Apparently, The Cloud is all the rage now, and everybody is talking about it. So what is it, and how is it somehow the most brilliant AND the most evil thing in the history of history itself?

There are a whole bunch of answers around the place for what The Cloud is. The one on Wikipedia reads like someone stuck a university computer science department in a blender and poured out a gibberish smoothie. So forget that. Here’s the actual answer to the question “what is The Cloud”:

The Cloud is other people’s computers.

That’s pretty much it. There are technical details, but that right there is the gist of it.

OK, so how does that work? People talk about storing all your files in The Cloud, or worry about The Cloud getting hacked so you suffer identity theft, or argue about the advisability of relying on The Cloud to do things that, presumably, they were already doing some other way. What’s all that about?

Storing your files in The Cloud just means storing them in someone else’s computer. Whoever owns that computer is running a Cloud company, also called a Cloud storage company, also called a file storage company. You get a free deal with lots of naggy ads, or pay for a premium deal without the ads, and in return they let you copy your files from your computer to theirs. They’re not using their computer to play Farmville, though: the computer we’re talking about is probably a large number of computers, all sitting on racks in a special warehouse that exists for just this purpose, and they’re playing host to thousands or millions of other users just like you. And provided they never make a mistake, and they’re perfectly ethical, your files are perfectly safe…

What could possibly go wrong?

Forget about computers for a second. Think about making photocopies of all your precious papers and giving them to someone to look after. In this scenario, they’re available by phone 24/7 to come round to your place and give you copies of the copies so you always have them to hand, and that’s going to be hugely convenient. Brilliant, eh? But what if their filing cabinet gets broken into, or their warehouse burns down, or they just decide to make a little money on the side by selling all your stuff to some other shady characters? You have to be aware of those risks.

Some people who say “no way, not gonna, uh-uh” and refuse to have anything to do with that arrangement. Fair enough, if they reckon the balance of risk-vs-reward comes out too far on the negative side. Other people will say “whatever, it’s not like my stuff is that secret” and they’ll take advantage of whatever convenient services spring up to help them. And that’s fair enough too, if their calculations come out more positive.

The Cloud is the same basic idea. Copies of your digital files live on a computer in a data storage warehouse some place — or more likely in multiple places, carefully copies and synchronised for maximum availability. You can get at those files from anywhere, provided you know your password. But those files can get copied, stolen, sold or just plain corrupted, just as pieces of paper in a filing cabinet could. It doesn’t happen all that often, but how often do you want it to happen?

This sounds like a good reason to stay away, but honestly the most important consideration is this one: is the convenience (which is huge) worth the risk (which is probably tiny)? I’ll let you in on a secret: we use Cloud storage, in the form of a free Dropbox account, and find it worth the risk. There’s stuff in there like financial records and photos, and maybe it’s risky, but how much of a juicy target do you think we are to a mob of hackers? I’m not a Hollywood superstar storing nude piccies and getting hacked (that’s happened!) and we haven’t owned a credit card for many years now, so I’m not worried about the number being stolen (though I’m not dumb enough to store that in The Cloud!) But even with the free Dropbox account, we can share files between our computers and phones and be sure that useful documents are always at our fingertips. That’s pretty convenient. So it’s a worthwhile tradeoff.

You’ll have to make the same calculation, and your results may be very different. But at least you’ve got the basics: despite all the hype, The Cloud is a pretty simple idea. So what will you do with it?

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