What is cloud?
Cloud computing is defined as "the delivery of computing as a service rather than a product, whereby shared resources, software and information are provided to computers and other devices as a utility (like the electricity grid) over a network (typically the internet).” In other words, rather than having all of your files and documents stored on a physical apparatus that needs to be transported between computers and plugged in, or to a single computer’s hard drive, your data can be stored on a service through the internet, allowing you to access it from any computer, anywhere, any time.
A cloud service typically has three distinct characteristics that set it apart from traditional hosting. It is sold on demand, usually by the minute or the hour; it is flexible – a user can use as much or as little of a service as they want; and the service is fully managed by the provider. What this means is that in order to benefit from the cloud, you only need access to a personal computer and the internet.
In addition to ease of access, cloud services also provide peace of mind knowing that your data will be safe even if your computer crashes, or you lose or damage your external hard drive or other storage device.
Many of the concerns people have expressed about cloud computing are based around the fact that your data is left in someone else’s hands. What if the service you’re using shuts down? What if it denies you access? What if the service is simply unreachable? These are issues that many of us have encountered on more than one occasion with our internet service providers! A solution to this problem and something that would probably be more relevant to everyday users (as opposed to businesses) is setting up your own personal cloud.
One option to do this is through a service called ownCloud. If you have a web server (or space on one) then this might be a good option for you. ownCloud is an Open Source project that lets you access your files anywhere, sort of like Dropbox. At the moment, ownCloud is mainly used for storing files, but for most of us, this is all we are really looking for in a cloud service. You can also take advantage of this capability to sync items like bookmarks across different devices and machines.
We should warn you, however, that setting up ownCloud is a bit tricky. It’s not very well known yet, which means you’ll probably have to search around for information on setting up the database that ownCloud uses. Another downfall is that there is no desktop or mobile client for ownCloud, although this is currently in the works.
Opera may not be the most popular web browser out there today, but with cloud services steadily on the rise that might begin to change. Opera offers a feature called Opera Unite, which separates it from other browsers and is a great tool for our purposes of setting up a personal cloud.
Opera Unite works by turning the web browser into an application server. You can share files, access applications and collaborate with peers, even if they’re not using Opera. Anyone can access the files and applications that you’re serving with Opera Unite using any other web browser.
To use Opera Unite, you need a MyOpera account (Opera’s online community). When you sign up, you’ll be registered with a unique URL for your Opera Unite server, and as long as your computer is connected to the internet and Opera Unite is running you can access the server anywhere.
My Book Live
Perhaps the best option out there from a consumer standpoint is the My Book Live from Western Digital. Kind of like a cross between an external hard-drive and a cloud service, this little device offers you all the convenience and safety of more traditional cloud services, but without the ongoing costs. The My Book Live resembles Western Digital’s other My Book storage products, but unlike an external hard drive, you don’t need to plug the device into your computer to access your data. The drive actually connects to your wireless router for shared storage on your home network that you can access within and outside the home. It’s certainly easier and more straightforward than some of the other options we’ve discussed in this article, and again, the initial purchase of the device is the only cost you’ll have. Some people also find comfort in the fact that they still have a tangible device containing all of their data, so it quells the fear (however irrational it may seem) of losing data in cyberspace.
The MyBook Live can be used to share files with Mac computers and PCs, stream media to your entertainment centre and access files on the go with remote access and apps for your mobile devices. It retails at around $329.99 for 1TB, $429.99 for 2TB or $599 for 3TB, which seems like a steal when compared against some other cloud services and external hard drives.
Another cool cloud service out there, and one that is useful to the average Joe, is iCloud. iCloud is a cloud storage service from Apple that allows users to store data (namely their music files from iTunes) on remote computer servers for download to multiple devices such as iPhones, iPods, iPads and personal computers running Mac OS X or Microsoft Windows. It also replaces Apple’s MobileMe program, acting as a data syncing centre for email, contacts, calendars, bookmarks, notes, to-do lists and other data. One of the features that distinguishes the iCloud from others of its kind is iTunes Match, which allows customers to scan and match tracks in their iTunes music library, including tracks copied from CDs or other sources, with tracks in the iTunes Store. Customers can also upload any music that is not available in the iTunes Store for download onto other supported devices or computers. At the moment, iTunes Match is not available outside of the US, but Apple is working on rolling it out overseas.