Life in the Cloud

The term “cloud computing” has been in the news a lot lately. Maybe you’ve heard of Apple’s newly launched iCloud service, which stores your digital photos, music, videos, and documents on Web-connected computers—somewhere. Amazon, Microsoft, and Google offer cloud-based services, too. And upstart providers including Box, Carbonite, and Dropbox provide file-sharing and backup services in the mysterious world of the cloud.

So what is “the cloud,” exactly? And can you trust online storage providers with gigabytes (GB) of your personal contacts, health and financial records, and maybe even your collection of unfinished Elizabethan love sonnets?

To answer that question a little background is required. First, the cloud isn’t literally up in the sky. Instead, it consists of a massive farm of “servers,” or computers. The name derives from the fact that data and software are all delivered as a service over the Internet rather than as a product that sits in your hard drive. Cloud technology isn’t new. Businesses and governments have warehoused information on Internet-connected servers for years. The big shift taking place now is that consumers—you and me—are getting our heads in the clouds as well.

This change is possible because of the exponential increase in Internet speed. Thanks to high-speed broadband to the home via cable, DSL, and fiber optic services—as well as speedy 3G and 4G cellular for mobile phones and tablets—you no longer need files to be near you to access them.

The beauty of this technological advance is that you can get stuff down from the cloud from anywhere. Want to hear a song that’s not in your phone’s meager storage? Punch in your password and there it is. Same with your tax information, email, and those Elizabethan-style poems. Another benefit—your files are easy to recover, even if your phone, tablet, or laptop is lost or stolen. And some cloud services automatically transfer, or sync, files between your various digital devices including phones and PCs.

Take iCloud, for instance. Not only does it back up your files to Apple’s massive farm of servers, the service also directs digital media to other Apple devices you own, provided they’re running either OS X Lion (on a Mac) or iOS 5 (iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch) software. For example, let’s say you own an iPhone and an iPad. When you buy an ebook from Apple, iCloud automatically sends a copy of the book to each device.

As you would imagine, there’s a price tag for such benefits. Apple users start with five GB of free storage. That could fill up quickly. Extra capacity costs $20 for 10 GB, $40 for 20 GB, or $100 for 50 GB per year. Other cloud providers offer free storage, too. Online retailer Amazon provides 5 GB, and Microsoft’s SkyDrive offers a more generous 25 GB. Dropbox, a popular cloud service that automatically syncs files between digital devices—including Mac and Windows PCs as well as many smartphones and tablets—offers 2 GB. Box, a Dropbox competitor, gives you 5 GB. Of course, you can always buy more storage if you need it. And Carbonite, an online backup service, warehouses an unlimited amount of your data for a flat fee of $59 per year.

But can cloud providers prevent data-stealing hackers and other ne’er-do-wells from accessing your files?

All of these services use strong, industry-standard encryption to encode your data, a security measure that makes your files incomprehensible to any snoops trying to access them. Of course, your account is password-protected, too.

Cloud company workers can’t access your data. As you might expect (and hope), cloud vendors take privacy very seriously. If they suffer a major security breach, their customers will flee. The bottom line: Yes, cloud storage is safe, provided you warehouse your sensitive information with a reputable firm.

The future is indeed cloudy—and that’s good news.