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Mac Corner

The Cloud and what it means to you

By Larry Grinnell, Palm Beach Phoenix Apple Users Group

larry grinnellI’m sure you have heard “the cloud” mentioned in TV commercials, print media, online articles, and more, but there are probably a number of you out there who have no idea what the cloud is and what it means to you and how you use your computer.

The cloud, in the context of computing and data processing, is pretty much what it sounds like: a place in a somewhat undefined “out there on the net” where you can store and manage information without really knowing (or needing to know) exactly where it is physically located. Most often, the cloud consists of banks and banks of file servers clustered together in huge “farms” in locations around the world.

One of the earliest popular uses for the cloud was for backups. Initially, it was used by business to make backups of their most critical data. These services have now reached down to the retail level, where individual users can contract with any number of companies to backup their most critical files.

One of the first, and in fact one of the companies that developed the standards for these services, was Amazon, with their S3 service. Users needing no more than 5GB of storage can get it for free on Amazon S3 for the first year, and pay a very nominal fee thereafter. The more storage you need, and the more data you need to transfer in and out of your S3 server, costs fractionally more. Amazon S3 isn’t the only one, though. Do a Google search for “cloud backup services” and you will find many articles comparing the many services available.

Another cloud service may be more familiar to you: Apple’s MobileMe service. MobileMe is a combination of backup, file synchronization, email, and other services that are beautifully integrated into the MacOS X operating system, and the bank of iLife applications like iTunes and iPhoto.

For your $99 a year (substantially cheaper if you buy from places like, you get 20GB of storage that you can use for anything you want. There’s even a neat public folder mechanism that permits you to share large files that are impractical to send via email to any user, whether or not they have a MobileMe account, and whether or not they are using a Mac or a Windows computer.

Other companies offer cloud storage services similar to the iDisk feature in MobileMe, such as Dropbox, and Rapidshare, among others. Just Google search “iDisk similar service.” One of the most popular is Dropbox, which offers 2GB of space for free. This is ideal to use for exchanging larger files with others without having to pay an annual fee. $9.99 a month gives you 50GB of storage, and $19.99 a month gives you 100GB of storage.

More and more popular among corporate IT is Software as a Service (SAAS). SAAS is application software installed on a virtual server somewhere in the cloud. Using a terminal application like Apple Remote Desktop, you view a computer desktop and interact with the application software that has been assigned to you and hopefully configured for your needs.

The benefit to your company is that your IT organization doesn’t need to deploy common applications (like Microsoft Office) to each desktop, and desktop users are prevented from modifying or customizing the application, actions which could make your applications vulnerable to viruses as well as causing unwanted service calls because maybe you went just a little too far “tweaking” the application.

SAAS is a huge growth area in corporate computing. Variations of SAAS include applications running inside a web browser, and other cross-platform environments like Adobe’s Flash, Microsoft’s Silverlight, and Oracle’s Java.

There are negatives, as you might imagine. If your provider suddenly goes out of business, you could lose access to your data. Additionally, if your provider doesn’t have a solid backup and data redundancy policy, a natural or man-made disaster could spell doom to your files.

Finally, there is the issue of privacy. Read your user licensing agreements carefully to ensure that at the end of the day, you still own your data. Finally, as in so many other things on the internet, use strong encryption (when offered) and strong passwords to protect your cloud-based data from unwanted prying eyes. If your provider does not offer data encryption tools, find your own and secure your files before you upload them to the cloud.

For most of us, the benefits outweigh the possible negatives of using the cloud. You no longer have to worry about locally storing important files, family photos, media files, and more. You don’t need to have to keep adding storage capacity to your local computer, and manage that media. Also, you can share your information more easily between devices you own as well as those of friends or business associates.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Readers are welcome to comment on this or any Mac Corner columns by visiting the Palm Beach Phoenix blog as well as by writing the editor of Palm Beach

Mac Corner runs every Wednesday only in Palm Beach Click to read the previous column.

About Larry Grinnell: Larry has been working with Macintosh and Windows PCs for over 25 years and worked as a senior technical writer and IT support professional for a major midwest-based consumer electronics and telecommunications equipment manufacturer here in South Florida. His musings on a wide variety of topics from computers to jazz guitar to strange foreign cars from the 1950s can be viewed at the website. Click here to reach him by email.

palm beach phoenix logoWriters of this column are members of the Palm Beach Phoenix Apple User Group, a nonprofit organization for Apple Computing Device Users, recognized by Apple Inc., with the purpose of providing educational training and coaching to its members (students, professionals and seniors alike) in a cordial social environment. The club meets the second Saturday (1-4 p.m.) and fourth Wednesday (6-8 p.m.) of each month at the Fire Station #2, 4301 Dixie Highway in West Palm Beach (just two block south of Southern Boulevard). Click here to visit their website. Click here to reach them by email.

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