Geek Chic of the Week: The Cloud

Geeky reader Ellen wrote in to say, “Please explain what the Cloud is.”

Her question was very funny to me — only because we recorded a podcast a few weeks ago on exactly that topic! But, I screwed up the audio file and now we need to re-record it. Bummer. But, here’s how I replied:
The Cloud is how people refer to the services that many of us use for computing over the Internet. The most common examples are commonly known as “software as a service”. A good example is word processing applications. There is word processing software that runs on our computers — like Microsoft Word. For it to work, there needs to be enough disk space on our computers to run the software, and store the files we create with that software. You have a copy of that program on your computer, I have a copy on mine. For us to share a Word document, you have to send it to me.
By comparison, Google docs has a word processing application that exists in “the cloud.” To create a document there, you just log in to the Google docs website; creating and saving the document isn’t using any of the space or processing power of your own computer (aside from communicating to the server(s) that Google docs is living on. For you and I to share that document, you just need to grant me access to it. And, you and I can even edit the document at the same time — because it doesn’t exist on my computer, or on yours. It’s in an external location that we can both get to. That location is referred to as “the cloud.”

“Software as a service” means that I’m not buying the software in a box, I’m using a service that someone is providing to me online (in Google’s case, it’s free — in other cases you may pay for the software).
Another example of how the cloud can be used is Amazon’s web services. For example, their Simple Storage Service (S3). This is a way for web developers to essentially “rent” storage space in the cloud. Let’s say I want to add a bunch of huge video files to my web site, but I don’t have the space on my servers to handle it. Rather than investing in new hardware, I could instead use Amazon’s S3, put my files there, and my site’s users could access those files seamlessly. This is known as “infrastructure as a service.” There are lots of ways that IT professionals can make use of the cloud to minimize hardware costs — they basically take advantage of all the distributed server space in the cloud.
It can get kind of technical to describe, but the best and simplest way to think about it is that instead of things residing on our individual computers, the files, software, etc. exist out there in the ether. In that magical place called the Internet. Or, the cloud.

Oh — and it’s called the cloud because on network diagrams (where people map out all their servers and printers and computers and how they were all connected), the Internet was represented as a cloud. You can see an example here.
Wikipedia actually has a pretty good article about the cloud here — it gets a little bit technical the deeper you get into it, but it provides a good overview.

P.S. I just noticed you’re emailing me from gmail. Guess what? Your mail is in the cloud!

I heard back from Ellen who said, “Your explanation really helped. My husband explained this too me but it didn’t quite make sense. Having your explanation below allowed me to ‘get it’.  Thank you. I’m glad I found you and your site.”

Geek Girls, FTW! Thanks for writing, Ellen.