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A wise person who was sitting across from me once said, “There’s nothing magical about the cloud. It’s still just a computer, somewhere.” The same person also said, “There is no “the cloud”. There are lots of “clouds” and all of them are owned, whether by Apple, Google, Dropbox etc. or an individual person.” To start this month I thought I’d begin with that briefest of demystifying statements about the Cloud, and follow with some benefits and drawbacks.

When that generic phrase “the cloud” is used, we don’t start rejoicing about the end of the drought, but usually are discussing an online service, accessible from multiple places, and often different devices. Even if they don’t save us from the drought, they often enhance sharing and interactivity possibilities, are resilient (but not immune) to failure, and help people with interesting ideas but very little investment backing to start cool projects. From a practical standpoint for large institutional users, like colleges, the fee model is more reasonable than the pre-cloud era: easily scalable and you only pay for what you use.

However, they have their drawbacks. Not all services offer backups, and clouds are not immune to user error any more than other services and storage options. Also, companies are not as responsible as we might hope if stuff gets stolen or hacked. You sign away some rights when you click ‘Yes’ on that License or Use Agreement. While you do usually retain IP rights, once your data is in a cloud you might have a rough time getting it out if you decide you don’t want it there anymore. Referred to as the “Hotel California Effect” — You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.

And finally, here are some actual tips:

  • Get to know your cloud/s before you marry them and reveal all of your secrets. Ask your friends. Do a little Googling. Read the Pre-Nup. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) issues an annual “Who has your back?” report that reviews services with an eye to privacy and protection.
  • Don’t start dating too many clouds at once. You’ll start forgetting their names, mixing up birthdays. Be adventurous but don’t stress yourself out trying to keep track.
  • Just trying out clouds for the first time? Here are some popular services to explore: Evernote, Dropbox, Google Drive (now at Oxy this includes an unlimited quota), Box, and OneDrive.

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Advanced User Note:

If you’re looking to see what else the cloud can offer, and not just interested in file management you might check out:

  • Messaging Services like What’s App or Slack
  • Private cloud storage through services like OwnCloud
  • Peer to peer models for managing your own cloud like BitTorrent’s Sync.