Is the Cloud for You?

The cloud was the buzzword for businesses a few years ago and now we are seeing new cloud services
showing up on devices every day.  So, what exactly is the cloud and is it something you should be interested in?

The cloud is basically a set of “server farms,” or warehouses that contain a lot of servers with high-capacity storage, that use the internet to communicate to individual devices.  The farms are run by reputable companies, such as Google and Amazon, which rent out space to other companies or individuals.  There are three main things that the cloud offers – storage space, services and programs.  The idea is to do these things over the internet so the individual does not have to worry about installing big software programs or buy devices with giant storage space to keep up with the digital stuff we accumulate, such as photos or music files.

Deciding if the cloud is for you, or which service to use, depends on many factors, such as the type of device(s) you use, how you use the device(s), and the types of files or programs you need to store or access.  There are also pros and cons to each of these types, so here is a run-down of what is out there in the cloud and how to decide if it is right for you.

Storage options are the most common type of cloud service and range from general storage providers, such as Dropbox or the cloud services offered by the big three (Google Drive, Apple iCloud, Microsoft SkyDrive), to file-specific services, such as Flickr or SmugMug for pictures.  The concept of cloud storage is you get a certain amount of space for free (you can usually upgrade to more for a fee) and you just upload your files to the site for safekeeping.  The benefit is your files are stored on a service that is running regular back-ups, you can share the files with other users or keep them private, and the files can be accessed from anywhere so you do not need to e-mail or save to a flash drive all the time.  The negative aspects are anything stored online does have the potential to be hacked or lost, even if that potential is small, plus you cannot access your files if you are not connected to the internet.

Should I store in the cloud?  For most files and users, the cloud is a safe option but you should use caution with critical files.  If you are concerned about personal data, losing precious pictures or not being able to access your music collection while offline, consider a portable external hard-drive as an alternative or back-up.  Sensitive data can be stored on one and you could also back-up your cloud-stored pictures and music for safekeeping or offline use.  Or, use the cloud storage just for the stuff you really want access to anywhere, you need to share, or as a back-up.

What service should I use?  That depends on your needs and the devices you own.  If you are a dedicated Google/Android user, Apple product fan or use a lot of Windows devices, it is best to use the native service for that type of device so it is easy to access your files from that company’s devices.  For example, an iPad/iPhone user would want to use iCloud so both devices sync and have the same content.  If you know you just want to store a few files, share items or are looking for something to share a specific type of file, such as photos, then you need to consider services like Dropbox or Flickr.  Most independent services are accessible via a website or app on any type of device.

Services have similar considerations as storage.  In terms of services, we are talking about content-based services, such as streaming music or video or online magazine subscriptions.  Whether you use such a service and which one you should use depends a lot on your devices and habits.

Should I use content-driven cloud services?  If you are used to the rental model for movies or find you want to be able to call up a favorite song anywhere, these types of services might be for you.  Services such as Hulu or Netflix for TV and movies, or Pandora or Spotify for music, are examples of streaming services that allow you to subscribe for a fee, but you are able to call up the content on any internet connected device.  Some of the services even offer limited free or lower-priced accounts if you accept the ads with the content.  Most tablet and phone users find these services to be convenient and they can be used on game consoles, smart TVs, Blu-Ray players and streaming media players, such as Roku, AppleTV, Chromecast, or WD TV Live.  If you prefer to own a copy of your movies and music, or already have a large digital collection that you have downloaded, the streaming services may not be for you and you will want to revisit the storage options.

What service should I use?  More so than with the storage options, a lot depends on the device you use or if you have already been using a service to purchase content.  If you have Apple products and have bought a lot of material from iTunes, using the iCloud service allows you to access those files from the cloud and there is now iTunes radio to cover songs you do not already own.  Google music works much the same way for Android devices, and Amazon Kindle Fire users can subscribe to Prime to access video and music in the cloud.  But, third-party providers like Spotify will also work by downloading their respective app so if you subscribe to one from your PC, you can still use that service on your device.

Programs make up the third major component of the cloud and, as the newest option for end-users, the smallest so far.  With a cloud-based program, the user does not have to download and install the full program, they either go to a website or download a small seed program to connect to a server running the full version.  Recently, Microsoft started offering a cloud version of their Office programs and Adobe now offers a cloud service covering their products.  Likewise, Google has long offered Apps as part of Drive so you can do word processing or create a spreadsheet in your browser.  Most also offer apps for tablet and smartphone users.  In all cases, you have the option of saving the documents you work on in the cloud or you can download a copy to your computer or flash drive.  The main drawback is not all cloud-based programs are full featured, so you really need to check the features to decide if they are right for you.

Should I Use cloud-based programs?  You may already be using cloud-based programs if you have ever done photo editing on a tablet app or written a letter using Google Apps.  The main question to ask here is if you need to be able to use a program on the go or if you need a full-featured program to use offline?  If you have limited space on a tablet or phone, the online programs are a good option.  They also are handy if you have a document you need to edit and you cannot get to a computer.  Since many of the programs are mobile versions of the full featured versions you can install on a computer, they will work with the same file types.  An example of this if Office online or Google Apps, both of which let you save and export documents that can be opened in Word or Excel.  Since most are free, try them out and you may find they do what you need without having to buy and install expensive software.

Which programs should I use?  This is a hard question to answer since it really depends on what software you normally use and how you use it.  Since the software portion of the cloud is still growing, you may or may not find a program that fits your needs at this time.  For example, serious photographers will not like the limited options available in many of the online photo editing programs, but if you only use them for quick fixes like cropping or image rotation, they are a good alternative to expensive.  Most users will find themselves using a blend of online programs and traditional purchase and install programs until the cloud options start offering more features.

- Laura N.

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