A Beginner’s Guide to Cloud Computing

NEW YORK (MainStreet) – The computer as we know it is about to get a makeover. This week, Google (Stock Quote: GOOG) announced it would begin selling a “new kind” of computer in June called the Chromebook that is faster than any other PC or laptop currently on the market.

The Chromebook, essentially a cross between a laptop and a tablet computer, takes just a few seconds to turn on, requires virtually no time to set up and, according to Google, the computer will actually get faster over time with more software updates, whereas most computers lose speed as you fill them up with documents and applications.

The secret to this speed and simplicity, in a word, is the cloud. Rather than loading up the computer with software like video players and Microsoft Office, Chromebook users will store and access all of their data instantly on a secure network online, instead of storing it on the device itself. So if you want to play a computer game or work on a word document, you’ll do so through applications built into the Chrome Web browser or on free services on the Web and store that data in the cloud. This data would then be accessible through the Chrome browser on any other computer when you log on to your Google account.

Google isn’t the first company to take advantage of cloud computing technology in recent years, but it has effectively taken that technology to the next level by offering users the option to transfer their entire digital life into the cloud. What’s more, Google has launched an innovative pricing model where the Chromebook could be leased to students for just $20 a month and to businesses for $28 a month per user. That price might make the new computer all the more attractive to consumers and help make cloud technology more ubiquitous, but for the uninitiated, the idea of the cloud can be a bit unsettling.

Cloud Computing 101

Cloud computing has been used by businesses large and small for years, but it is only recently that the technology has entered the mainstream.

In essence, the cloud simply refers to a network of computers that store and access their data on outside servers. These servers can be privately held by a business but are typically run by third-party companies ranging from big names like Google and Amazon to lesser-known groups like Rackspace.

“The motivation to do this for many businesses is agility, as they can be more efficient with their own data center resources,” said Ken Schneider, vice president of Symantec, a leading Internet security company. For businesses, cloud computing makes it more efficient and generally more affordable to store massive amounts of data and to share software and files among employees.

Consumers, on the other hand, have a slightly different incentive. Rather than agility, the operative word for consumers is access.

“For consumers, what we see is that they are using more and more sophisticated mobile devices and have an expectation that they will be able to get access to their information anywhere, rather than having it glued to one device,” Schneider said.

Five to 10 years ago, most consumers just had a desktop computer at home, and perhaps a laptop to work away from their desk, but today, more and more people have smartphones, tablet computers, e-readers with online access, not to mention a laptop or desktop computer as well. With so many different platforms, it can be cumbersome to have to upload one’s files to each and every device, let alone to update that content on each from a single source.

This newfound dilemma has led to a series of innovative online tools that rely on cloud computing. Sites like Dropbox and Skydrive offer anywhere from two to 25 gigabytes of free storage space online, with more available for purchase, so that users can easily access their files from multiple devices rather than being tied to a particular hard drive. Likewise, music services like Grooveshark and Amazon’s Cloud Drive make it possible to upload and share songs so that users can have access to a vast music library on the go. And both Google and Microsoft now have online services to create, edit and save text files and spreadsheets.

The Risks of Using the Cloud

While these options have become increasingly popular, some users might still be concerned about potential security threats. After all, sharing files on a secure network in your home or office is one thing, but storing them on a large third-party network necessarily leaves them more open to risks.

“The safest options is obviously to unplug and never share your information with a network,” Schneider said, but doing so may prove impractical for many consumers and businesses today.

As with most products then, Schneider notes that the best bet for apprehensive consumers is to rely on reputable companies, whether it’s the big brands like Amazon, Google and Microsoft or smaller host servers. In the case of the latter, Schneider recommends doing a little background research to make sure the lesser-known companies are trustworthy, by using Google search to determine if there’s malware on the company sites, as well as using services like SiteJabber that post reviews of online businesses and in some cases, you might search on the Better Business Bureau to find out if there are any outstanding complaints for a particular company.

Still, even the best companies encounter security breaches and outages from time to time. Just last month for example, some of Amazon’s servers crashed for unknown reasons, taking down several big websites that relied on these servers for their cloud computing needs.

Unfortunately, there’s little that businesses and consumers can do to defend against these breaches on large servers, but users can take steps to limit their exposure in the event that it happens.

“You need to have a good understanding of your data to start with, and determine which pieces of data need to be protected,” Schneider said. “There’s plenty of information out there that doesn’t provide much potential for risk, but personal or financial information needs to be protected.”

So, for example, if you’re mainly interested in storing and sharing music files or videos in the cloud, you probably don’t need to worry much about security issues since the worst that would happen if your information were breached is that someone might found out about your Creed obsession. On the other hand, if you’re storing tax forms or company documents, you might consider taking additional steps.

Generally, cloud services offered by companies like Google and Amazon come with built-in protections that make the data only accessible to preset email accounts or logins, or what Schneider refers to as “access control.” But for these and other services, consumers can further strengthen the security on particularly sensitive data by encrypting the files, a process that adds another layer of password protection. There are plenty of free and paid software encryption options available including TrueCrypt, GNU Privacy Guard and Symantec PGP.

Beyond this, it’s important to remember to delete sensitive files from the cloud once you no longer need access to them. Often this process isn’t as straightforward as it seems. When users select a file to be deleted on Dropbox, for example, the files are removed from your account but not from the server itself. To do this, users must take the extra step of viewing the deleted files folder and opting to “permanently delete” the files from the system. Other cloud services may have equally confusing systems, so users should take the time to consult each company’s guidelines, or contact the company if necessary to adequately remove their sensitive information.

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