Tuesday, June 7, 2011

What is the cloud and why is it your friend?

As part of our effort to make technology easier to understand for all, I thought it would be a good idea to explain what this "cloud" idea is and what it means to you. In order to help you understand this, I'll be adding in my inability to draw and you all get to laugh at my poor art skills. My older siblings did it all my life, so you might as well join in.

When computers first started entering the home, people had a need to get their files from their work computer to their home computer and vice versa. So we had these lovely little things called floppy disks. A person could put that database on the floppy, take it home, work on it there, and spend even less time with their kids.

Sorry Timmy! Work just came home! Maybe that nice guy who's always offering you candy will play catch with you...

Now floppies evolved into writable CDs, then DVDs, and we also got thumb drives along the road for us to get our data from computer to computer. As storage on these items increased, so did the number of files you could put on them. So when Aunt Sally dropped by to share pictures of her vacation to Dollywood, she could share even more pictures.

And this is the other time that we saw Dolly Parton. It was almost as good as that time we saw Donny and Marie Osmond. I've got pictures from that on here too!

Now the problem with floppies, thumb drives, and all that was that you had to have the physical device in order to get to the data. Forgot your thumb drive at home? You better have a better excuse for your boss than "the dog ate it." (maybe you shouldn't have bought that thumb drive that looked like bacon).

Some people solved this problem by emailing themselves files, but this had drawbacks. You had to remember to email yourself the latest version of the file. If you emailed it to yourself so you could work on it at home, you had to remember to email it to yourself once you finished working on it. People were also limited to emailing themselves files of certain sizes. They couldn't send big videos, the contacts and appointments from their phone, or any other data they might want access to.

Enter our friend, the cloud!

The cloud is a place on the internet that rains your data on all of your devices. If you create a PowerPoint presentation at work, you can go right to it on your home PC, work on it there, go to the dentist, work on it from your phone while you wait (because dentists seem to be good at making you wait), and then pick it up seamlessly when you return to work. There's nothing for the dog to eat. There's not remembering to email each revision to yourself. Once you save it, it goes right back up to the cloud. You always have the latest version right there.

What? I told you I can't draw very well...
But wait! That's not all the cloud can do for you! Ever have a day that doesn't go your way? It backs up data for you as well. Let's say you're sitting at your home PC playing World of Warcraft and this thing called "Real Life" calls. That cute girl you've been facebook stalking for the past month invites you to a party! You immediately put this event in your calendar on your computer with the address to the party. Now a couple days later you're at the Best Buy and some nerdy looking guy (let's call him Pat) invites you to a LAN party (for those that don't know what a LAN party is, it's when a bunch of computer people get together and network their computers... no! Seriously! It's kind of fun!) and it happens to be on the same date as that party... the real one that is. Now if your phone is connected to the cloud, you'll see the scheduling conflict so you know not to give that guy the $20 entry fee to that Call of Duty tournament they're having at the party (the nerd party that is).

So you go to the party and you and that girl totally hit it off. She has no idea what you meant when you said you were a level 57 Battlemage, but glory of glories, she gives you her phone number and you immediately put it in your cell phone with a memo "Call her IMMEDIATELY!!!" You then leave the party with a smile on your face and a dance in your step. You stare at your phone, amazed at the sight of there being an attractive girl's name AND number in your phone. But you have butter fingers and drop your phone in a giant puddle. The phone is dead and that girl's number... gone.

I'm sure there's a lolcats that properly expresses your sadness

But it's all Okay! The cloud to the rescue! Upon entering that number into the phone, it gets backed up into the cloud. All we need to do is get a new phone and reload your contacts. So get your camping gear (you know the stuff you used when you camped out for Star Wars: Episode I because you don't do real camping) and set up shop outside your T-Mobile/Sprint/AT&T/Verizon.You don't want to wait too long to call her.

So the moral of the story is that the cloud is your friend. It keeps all your information in one place and you can access it from any device connected to the internet.

No, I'm not that good at drawing hearts. There's a heart thing in MS Paint.
Right now, there are a few general cloud services I recommend. The top two are SkyDrive and DropBox. SkyDrive is a service from Microsoft and you automatically get one with a Live ID (the ID you use to log in to any MS service. If you don't have one, don't worry. They're free). If you have a Windows Phone 7 device, I recommend this one. It keeps all your contacts, appointments, and files in one place. I go to www.live.com and it's all there. It will work great with Windows Phone 7 once Mango comes out in regards to Office integration. I even have the ability to edit Office documents stored on SkyDrive even if I'm on a computer that doesn't have Office. To keep files up to date, there's a program called Windows Live Mesh that allows you to select which folders on your computer to sync to the cloud.

DropBox is also a great option. While it has less free storage than SkyDrive (2GB compared to the 25GB you get with SkyDrive), it does make it really easy to share files with others. I can send a link to anyone to any file I have on my DropBox.

Which do I use? I use both. I find that SkyDrive works the best for backing up pictures and Office documents while I use DropBox for any files I want to share with others.

Now some of you who are first playing around with the cloud may be wondering what to put in the cloud. The first thing to consider are files you'll want to access regardless of what computer you're on. I also recommend using the cloud to sync folders that contain items you couldn't get back if your computer was to die. I put pictures, documents, and personal videos on the cloud. I don't recommend using it to store anything you can get back. I don't put music and videos I purchased from Zune Marketplace because I can just redownload those. I don't put installers for programs I can get again from the internet on my cloud services. I use the cloud as a method of keeping what I need safe.

So that's the cloud. If you have any questions, let me know. I'll do my best to explain them.Until next time, get to know the cloud and become friends.


Microsoft just posted a video explaining what SkyDrive does in regards to photos with both Windows and Windows Phone 7 (and what's coming with Mango). Check it out.


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