Some years ago I was close to getting a T shirt printed with the slogan “Cloud Computing Is Just Vapourware.” It was nowhere near the truth, of course, just my odd sense of humour but had I gone ahead today I would have been eating humble pie. Cloud computing has gone way beyond being a catchy buzz phrase and gone mainstream with growth predictions that are almost surreal. So what the heck is cloud computing and why is it so hot?
Don’t Like Google-Go Zoho
Essentially cloud computing takes tasks that you would traditionally undertake on your desktop and transfers them webside to “the cloud” where you access them through your web browser. Yup, that’s all there is to it. Simple. Where the complexity comes in is the vast range of services you can access, many of them free of charge, from any computer, anywhere in the world.
The best known example is Google Docs – or Google Apps if you have gone for the paid for package aimed at companies. Simply by signing up for Docs you get word processing, spreadsheet and presentation plus an email account that has one of the best spam filters I have ever seen. Don’t make the mistake of thinking these are cut down, cheapo cheapo offerings, they are fully featured and powerful packages.
Another advantage of cloud computing is that if you don’t like one package, then you can be pretty sure there is another rival with similar offerings. For example if you aren’t keen on the Zen Minimalist interface of Google Docs try Zoho, which has a far richer look and feel to it, much more like Microsoft Office so the transfer from desktop to webside applications is easier and more familiar.
So far so what! Okay, so you need more persuading. Scalability is a major plus point for many small to medium sized enterprises. If you start out with five people in your business and you grow fast the costs associated with that growth can be crippling. Those increases might be as simple as having to pay out more for Microsoft Officer licences or even to have to employ an IT team to manage your network and handle software upgrades.
With cloud based services all the upgrades happen invisibly in the background and at no additional costs to yourself. Virtually all paid for services offer packages within numerical groups of people so if you start off small you pay a set fee for up to five people for example and as you grow you can pay for the additional staff access.
As you delve into cloud computing you will find the word collaboration cropping up all over the place. For me this is one of the great benefits of the new technologies. Take this guest post for example. Traditionally I would have written it in Word and then saved it and sent the file to Chris via email. Now I just save it in Google Docs and share it with Chris and the system sends Chris the link to follow and he can either cut and paste or download the file to his PC.
That’s a very basic use. Let’s say Chris and I have agreed to write a book on The Advantages Of Being A Geek. By sharing the master document Chris and I can work on it at the same time and see the revision changes as they happen. Gone are the days of groups of people working on the same document, emailing it to each other and trying to work out who has done what or some wag putting his copy in flashing Christmas lights font!
Collaboration software abounds in the cloud. These packages allow teams of people to link up with each other and essentially project manage each other. Documents are shared, tasks allocated, real time chatrooms pop up for virtual meetings, timelines established and progress monitored. Good examples of this sort of service include DeskAway and TeamLab.
Online Sharing & Syncing
File sharing packages where information is shared and can be accessed by any nominated individual are growing in popularity and the top two are Dropbox and Sugarsync. I used Dropbox for quite some time until I changed to Sugarsync because of the increased flexibility of choosing which files and folders I wanted to sync.
Like all cloud offerings these packages offer location independence so I can sync all my files from my home PC, go to work, log into the service and be able to retrieve anything that I wanted. You can also allocate certain files to be shared with other individuals so if you are mixing a music track you can ask another musician across the world to download the file, add their drumming track and re-sync. Google has recently launched its Drive service which I think threatens Dropbox but not SugarSync and Box.
Data security is an area that a lot of businesses and individuals are lax about and in the past it used to be a pain in the proverbial with having to buy external hard drives and software to power and configure the whole process. Nowdays you just connect to an online service, select what you want backed up, schedule the process and sit back and forget it.
My service of choice, simply because it has saved my bacon on more than one occasion is Mozy. Like a lot of cloud services you get 2gb free of charge and for unlimited backups there is a charge of $4.95 a month and setting it all up to run in the background is simplicity itself. If you ever need to restore most files you just go into the system, choose the files you want and the system collects them, stores them into a zipped file and you are sent am email with the location where you can download the compressed files.
This is a brief introduction to what is out there and I haven’t touched on the likes of accounting packages, photo-editing software and the host of leisure and business packages that can help you work and play more effectively and efficiently but I was aware of the length of this article and I didn’t want you reaching for sharp implements as you lost the will to live.