What is the cloud?
You hear a lot about ‘the cloud’, but how does it actually work?
The term ‘cloud’ implies something that’s above your head, but in reality the data that you upload is likely to be stored very much at ground level or even underground, and probably thousands of miles away from your location. A cloud service is actually a cluster of computers: more accurately, a huge number of servers with vast amounts of hard drive storage attached. It’s a natural evolution of the technology behind the internet itself and has come about largely thanks to rapid improvements in global bandwidth and the plummeting price of storage capacity.
The internet is actually just a collection of data centres – albeit many thousands – all connected through various global hubs and thousands of miles of heavy-duty undersea cabling. As the web grew and companies like Microsoft, Apple, Google and Amazon came to use it more and more for services, sales and software delivery, it became necessary to build large server farms and data centres to cope with the sheer volume of visitors and information they had to store and serve to users. Companies like Akamai grew correspondingly, providing heavyweight video streaming and content delivery for other big tech companies. Bandwidth isn’t free, and big telecoms firms round the world own the physical infrastructure and charge your ISP for it.
The idea that ordinary users could use cloud storage began to take off as home broadband started to become widely available. Companies would offer online file storage, but for a long time capacities were low and prices high. Apple’s own early forays into the world of cloud storage were not entirely blemish-free, with iTools and later .Mac and MobileMe failing to live up to the company’s reputation for ease of use. With iCloud, that early vision has been much more fully realised.
At the same time many other developers (Dropbox, Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Box, to name just a few) built their own cloud syncing and sharing services that usually work across Macs, PCs, iOS devices and often Android. Though Apple and Microsoft have an interest in making their cloud services integrate specifically with their own operating systems and hardware, third party developers want to be on all the big platforms, which is great news for users because it means you can often access stuff from your different devices.
When you upload or sync a file or a folder to the cloud, it is literally being copied digitally to your allocated space on a server somewhere on the planet. The fact it takes mere seconds to upload or download belies the vast distance that the data may be travelling. Cloud storage works like a connected hard drive, except that rather than plugging in over USB, it’s remote and linked over the internet. The same applies to mobile devices too, and it’s these that