Hey Chief Heathen! What’s all this foofooraw about the Cloud?

Well, odds are, you already use “The Cloud.” The term refers to any product or service that lives in whole or in part on computers provided by some other party. For example, your Gmail is in “the Cloud.” Flickr is a “cloud service” for sharing photos. Every social network lives in the “cloud.” Basically, somebody decided a little while ago that marketing this “cloud” thing like it’s some new magic fairy dust was a good idea, but mostly it’s just confused the nontechnical people I know. So, you know, yay marketing!

I love “cloud” services that involve both remote and local storage. I think of cloud-mediated syncing services as one of the best things to happen to my personal computing needs in like EVER. Instead of keeping my handheld in sync with my desktop by religiously plugging a cable in and pressing the Big Sync Button (like I had to do with Palms), today it just happens silently via connections to central servers — for my mail, my addresses, my calendars, my notes, my working set of files, etc. It’s awesome.

There ARE cloud services that don’t use local storage at all, like Google Docs and Google Spreadsheets. Mostly, I don’t use any kind of service where my work is residing only on someone else’s servers. I think this is a good guideline. With all my syncing mail and other data, I retain a full copy on my computers, and therefore on my various backup tools. Because I access my NoGators mail via a local mail program, Google could vanish and I’d still have all my mail, for example, because it’s all saved locally. Same with all my address and calendar data. (There are of course people who don’t do that, and trust Google not to accidentally fuck them. I think of this as a bad plan.)

With something like Google Docs, that isn’t the case. It’s only at Google. If Google fucks up and zaps your account, good luck getting that data back. I use GDocs for some things — collaboration, mostly — but not for real work for precisely this reason.

Other use cases make the cloud even more appealing: for example, there exist a whole HOST of cloud-based music streaming services, like Spotify and Pandora and others, that give you access to vast libraries of music without having to download anything or maintain a giant local media library. You need a reasonably robust Internet connection, but that’s easy in an urban area like Houston (even, I suspect, in GBV, ha ha). Sure, if the service goes away, you lose access to the music, but you also get to stop paying them. This may or may not be appealing to you, but it’s one use of the so-called cloud. (I use a low-end Spotify account ($5/month) as my “giant sampling account” — sometimes, it keeps me from buying music I only need to listen to a little bit to quash an earworm or whatever; other times, it convinces me that a CD or download is in order.)

Another area the cloud has completely revolutionized is backup. There are SEVERAL good, reputable cloud-based backup services, and I’d advise you to sign up with one. Apple’s TimeMachine does a pretty good job of protecting you, assuming you remember to keep the laptop plugged into a drive. Cloning your laptop’s drive to an external drive periodically is a great second option, and I do that, too — usually before big trips, or before OS upgrades. But the what most people forget to do is arrange for some kind of off-site backup, in the event of catastrophic household loss. Cloud based backups put your (encrypted) data elsewhere by slowly uploading the files and folders you designate, and then keeping the online copies up to date quietly, mostly in the background. House burns down? No problem. Have CrashPlan.com send you an HD of your most recent backup, and you’ve suddenly got all your photos and financial records and email back. This is HUGE.

Finally, you may have heard about a cloud-based service called Dropbox. Dropbox is pretty amazing. Basically, you can use it to keep a folder hierarchy in sync between an arbitrary number of computers. My main working folder is my Dropbox folder now. Everything is always in sync between my laptop, my backup laptop, and my little Mac Mini, just for safekeeping. Even better, I can log into the Dropbox web site and access any of the files from my Dropbox from any other computer — you may recall I pulled an MP3 out of my Dropbox at y’all’s house one evening. Dropbox also makes keeping a shared folder between two Dropbox users pretty trivial, and that’s an enormously powerful idea, too.

Dropbox, obviously, wouldn’t be possible without the so-called Cloud. (It’s also become the de facto network file system for lots of iPhone and iPad based tools, and I suspect their counterparts on Android and Blackberry.)

Apple has also jumped on this bandwagon with iCloud, which is an interesting initiative. Or, I should say, there are some interesting aspects to it. Now, any music, TV, or movies you buy from iTunes are always available to any device you register with your account, regardless of whether or not the file is in the local library. It’ll just download a new copy for you from Apple. That’s kind of neat.

So: Does this impact your actual HD space needs? Probably not. You’ll still have a large MP3 library in the house. You’ll still need space for pix. You may accumulate digital copies of movies. The cloud may make sharing these things easier, but for anything you mean to actually keep, you’ll want to store your own copy on some device in your own home. The so-called Cloud just makes it easier to move all this crap around, and access it whenever you want.

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