Back in the early days of the Internet, techies would discuss the flow of data between PCs, LANs and WANs using flowcharts packed with symbols and arrows. When it came to representing the gigantic, nebulous infrastructure of the Internet, a billowing fluffy cloud would typically be used. This has always been the way the Internet has been imagined. Out there, somewhere, detached from your computer’s hard drive, receiving and dispensing data from high above.
For a long time, however, the reality did not live up to the hype. Until recently, software came on discs accompanied by a hefty manual. Once loaded, all the number-crunching would take place on a beleaguered computer. As software became more and more sophisticated, the burden placed on the poor PC often caused it to grind to a virtual standstill.
These days, with the roll out of broadband, the cloud concept of the Internet is more of a reality. This means that software can either be downloaded from the cloud or operated remotely while it is stored inside the cloud. Sometimes called Software As A Service (SAAS), this approach has led to services like Google Docs and Open Office providing powerful online word processing, spreadsheets, databases and storage completely free of charge.
Most websites are hosted on servers which are remote from the business that owns them. These servers often host several websites at the same time and reside in large data centres along with hundreds of other servers. This, in effect, is hosting in the ‘cloud’ but that expression has come to be applied to a more sophisticated form of hosting whereby each website resides on several servers, usually in different locations. Some companies – like Rackspace – will tune their servers’ bandwidth according to the fluctuating volume of traffic to a site which can be useful if a business knows it is going to feature on broadcast television. This usually results in a sharp increase of visitors that can cause conventional servers to crawl just when you want to look your snappy, efficient best.
With vast storage space, the cloud can make highly sophisticated software available to users who would otherwise not have the processing power to run it. Pixlr, for example, offers most of the photo-editing features people require for free, without the complexity of the costly Photoshop used by our design studio. An excellent example of cloud software is the highly intuitive Xero accounting service (which we use at Logo Design). Xero is rented on a per seat (or user) basis on either a monthly or annual contract.
Other advantages of cloud-based software include the fact that updates can be made to all users as soon as they become available, and programs can be accessed from anywhere with access to the web. Information can be shared amongst a team or across an entire company, with different levels of access awarded according to user rights.
Another useful application of the cloud is the storage of large amounts of data. Whether your MP3 music files, your digital photo album or the entire contents of your hard disk, there are many free and paid-for sites available that secure your data safely away from your PC in the colossal cumulonimbus that is the Internet.
Free online image editor: Pixlr – quick and easy to use if you just need basic enhancement of photographs. Avoid adding their retro filters, borders and effects if you want to be taken seriously!
Another example of free and simple cloud resources is the excellent backup and file transfer service from DropBox.
If you’ve sold your soul to Apple then you can store all your pics, music, apps and the entire contents of your wardrobe (joke!) in their iCloud and – sacrilege – you can do it from a PC too.
Google Business Apps – from £33 p.a. includes online word processing, spreadsheets, business email addresses, VOIP, 30GB storage…
And for the grown up and boring big businesses Microsoft have their own offerings – including their ubiquitous Office Suite – on Microsoft Cloud Services.
If you really must have programs running on your computer try Open Office which is an open source comprehensive suite of ‘office’ software. Developed over the last 14 years, with the most recent major update in April 2014, it boasts over 100 million users worldwide.