How the Cloud Works

Updated Posted by Arnon Erba in General on .

Pop quiz: do you use the cloud? Even if you don’t know it, it’s highly likely that your answer is “yes”. Cloud computing has become a ubiquitous part of modern day computer usage. However, many people don’t know that much about it.

Google defines “cloud computing” as the practice of using a network of remote servers hosted on the Internet to store, manage, and process data, rather than a local server or a personal computer. That definition is still fairly technical, so let’s break it down.

When you edit a file locally, the file is stored and processed on your computer. This works fairly well, assuming you only have one computer and don’t need to access your file from anywhere else or share it with collaborators. However, if your computer is turned off, you can’t use the file without making a copy of it and placing it on another computer. In today’s world of smartphones and mobile devices, it’s crucial to have access to the same data from multiple locations without having to create redundant copies of files and deal with the hassle of moving them back and forth. The solution is to store the files in a separate, universal location and access those files across the Internet. This separate location takes the form of large, powerful computers run by companies such as Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon, and is commonly referred to as the cloud.

A good example of the cloud in everyday life is modern email. If you use email on both your phone and your computer, and your inbox contains the same emails no matter what device you’re on, you’re most likely using the cloud. The standard configuration for Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, or other email accounts is to store all your emails on your email provider’s servers and to have your devices download temporary copies of them to view. In this example, all your email is stored in the cloud.

Another commonly used cloud service is Google Drive. Google Drive is a service that allows users to upload, edit, and share documents, pictures, and videos. When you use Google Drive, all your files are stored on Google’s cloud servers and are accessible when you sign in to Google Drive with your password.

iCloud on your iPhone or iPad is also a cloud service. iCloud allows you to store photos, backups, and other settings in the cloud so that they are accessible on all your Apple devices. If you use iCloud, you’re using Apple’s cloud servers to store your data.

Other examples include Pandora, Google Play Music, Dropbox, Microsoft Office 365, YouTube, and almost any other service that involves streaming, downloading, or storing content on the Internet.

The name “cloud computing” has nothing to do with the weather, as the term stems from the abstract depiction of remote servers or the Internet in general as a large, ambiguous cloud. However, that doesn’t mean that weather has no effect on the cloud. Since the cloud relies on massive physical computers to store data, a large storm or natural disaster could physically affect these servers. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy partially flooded the server farm of a company called Datagram, Inc. Datagram’s servers ran a number of popular websites, such as Lifehacker, Gizmodo, and Huffington Post, and these websites temporarily went offline as a result of the storm.

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