What is cloud computing?

Knowledge that could make your next cocktail conversation more engaging

Bring up “cloud computing” at your next cocktail social hour, and you’ll find that people generally fall into two groups: those who stare back at you blankly (and perhaps start to back away) and those who perk up with excitement because they’ve finally found someone else who knows what it is and can talk about it.

How would you like to become a solid part of that latter group? I’ll let you in on a little secret: at a high level, cloud computing is an intimidating term for something you’re already using without thinking about it. It’s just a matter of putting a name on it to connect the dots, and bam, you’re one of the cool kids.

One of my clients is a local cloud-hosting firm, Bluelock, so in working with them, I’ve quickly had to develop an understanding of cloud computing that goes a little deeper than what most people will ever need.

So, what is cloud computing?

Cloud computing is a tech-industry buzzword for a practice that has become an integral part of our daily lives: the move to conduct more and more activity via the Internet. There are essentially two parts of the cloud-computing equation:

1. Information and software/applications reside in an outside server. Traditional software applications (such as Microsoft Office or Adobe Creative Suite) are installed on your computer’s hard drive, then you run the application from your machine. With cloud computing, software applications are run from a server that could be next door or across the country – it doesn’t matter. All you need is an Internet connection, and you’re set. Installation, configuration and maintenance are no longer on your plate.

2. Access. With cloud computing, you can access information any time and from anywhere, so long as you have an Internet connection. At the office, at home, at your favorite café, or sitting in the airport – it’s all possible.

HowStuffWorks.com has a great article that explains how cloud computing works in a way that doesn’t require a degree in IT to understand it. (For once, I don’t recommend the Wikipedia article on the subject; wait to read it until you’re looking for more technical information. It’s not a good place to start.)

The easiest way to begin wrapping your mind around this is with some recognizable examples.

Everyday examples of cloud computing

Companies and individuals alike are using cloud computing for both personal and business activities.

1. Email: If you have a web-based email account, such as Gmail, Yahoo!, or Hotmail, then you’re using cloud computing. To access your email, connect to the Internet, and voila – email, 24/7. You don’t need a software application installed on your computer – heck, you don’t actually need a computer at all. Smartphone? You’re set.

2. Social media: All social media platforms are hosted online, so you are using cloud computing each time you log into Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Take it a step further, and think from the perspectives of the people who manage the operations of these behemoth companies: As a business owner whose members exceed 500 million, would you want to have all the servers needed to hold their data under your own roof? And speaking of businesses…

3. Business applications: Salesforce.com is a CRM platform whose value proposition is built on the idea that you can manage a sales team’s data from anywhere. If it’s a team that travels regularly, they can remotely keep lead status and contact records up to date. As Salesforce has grown, it has really embraced the idea of cloud computing by offering more and more business apps developed either in-house or by partners. While it is a sales pitch, they also produced a nice video that explains cloud computing in relation to business. Check it out:

Miller Brooks uses a cloud-based project management system called Workamajig for job tracking, accounting, logging staff hours, etc. In the old days, we used software installed on a server in our building. Each time the company released an upgrade, we personally had to install it. And each time we ran into a snag, we had to figure it out ourselves or wait for a technician to visit and fix it. By using a cloud-based system, upgrades are released automatically, and having the server space in our office to house the software is no longer something we have to consider.

4. Data storage and backup: You’ve heard it before: the best way to ensure you never lose your files is to have a backup copy stored somewhere off-site. This was true in the days of paper files, and it’s true of electronic files today. Cloud computing allows you to back up your data – whether they’re project files or photos of your daughter’s wedding – easily, cheaply, and even automatically. Carbonite is one site that can automatically sync your files on a regular basis, and you can access your files through your account from any computer at any time. Dropbox is another example of a site that allows you to access your files simply by logging into your account.

5. Collaboration: As our companies begin to adopt a more fluid workforce that needs to be able to work remotely — whether it be from our laptops, smartphones, or tablet computers — staying organized is incredibly important. We also need to be able to collaborate on projects, and that’s one area that is steadily growing “in the cloud.” Applications like Google Docs allow multiple people to collaborate on one document, so you don’t have to worry about multiple versions floating around getting confused. Basecamp is another project management/collaboration tool that helps teams of people do just that.

6. And the list goes on: Need more examples of cloud-computing applications? Manage your voicemail with Google Voice; distribute a PowerPoint slide deck using Prezi, SlideRocket or SlideShare; share – and even edit – your photos and videos through Flickr, Picasa, Aviary and YouTube; manage your personal spending with Mint; arrange your next vacation using Hipmunk; and listen to music via Pandora. All of these household names are available to you by means of cloud computing.

Cloud computing: the way of the future

I’ve mentioned smartphones a few times already, and they’re worth mentioning again. We owe a great deal of credit for this movement toward cloud computing to the widespread use of smartphones. People want to be connected while they’re on the go, and they don’t want to have to tote a heavy computer with them to be able to manage it. Tablet computers like the iPad are built on the concept of cloud computing: users access applications through the Internet, not through software installed on the tablet’s hard drive. As our reliance on – and acceptance of – doing work through the Internet grows, so will the demand that our smartphones and tablet computers keep up.

So, the next time you’re chatting with some new contacts at a tradeshow, fruity cocktail or cold beer in hand, and someone mentions cloud computing, you’ll be one of the cool kids who can remain engaged in the conversation.

Maybe you’ll even score some credibility with a potential new customer because of it.

Further reading:
How green is cloud computing?
How Groupon is using cloud computing to scale its business
Amazon launches a new music service based on the cloud
Why the cloud is actually the safest place for your data


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