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Tech Corner

By Bill Pfohl

Working on a Cloud

Andrea Canter, a past editor of Communiqué, recently wrote inquiring about cloud computing. I have not covered it before, so this column is an introduction to "the cloud."

What is the cloud? It is a storage computer network somewhere else—up on a cloud, not on your computer. It can be free or there can be a cost for storage space. Companies, such as Google, are also placing software there, so you do not have to own it or download it to your computer. Google Docs is an example of this, where the software is on Google’s cloud where you access it and store your files. Others can also access your files there, with your permission. When I bought my new Dell computer, it came with 2 GB of free cloud storage. You can pay a fee for more storage space.

So in simple terms, cloud computing is working on a network or server outside of your personal computer, as if up on a cloud. It is not typically the same type of server that you use at school, which requires regular software updates, ongoing maintenance, and an IT department to oversee it. Clouds are owned by a single company that offers services to a group of ISP providers, individuals, or groups of businesses working together. The costs are lower (or free) due to amortizing the costs over large groups of users. However, in doing research for this column, I found over a dozen definitions of cloud computing, concerns about software compatibility issues, and data security issues that need to be addressed before you can truly say that cloud computing is for you. It is also safe to say that there is no standard to evaluate cloud computing at this time.

Many businesses are now being managed on a cloud because it is flexible, less expensive, more mobile, and has lower maintenance costs. Your credit card information is probably stored on a cloud. Your medical information will be there in the not too distant future. To use a cloud for computing, there must be a few assurances—data storage capacity, quick accessibility, reliability of access, and safety of data. Without these assurances, cloud computing cannot be used by most customers. Even Gmail has had outages in the past 6 months, hackers can try to breach networks (e.g., the Pentagon), and some countries (recently Egypt) have blocked all Internet traffic. These situations would prevent or jeopardize access to your data. Even cell phone companies have had outages which would prevent access to your data. These issues pose a serious concern for cloud computing.

An organization I am associated with wanted to use a cloud for membership database storage. It was to interface with the local PC computer software and update all files simultaneously on the cloud storage for a low monthly fee. The services lasted for less than 3 months due to significant issues with data access, inadequate timely updates, etc. Also, the sales person was not totally familiar with the issues regarding the interface between the cloud software and the user computer software. In theory, the service was promising but the execution was poor.

Why would you use a cloud? The first reason might be to manage and store large files. As you increase your file size and volume, need to purchase more hard drives, or increase media related pictures/videos, cloud computing may be a cheaper alternative than buying new back-up hard drives. Clouds can offer free, always-up-to-date software (e.g., Google) that is free. You do not own it but you can use it after you sign up for an account. You can share files, photos, and videos on clouds. Picasa by Google stores your pictures on a cloud. You can remotely access and share files that you are working on in some clouds from wherever you can find Internet access. You will not have to carry a USB memory stick or laptop with large hard drive storage capacity. You can also store large files on the Internet so others can access them. Some e-mail services, schools, and universities limit the size of attachments, so accessing them from a cloud makes sense. The chief reasons for using the cloud are: storage flexibility, lower cost, mobility, large storage space, and less IT investment in hardware and software upgrades. If you find yourself telecommuting, using a cloud to access your office data at home may be a big time saver.

The biggest issues are mentioned above: ready access, security, and cost. So far, it is not difficult to find free or lowcost sites. Dell gives you a small file storage space hoping you will pay for a larger storage space. Text files are small, while media-related files can be very large. Google is building an empire itself, and having a one-stop service for all their needs is enticing for customers. So far, it is free. What are the down sides? Data loss is one of the biggest if a cloud goes down or is hacked. Security is the second critical issue. Is your data secure and backed up frequently? What are the ramifications if your data are lost to a hacker? Will you be able to share data as needed or it is for your use only? Are the tools to manage and store data adequate for you? In the example above, it was not. Are my data encrypted for safety? Is the ISP cloud collecting data on you, similar to the recent issues with Google and Facebook? Has the cloud had issues with down time (because this is where your data are stored)? What arrangements are available to retrieve your data if you choose to leave the cloud?

There are several sites that can work for storage of large files, photos, and videos. I have stored pictures at www.ADrive .com (50 GB free) and while it took some time to upload them, several people could easily access them. You must set up an account and password. YouSendIt (www.yousendit.com) is a useful site as well. It works for both Windows and Macintosh. There are upgrade services starting at $9.99 per month.

Windows Live is a new service by Microsoft that is all on a cloud. Microsoft is planning on having its Office Suite available as online only. Windows Live Skydrive is a storage area and interfaces with Microsoft Office 2010. Up to 25 GB of space is available for with those signing up for a free account. If you are a Microsoft Hotmail user, this is another feature from Microsoft. You can share files with others that are encrypted and password protected. DropBox (www.dropbox .com) is another service used by many. It has interfaces with Windows, Mac OS, and Linux. It interfaces with your desktop file structure. PicasaWeb (www.picasa.google.com) is for photo and video sharing, as is www.Flickr.com. Try the free software first before buying more expensive products. I do like and use Open Office, too. It is free and you can download it to your computer. It is compatible with Microsoft Office and Corel’s WordPerfect suite.

So actually, cloud computing is something many of you may have already used. I hope this article lets you better understand what it is and how it can be used. Make sure to read the fine print and understand the security features. You may be committing to a monthly purchase and it is your important data. You can always Google or Bing reviews for any cloud site to see what issues they may have.

I have switched to Google Chrome as my main Web browser. It is fast, accurate, and takes up little disk space. So goodbye, Firefox. I like iGoogle.com for my webpage, too. Very customizable and I like cartoons so....

Bill Pfohl, NCSP, is a professor of psychology at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, KY. He is president of the International School Psychology Association and a former president of NASP. He can be reached at billnasp@aol.com.