“What is ‘The Cloud’?”

the-cloudRecently, a parent from another school leaned across to me, and in a very hushed tone so that no one else would hear, said: “When people talk about ‘the cloud’, they’re not talking about a real cloud….are they?”

The ‘cloud’ has become such a popular term so quickly that it has suddenly become one of those things people are too embarrassed to admit they don’t really understand. But if you’re one of those people, don’t worry: it’s not a term that is commonly properly understood. So what does it actually refer to?

When computers first came on the scene they were completely individual devices. That is, everything a computer needed in order to operate was stored on its hard drive. If you saved something on one computer (perhaps a Word Perfect document, or the level you got to on your ‘Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego’ game) you couldn’t access it on another, because it was stored on that original computer’s hard drive.

This was very limiting, especially in schools and businesses. Until someone came up with the bright idea of joining computers up into a ‘network’. In a networked environment (like most people would have at work or in schools), you log in to any computer on that network and it brings up all your documents, applications and settings just how you left them. That is because all the computers in that building are joined together via cables to a central computer called a server. All your documents are actually stored on the hard drive of that central computer (server), not the individual computer you are working on.

Servers grew bigger and bigger, and the technicians required to maintain them became more and more expensive. At the same time, the internet took off. The internet connected all the computers in the world in a similar way to how we were already connecting all the computers within a building.  As internet connections became faster and faster, it became possible to begin to store things on servers that weren’t in the same building as you were. This was great, because it meant you could access those things from any computer or device, at home or at work. It also meant businesses could ‘out source’ their server needs and save all the money that would be spent trying to maintain all that data themselves.

This came to be known as ‘the cloud’, because people collectively imagined that the documents, music and photos they saved went ‘up into the air somewhere’. In reality, when you are using a cloud service, your data is actually going across cables laid deep under the sea and being stored in a ‘server farm’, which, depending on the service you are using, is most likely located somewhere on the west coast of America.

Lots of ‘cloud storage’ options have sprung up in recent years. Apple has ‘iCloud’. Google has ‘Google Drive’. Microsoft has ‘Sky Drive’. Yahoo has ‘Flikr’. And then there’s independent companies such as ‘Dropbox’ and ‘Evernote’ which are also hugely popular.

What 'the cloud' really looks like - inside one of Google's 'server farms'

What ‘the cloud’ really looks like – inside one of Google’s ‘server farms’

With the advent of small and highly mobile devices, such as smart phones and tablets, the ‘cloud’ has become more important than ever. Whether you know it or not, if you own one of these devices, you are using some sort of cloud service. That’s generally not something to worry about, but it is always good to inform yourself about exactly what you are signing up to when you buy a device or sign up to a service. If you have an Android device, you have data stored on Google’s servers somewhere. If you have an Apple device, you will have data stored on Apple’s servers. If you are on a social network of some sort, you are also using cloud servers. Every photo you upload to Facebook for example, is stored on their servers.

Each company has different agreements that you sign that deal with privacy and who owns the data in slightly different ways. Do you know if Facebook owns the rights to the photos you upload, or do you maintain ownership? I encourage you to find out!

At Kalinda, our students have Google Drive accounts that are managed by the school through a service called ‘Google Apps for Education’. This gives each of our students 40Gb of storage, and most importantly, the data remains private and highly secure, the school retains all rights to the data, and all accounts, passwords and settings are managed on site by myself and our computer technician.

So hopefully, now when someone mentions ‘the cloud’, you can nod your head knowingly and understand exactly what they are talking about – even if they don’t!

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