Cloud computing represents a major change in how we store information and run applications. Instead of hosting apps and data on an individual desktop computer, everything is hosted in the "cloud"—an assemblage of computers and servers accessed via the Internet.
This type of web-based computing frees you from the tyranny of desktop computing and opens up new forms of group collaboration. But as attractive as all that sounds, cloud computing isn't for everyone. Let's take a look at how the average end user can benefit from cloud computing—and why some end users should avoid these web-based applications, at least for now.
Advantages of Cloud Computing
We'll start with the many advantages offered by cloud computing. Here's what you get when you move into the cloud:
- Lower computer costs. You don't need a high-powered and high-priced computer to run cloud computing's web-based applications. Since applications run in the cloud, not on the desktop PC, your desktop PC doesn't need the processing power or hard disk space demanded by traditional desktop software. When you're using web-based applications, your PC can be less expensive, with a smaller hard disk, less memory, more efficient processor, and the like. In fact, your PC in this scenario doesn't even need a CD or DVD drive, as no software programs have to be loaded and no document files need to be saved.
- Improved performance. With fewer bloated programs hogging your computer's memory, you'll see better performance from your PC. Put simply, computers in a cloud computing system boot and run faster because they have fewer programs and processes loaded into memory.
- Reduced software costs. Instead of purchasing expensive software applications, you can get most of what you need for free. That's right—most cloud computing applications today, such as the Google Docs suite, are totally free. That's a lot better than paying $200+ for similar Microsoft Office software—which alone may be justification for switching to cloud applications.
- Instant software updates. Another software-related advantage to cloud computing is that you're no longer faced with choosing between obsolete software and high upgrade costs. When the app is web-based, updates happen automatically and are available the next time you log into the cloud. When you access a web-based application, you get the latest version—without needing to pay for or download an upgrade.
- Improved document format compatibility. You don't have to worry about the documents you create on your machine being compatible with other users' applications or operating systems. In a world where Word 2007 documents can't be opened on a computer running Word 2003, all documents created by web-based applications can be read by any other user accessing that application. There are no format incompatibilities when everyone is sharing docs and apps in the cloud.
- Unlimited storage capacity. Cloud computing offers virtually limitless storage. Your computer's current 200 gigabyte hard drive is peanuts compared to the hundreds of petabytes (a million gigabytes) available in the cloud. Whatever you need to store, you can.
- Increased data reliability. Unlike desktop computing, in which a hard disk crash can destroy all your valuable data, a computer crashing in the cloud shouldn't affect the storage of your data. That also means that if your personal computer crashes, all your data is still out there in the cloud, still accessible. In a world where few individual desktop PC users back up their data on a regular basis, cloud computing is the ultimate in data-safe computing.
- Universal document access. Ever get home from work and realize that you left an important document at the office? Or forget to take a file with you on the road? That's not a problem with cloud computing, because you don't take your documents with you. Instead, they stay in the cloud, and you can access them whenever you have a computer and an Internet connection. All your documents are instantly available from wherever you are; there's simply no need to take your documents with you.
- Latest version availability. Another document-related advantage of cloud computing: When you edit a document at home, that edited version is what you see when you access the document at work. The cloud always hosts the latest version of your documents; as long as you're connected, you're never in danger of having an outdated version.
- Easier group collaboration. Sharing documents leads directly to collaborating on documents. To many users, this is one of the most important advantages of cloud computing—multiple users can collaborate easily on documents and projects. Because the documents are hosted in the cloud, not on individual computers, all you need is a computer with an Internet connection, and you're collaborating.
- Device independence. Finally, here's the ultimate cloud computing advantage: You're no longer tethered to a single computer or network. Change computers, and your existing applications and documents follow you through the cloud. Move to a portable device, and your apps and docs are still available. There's no need to buy a special version of a program for a particular device, or to save your document in a device-specific format. Your docs and their apps are the same no matter what computer or other device you're using.