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Too Embarrassed to Ask: What Is 'The Cloud' and How Does It Work?

It has nothing to do with white fluffy things in the sky.


Too Embarrassed to Ask is a new Re/code feature in which our reviewers answer any and all of your burning tech questions — including the very basic ones you might be too embarrassed to ask your tech-savvy friends. Today, senior editor Bonnie Cha helps clear up questions around the mystical cloud.

The tech industry loves to use buzzwords like the Internet of Things, Big Data and 5G. The problem is that these sometimes nebulous or arbitrary terms don’t make it clear what they actually mean to consumers.

“The cloud” is one of those terms.

When tech companies say your data is in the cloud, or that you can work in the cloud, it has nothing to do with white fluffy things in the sky. Your data isn’t actually in heaven or in the wind. It has a terrestrial home. It’s stored somewhere — lots of somewheres — and the network of servers find what you need and deliver it.

The cloud refers to software and services that run on the Internet, instead of locally on your computer. Most cloud services can be accessed through a Web browser like Firefox or Google Chrome, and some companies offer dedicated mobile apps.

Some examples of cloud services include Google Drive, Apple iCloud, Netflix, Yahoo Mail, Dropbox and Microsoft OneDrive. (There are also many, many business applications for cloud computing, but for the purpose of this post, I’ll deal with consumer solutions.)

The advantage of the cloud is that you can access your information on any device with an Internet connection. It’s what allows you to make edits to a file in Google Docs on your home computer, and then pick up where you left off when you get to the office. Colleagues can even collaborate on the same document.

Meanwhile, a service like Amazon Cloud Drive lets you store and view your entire photo collection, without fear of maxing out your laptop or smartphone’s internal storage.

 Asus Chromebook Flip
Asus Chromebook Flip
Bonnie Cha

Another benefit of the cloud is that, because the remote servers handle much of the computing and storage, you don’t necessarily need an expensive, high-end machine to get your work done. In fact, some companies are making cloud-based computers as a low-cost option for consumers and the education market, the most notable example of this being Google’s Chromebooks.

But the cloud has its downfalls, too. Without an Internet connection — or with a crappy one — you’re basically locked out of accessing your data and cloud-based programs. The same applies if there are any technical issues or outages on the server side.

Also, because your information lives online, there’s always the risk of it getting into the wrong hands. All cloud companies have security measures in place to protect your data from hackers, but they’re not foolproof, so it’s always a good idea to be judicious about what you want stored in the cloud versus locally on your computer.

The forecast for cloud solutions is that we’ll be seeing a lot more of them in the future. To get better familiarized with your options, here’s a handy guide to watching TV from the cloud , backing up and storing photos online and online storage services.

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