet-enabled devices. Some well-known cloud-storage providers include Dropbox, Microsoft’s Skydrive and Google Drive.

More companies are also offering cloud-based programs and tools, eliminating the need to install software directly on your computer. Microsoft, for example, offers a cloud-based version of Microsoft Office (called Office365) and Intuit offers cloud-based personal finance (Mint), business accounting (QuickBooks Online) and tax preparation (TurboTax Online) products.

Pros and cons

One of the biggest advantages of cloud-based storage is convenience. Need to view and update a document in the office, at home and on the road? No problem. Storing those files in the cloud makes accessing and updating them a cinch (and no more worrying about misplacing your portable flash drive).

Another advantage is ease of maintenance. You’ll rarely have to worry about upgrading software to fix bugs or take advantage of new features and, depending on the services provided by the vendor, your data may even be backed up automatically.

Of course, in order to access the cloud, you need some sort of Internet connection. If you don’t have ready access to the Internet (either at home, at work or when traveling), you may find it difficult, if not impossible, to utilize cloud-based tools and services.

Also, be aware that when you use a cloud-based tool or service, you are saving your (potentially sensitive) files and information on someone else’s computer. Make sure you understand how your files are being secured and backed up, and how a vendor may or may not use your information.

Finally, keep in mind that many cloud-based services only offer limited services for free; if you need more storage space or want to continue using a service beyond an introductory trial period, there may be additional monthly/annual subscription fees.

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