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Lifestyles

May 7, 2011

Working in the Cloud has advantages, disadvantages

OK, it's back into the classroom for this column. This will be a business course, and most business people should enroll. Today you're going to learn a little about something which you may have recently heard _ "The Cloud."

The Cloud is a catch-all term for Internet-based computing, which has recently become a really big thing. Variations on the theme range far and wide.

If you've never seen a network diagram, an abstract drawing depicting someone's computer or telephone network, I'm not surprised. Most readers probably don't have the opportunity to look at these.

But if you have, you may remember that where the Internet came into play, it was represented by a graphic that looked like a cloud. Yes, like a big white cumulus cloud, like you sometimes see in the sky.

That's where the term "The Cloud" originated. It represents an ambiguous collection of stuff, the particulars of which are not really important to understanding the concept of the diagram. The important part is that it works, bringing whatever information is needed to the rest of the network.

From that basic concept developed the idea of "cloud computing," where actual processing work is done by computers that are "out there somewhere," the location of which is not really important.

A user of cloud computing only needs to have a way to access the computing power, and doesn't need to have the actual computer(s).

You could think of it as remotely accessing a powerful computer to do your work.

This is in contrast to the usual way most of us use computers, where we have a computer, on which software is installed, and we sit in front of it and operate it to do our work.

Our data, the result of our work, is also stored on the computer in front of us, or on a server on a local network. That would more or less be the opposite of cloud computing, a situation where the location of the computers is local to us.

Now that you know the conceptual difference between local and cloud computing, let's talk about some of the ramifications.

If you have your own local computing system, you have to buy one with sufficient power to do the job efficiently, along with all the software, networking, setup and support services that may be necessary.

You will probably agree that, over time, computers have been getting more and more complex.

Many times there are problems and issues regarding computer systems that have to be resolved by someone, and that someone needs to know what he or she is doing. Specialized skills are needed to maintain systems, and you will need access to someone who can take care of it. This can be a significant expense.

If you use the Cloud, you only need a way to access the service that will do what you need to accomplish. It may be a computer, or maybe not even a computer, but a tablet, or possibly even a smartphone. You don't have to buy the application software, or a lot of other things required when working locally. You don't have to maintain it.

If your business grows significantly, you don't have to invest the capital for more computing power, the Cloud can handle it. So there can be significant financial advantages.

Of course, you do have to pay whatever price is asked by the Cloud company to use their resources.

Another possible advantage is that if your data is housed in the Cloud, it's easier for other locations to access it, if you have say, some remote offices, or workers who work from home.

Now, if you are working locally, you will most likely be keeping your data locally. You will be in possession of your data, and have ultimate control of it, and of course responsibility for it.

If you use the Cloud, your data will probably be somewhere "out there." Your cloud provider will have possession of it. You may have options, as far as the data goes, but essentially your data will be under someone else's control. This may be a concern. You may not want your data housed anywhere except under your own roof.

If you run your business in the Cloud, you are dependent upon both your Cloud provider and your Internet connection. If either goes down, you lose your ability to do your work. And they do go down, believe me. Only recently, Amazon had part of its Cloud go down, taking a lot of businesses with it. And Amazon isn't a two-bit operation. So you see what I mean.

Now, actually, you may already be using a Cloud service and not realize it. Do you have a Gmail, Yahoo or Hotmail account? They are Cloud-based e-mail services. Microsoft's Live service is a Cloud service. Google Docs, too. Of course, there are also many higher-end business services that run in the Cloud. If you have a website, and you don't host it at your own location, that's a Cloud service.

Sometimes the Cloud is the right way to go. Other times it isn't. As a business person, you have to weigh the options and make the decision. At least now you know a little more about it.

Bruce Endries is former systems manager at The Daily Star. He can be reached by e-mail at techgp@thedailystar.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/techgp.

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