Cloud services and applications have been gaining in popularity and importance recently, as they are becoming more and more accessible (even for free) and are increasingly being integrated into computers, tablets, smartphones, or their operating systems. As such, cloud services have been used since the dawn of the Internet (i.e., for example, since the first email was sent), but the term “cloud” itself has been used especially in recent years, most often in the context of data storage or remote access to computing power.
A cloud service can generally be defined as a service, program, or application that does not run locally on a computer but is based entirely (or largely) on an imaginary “cloud”, i.e. a network of computers or servers located somewhere in cyberspace. The cloud is therefore essentially synonymous with the Internet. Users then use either simple client applications instead of complex programs, or they work directly in the environment of their web browser.
As already mentioned, cloud (or “web”) services are not new in themselves. Some cloud-based services have been around for many years, including, for example, email services and popular social networks, which are not stored anywhere on the computer but float “somewhere” on the Internet, and we only log in to them via a browser or an application on our phone. Thus, virtually all websites, services, and applications can be included in the cloud, from Wikipedia to Facebook.
In the truly “cloud” sense of the word, however, these services have been emerging and expanding especially recently, especially in the form of cloud storage (for photos and other user data) and specialized cloud applications. In terms of service and distribution models, we distinguish, for example, IAAS (infrastructure as a service), PAAS (platform as a service) or SAAS (software as a service), where we can then include specific services and applications such as Microsoft Azure, Amazon EC2 or Google Apps.
The main advantages of this concept are the extraordinary scalability (i.e. essentially unlimited data space or computing power) and the constant and unlimited access from virtually anywhere (regardless of hardware or platform) where there is an Internet connection.
Google and Apple – a piece of the cloud for everyone
Leaving aside e-mail, Skype, or ICQ, one of the first generally available cloud services was prepared for its users by Google, which introduced Google Docs (now Google Drive) in early 2010. This allowed users to create, upload and share documents directly in a web browser environment. Each user also received 1GB of space, with the option to buy additional space. In addition to the ability to easily back up, the importance of Google Docs also lay in its close integration with other Google services. Documents, spreadsheets, and presentations could therefore be opened directly from email, worked with directly in the browser, shared with colleagues, and so on.
Another major populariser of the cloud concept is Apple, which in June 2011 introduced the iCloud service, now an integral part of its entire product infrastructure. In practice, iCloud enables automatic backup and synchronization between phones, tablets and computers, so that contacts, notes, documents and photos created on one device are automatically synchronized with all the others (e.g. photos taken with an iPhone appear immediately on a computer, iPad or Apple TV). In general, this is a fairly specific implementation that works essentially without user intervention, but thanks to the proliferation of Apple products, the whole concept has “gone mainstream”, so to speak.
Cloud storage is currently very popular and is increasingly used by professionals and companies, as well as ordinary “home” users. This includes services such as Microsoft Onedrive, Google Drive, Box, or DropBox, which facilitate not only backups but above all the exchange of data between different systems and platforms (Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS or Android).
Working with cloud storage is very simple, and is done either with the help of the aforementioned client applications (which the user installs on a computer, tablet or smartphone), or via a web interface. The process is then always the same: the user simply uploads the intended file “to the cloud”, which is then accessible from all other computers, smartphones and other compatible devices.
Like everything else, however, “data in the cloud” has its drawbacks. Apart from the understandable dependence on the Internet (there is no cloud without a connection, of course, so local backup is strongly recommended), the service itself can fail. Most of the available services disclaim liability for lost or corrupted data in their terms and conditions (even in their paid versions). It’s not surprising; if a computer’s hard drive fails, the manufacturer is not responsible for the stored data either – but it’s still good to keep this in mind and not take the cloud as a 100% foolproof solution.
In addition to the integrity of the data itself, the question of protecting and securing it from possible misuse – i.e. whether someone else (including the service providers themselves) can get access to it – is also very often raised in connection with clouds. This is a pressing issue, especially for corporate customers who, for obvious reasons, do not want their sensitive materials to be accessed by competitors. Currently, the situation is still quite opaque and large companies, therefore, use their own clouds (i.e. their own servers) to store data, rather than using other commercial providers.
For ordinary users, the various Terms of Service (TOS), which we are used to automatically click and not read, can be problematic. This is because the terms of service usually state what can and cannot be uploaded to cloud storage – and the list of prohibitions usually includes everything from illegal data to, for example, nudity and pornography. At first glance, this may only apply to film and software pirates, but at second glance it also limits e.g. painters and photographers. On the third view, it must rightly concern us all – because it suggests that cloud providers may indeed be monitoring and evaluating our data (in order to be able to detect such data in the first place).
Cloud computing and cloud gaming
In addition to popular forms of cloud storage, we are increasingly seeing the term “cloud computing”, which refers to the provision of “cloud” computing power. Previously, this approach was common, for example, among graphics and animation studios, which owned or rented so-called “render farms” in which dozens, hundreds or even thousands of computers rendered (processed), for example, a full-length animated film frame by frame and shot by shot.
Today’s applications of this approach, however, try to meet the needs of home users in addition to professionals. For example, gaming services such as OnLive or Gaikai have emerged that allow users to play the most demanding computer games without the need for a high-end gaming computer. All that is needed is a mediocre laptop and a fast connection, as all the demanding operations take place ‘in the cloud’ and the user is essentially presented with streaming video on the screen.
Unfortunately, latency, or lag, is still a big problem, especially for these gaming applications. Even if the user has a high-speed connection, data is constantly streaming over a distance of tens to hundreds of kilometers (between the user’s computer and the computing cloud), creating a short but still visible pause between, for example, the user’s computer and the computing cloud. The latency is usually in the order of a few tenths of a second, which means that e.g. when playing strategy or adventure games, it is not as distracting as in action games, where immediate reactions are needed.
The recent boom in cloud services and applications is undoubtedly an interesting trend to watch. Many of these services are available for free, with some limitations, and users can easily and quickly back up at least the most important files that they actively work with and need to share, for example, between computer and tablet, home and work, or between multiple colleagues in a workgroup.
The whole concept of today’s cloud services also acts as a kind of throwback to the computer age, where large mainframes were used to connect users to them via access terminals. Today’s clouds are approached in a similar way, whether it is accessing data or “renting” power. Perhaps the future is moving towards cheap, lightweight, and universally available consoles and all operations will be done remotely, somewhere in the depths of the clouds.
However, the question is how the problem of visible lag will be minimized in the future, whether the issues of data security and protection from possible misuse will be clarified and, above all, whether users will even want to entrust all their data (and possibly even their “power”) to a commercial third party and be satisfied with the fact that in the event of a crash, termination of service or even a simple failure of the Internet connection, all computers, tablets and smartphones will turn into empty and unusable boxes.
Would you like to create your own cloud service application? Contact Enkronos team today.