Pell Center

The Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina is a multidisciplinary research center focused at the intersection of politics, policies and ideas.

What is the cloud?

Almost forty percent of the world’s population uses the Internet in some capacity. Every minute YouTube receives over one hundred hours of uploaded material. Four hundred seventy million unique visitors read over thirty three million pages in two hundred and eighty six articles on Wikipedia. Two billion people send over one hundred billion emails every day. The computer itself has gone from the price of a Learjet, to the price of a bicycle. In the span of less than one lifetime computers have been synthesized into everyday life, moving from entire IBM warehouses to pockets and even fridges. The rapid influx of technology has not given slow adopters and even laymen time to become acquainted with the jargon surrounding it. For the unfamiliar it is taxing to see this technological flux as a necessity, especially when even as little as thirty years ago much of what we use today did not even exist. So it becomes important to take terms like Wi-Fi, Internet, and software, peer to peer, 4G and explain them in an understandable fashion. Here we’ll turn often abstract, exclusive sounding terms into relatable concepts, hopefully, making dealing with the Internet everyday that much easier.

For the last two weeks news viewers have been inundated with one term “the cloud.” Despite this widespread coverage, few people seem to know what “the cloud” actually is. We’ve heard that photos have been stolen from the cloud, that illegal websites are moving to the cloud to hide their activity, that the cloud might not be safe, or that the cloud is the safest place for our data. But what is it?

The cloud is a bit of a misnomer. Clouds are unscientifically speaking, formless, free roaming objects that don’t often capture our attention. Sometimes they rain, sometimes they offer a bit of shade on a hot day. They float along unconcerned with whatever goes on below them. Clouds appear to be the farthest possible thing from a computer. In sense that is true and through all the sleek language “clouds” aren’t really all that pretty.

Here we’ll be focusing on cloud storage. This is a type of cloud computing and is what has been the most relevant to the average Internet user lately. When a person says “I’m backing up my data on the cloud,” what they are essentially saying is they are copying their data to a group of servers that are not in the same place as their computer. Cloud storage is usually a data center that is operating a large amount of physical servers. A server is often a computer running a type of software that provides services to other computers sending it requests. Similar in concept to a library, where when you ask the librarian for a book, he or she understands what you’re asking for and goes into the library, returning with the book for you to then  check out. The server is both the library and librarian. Your data, when you save to a cloud storage service like Google Drive or Drop box goes to one of these datacenters and resides inside a server.

More often than not cloud storage is used as a backup and sync related solution. When you break an iPhone, and buy a new one, all you need to recoup the lost data is to log back into your Apple account. This is because Apple stores a copy of your phones data (all of its settings, pictures, contacts etc.) in servers accessible through the Internet. When you log in to your new phone you are “syncing” or reconnecting your blank device with the data you have stored away on Apple’s servers. Google Drive is of the same idea; users easily store data on Google servers. Data that can then be accessed anywhere one can log in to their Google Drive. These qualities, backup sync and accessibility all make the cloud very attractive. Instead of needing a USB key or hard drive to tote around data, one can store the data in servers assessable through the Internet and then get to them once they reach a computer at their destination.

Saying “cloud” is a fair bit more glamorous than saying “group of collected physical servers arraigned in such a way as to provide offsite data storage and sync capabilities through the Internet.” Yet in the same token it is a fair bit more confusing to state “it’s all in the cloud.” Most important to remember is that the cloud exists somewhere. Some phraseology will, intentionally or not, imply that the cloud is not actually anywhere. The reality is, through all the virtualization and decentralization; data you save to the cloud is being saved somewhere, just not in your computer.

In the business and IT spheres cloud storage and cloud computing are become increasingly popular. News has begun a love affair with articles pertaining too the “Cloud.” A Google News search of the word cloud brings in over 25 million results with a vast majority being tech related. Aside from the residents of St. Cloud Minnesota the use of “cloud” will increasingly come to mean something Internet related. Even if you’re not actively using the cloud hopefully it seems a little bit more real.

“Weekly What Is” is a new weekly attempt to break down popular tech industry buzzwords into everyday language.

Special thanks to Keith Monteiro for his consulting work on this article.

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