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Head in the Cloud

Head in the Cloud

Head in the Cloud

Clouds

Have you ever come across the term 'cloud computing' or heard somebody mention 'the cloud' and wondered what exactly it is they're talking about?

 

Even if you don't understand the terminology, there's a good chance that you've already come to rely on cloud technology in your day-to-day life, perhaps without even realising it (Facebook anyone?)

In this blog we're going to explain what's meant by 'the cloud', where it got its name from and take a look at some of the popular cloud-based services that people are using ...

An introduction to the cloud

So what exactly is 'the cloud'? In simple terms it probably helps to think of it as a metaphor for 'the Internet' itself. Services that rely on the cloud use your Internet connection to store and access information over the Internet. Think uploading a photo or video to Facebook or YouTube, or the way your new smartphone is magically able to retrieve all of your old settings over your wi-fi connection when you first switch it on.

There are loads of benefits to cloud computing. It's convenient, quick and cost effective. In today's world of superfast broadband it's often just as easy to upload your holiday snaps to Facebook or Flickr as it is to save them on your computer's hard drive. Do both and you've effectively backed your pictures up without having to invest in an external drive or local storage solution. Then there's the ability to share your pictures with all of your friends and family with the single click of a button.

What's in a name?

The origin of the term 'cloud computing' isn't 100% clear but it's thought to owe its name to the cloud-like shapes used in some schematic diagrams, usually a vague representation of a 'network' of some kind.

A diagram from a 1996 networking patent:

 Storing holiday pics on Facebook and uploading videos to YouTube is only the tip of the iceberg. Don’t be fooled into thinking that's all the cloud is good for. You can rent virtual server space to set-up and host a company or hobbyist website, whilst budding developers might use a shared platform allowing them to work together from entirely different corners of the planet to build the latest smartphone app. The opportunities are endless.

A journey through the clouds

Let's take a look at some of the more popular cloud-based services that people have come to rely on ...

Social networking e.g Facebook, Instagram, Twitter

Undoubtedly one of the most ubiquitous of cloud based applications is the social network. Needing no introduction, Facebook, Twitter et al have become almost an integral part of some people’s lives. In a recent report, Experian Marketing Services revealed that a staggering 27% of time spent online is spent on social networks. Now that's a lot of tweeting/poking/liking Wink

YouTube & Vimeo

Another one that needs no introduction, YouTube is the largest and most successful video hosting platform on the Internet. There are more than 1 billion unique users that visit YouTube each month, with 72 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute!

Most people wanting to upload that comedy footage from last year's family get together will look no further.

YouTube isn't the only option though and there are alternatives. If you don't like ads interrupting what you're viewing for example then you might want to check out Vimeo. It provides most of the functionality of YouTube with a few unique features of its own like the ability to password protect individual videos.

Dropbox

A back-up, storage and file synchronisation service, DropBox has gone from strength to strength since its launch in 2008, recently announcing a partnership with Yahoo! Mail.

With Dropbox you install an application on your PC, tablet or Smartphone that grants you access to a shared folder that's stored in the cloud. You can access, modify and save content to this folder using your device's file browser or a simple web browser.

Imagine updating your CV on your laptop whilst out and about and returning home to find that the changes have already been made when you open the file on your desktop. Need to get some pictures off your phone and onto a computer but can't find your connectivity cable? No problem, just share the pictures with Dropbox and access them minutes later on the computer.

Cyberlockers & Mega

Earlier this year aptly named entrepreneur Kim Dotcom launched cloud storage service Mega. Mega is the successor to Megaupload, the ill-fated 'cyberlocker' that was shut down back in 2012.

Cyberlockers like Mega and the popular Rapidshare and Mediafire provide what is essentially an amount of online storage where you can upload digital content for safekeeping or downloading/sharing elsewhere. A free Mega account comes with a respectible 50GB so it's a good option if you need some quick disposable storage or need to share a file with someone that's too big to send over email.

Mega launched in January, below you can see the amount of traffic to the website compared to Dropbox:

It's worth being mindful of the controversy that's surrounded cyberlockers in the past so make sure you don't put all of your eggs in one basket.

A Facebook app called Pipe has recently launched that works in a very similar way to a Cyberlocker. It will be interesting to see whether it takes off or attracts the same unwanted attention similar services have attracted in the past.

Apple iCloud and iTunes Match

Anyone with an iPhone or iPad will probably already be familiar with Apple's iCloud service.

iCloud lets you access your music, photos, calendars, contacts, documents and more, from any device registered to you that's running Apple's iOS operating system.

Another aspect of iCloud is iTunes Match, a subscription-based service that lets you store your entire music collection in the cloud, where you can then stream it to your iOS devices. If you're anything like me then you'll have collected thousands of mp3's over the years so this is a good way to save storage space on your devices. It also serves as a handy backup solution in case something bad happens to your precious files.

Google, err everything!

Not ones to be left out of the picture, Google have a plethora of cloud-based services on offer too. Their GMail email platform is arguably one of the best free email services available and features a generous 15GB of online storage which is shared between The Dropbox-esque Google Drive and Facebook rival Google+

Google also have a number of enterprise offerings such Google Apps and Cloud Platform.

Similar to iTunes Match, Google Play allows you to store your entire music collection online to be streamed and downloaded from anywhere with nothing more than a web browser.

There's not really a great deal Google don't use the cloud for. Those with Android smartphones can also synchronise all of their apps, settings and important contact numbers between devices just like iPhone users can with Apple iCloud.

Google even sell personal computers built on cloud principles. The Chromebook runs 'Google Chrome OS' as opposed to Windows or Apple software and has a strong dependency on many of the products mentioned above.

Microsoft Office 365 & Skydrive

For most Google cloud services the Bill Gates camp has an equivalent Microsoft product. For Google Apps there's Office 365, for Drive there's Skydrive and for Gmail there’s Outlook.

As well as having corresponding Android and iOS apps you can expect a lot of Microsoft's services to be available on Windows Phone too.

Gaming - XBox One, PS4 and Gaikai

If you're a gamer then it's likely you're already be familiar with services such as Microsoft's XBox Live (XBL), Sony's Playstation Network (PSN) and Steam for the PC. All of these services provide you the ability to save your game progress to the cloud which means you can pick up where you left off when moving between devices. It also adds a layer of protection if you're ever unfortunate enough to have your computer or console break down. You'll probably not be surprised to hear that Google's been getting in on the action too recently with the announcement of its Google Play games service.

The next generation of consoles will feature even more cloud integration. The XBox One was originally said to store copies of all of your games in the cloud, although it’s not entirely clear how much of that functionality will be preserved following Microsoft’s well-publicised u-turn; whilst the PS4 will allow you to stream a back catalogue of PS3 games through its partnership with cloud gaming service Gaikai whom it acquired back in 2012.

The latter of these is an interesting concept. Streaming games from the cloud removes the dependency on pricey consoles or gaming rigs because the hardware required to power the game is based remotely in the cloud. All you need is your trusty Plusnet broadband connection and a compatible device which could be anything from a smartphone to a television set to your work laptop.

Gaikai have taken their game demos offline recently (presumably whilst they fine tune things for the PS4 launch) however other services like Onlive still have cloud gaming content you can try out for free.

Razer Synapse 2.0

Keeping with the gaming theme, here's one that might be new to you.

Razer's Synapse 2.0 is small application that works alongside Razer gaming appliances and lets you create custom button and control configurations for your devices and store the settings in the cloud. This saves you the hassle of reconfiguring your peripherals each time you connect them to a new computer.

Amazon & Kindle

Amazon are no stranger to the cloud either with their Cloud Drive and Cloud Player storage and music streaming services.

With Kindle, all of your e-Books are stored in the cloud where they can be sent to any Kindle compatible device that's registered to your Amazon account. An even neater feature is the page synchronisation that tells all of your devices what page of a book you've read up to. You can read a few chapters using your tablet or Kindle and then pick up your smartphone whilst on the move and carry on reading from where you left off. Go back to the tablet or Kindle later and it knows how many pages you read on the smartphone and resumes from the same page. Neat huh?

Browser sync, e.g. Firefox, Opera & Chrome

Whilst on the topic of synchronisation, most popular web browsers these days come with features that allow you to use the cloud to keep your settings consistent across multiple devices.

This is really handy if you have a lot of bookmarks because bookmarking a web page on one device makes it immediately available on another.

        It's not just bookmarks though, you can sync loads of other stuff too like browser add-ons, passwords, form and browsing history and websites you're currently viewing. Like Amazon Kindle, you can be browsing a website on one device, pick up another and carry on from where you left off.

Internet Explorer is a little behind the times as far as browser sync is concerned although there is the ability to synchronise your settings using Windows 8 machines. An alternative is to use the popular browser add-on Xmarks.

Keep an eye on your usage

One thing’s for sure, if you're going to fully embrace all of these cloud services you're going to need a healthy data allowance and upload speed. Our very own Plusnet Unlimited Fibre is ideal as it's a truly Unlimited service with no download limits. It also sports upload speeds of up to 19.5Mbps dependent on your line conditions. Visit our website to see if it's available in your area.

You can read more about the technical aspects of cloud computing over on Wikipedia.

How much have you come to rely on the Cloud and how many of the above services do you use? Have we missed any you think are worth a mention? Are there any Plusnet veterans out there who remember the name of the online storage service we use to offer back in the late 90's/early noughties?

Let us know by leaving a comment below ...

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I'm 70+ and cannot type properly yet. I have just loaded windows 8 and am confused as all hell. I've work with computers since the Sinclair and Commador 27 days and still lag behind.............I need to print this article and read it at my leisure on paper because anything I read on a computer screen just does not sink in........now how do I do that?...........there is no print option on this page...........otherwise a great piece of info.........Cliff Cooper
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Hi Cliff, there's no print option on the blog itself however you should be able to achieve this by holding the CTRL and 'P' keys on your keyboard to open the print dialogue box or by navigating to File > Print on the toolbar menu (or equivalent - it will depend on the web browser you're using).