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What The Heck Is The Cloud?

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Photo: Getty Images.
Welcome to What The Tech?!, Refinery29's weekly column explaining the basics behind a buzzword or concept you've heard tossed around in conversation (but maybe don't actually understand).

You hear the phrase tossed around all the time: "It's stored in the cloud." "It streams from the cloud." The cloud, the cloud, the cloud. It's magical and it's everywhere. But what the fuck is it?

At its most basic, the cloud is internet-connected remote storage. When you save a photo to the cloud, what it means is that instead of (or in addition to) that image being saved directly to the phone in your hand, it's saved on another computer far away. While it's stored remotely, it's still connected to the internet, so you're able to access that photo whether you're on your phone, your laptop, or a friend's computer.

The idea of cloud storage is that you can store as much data as you want (files, photos, music, whatever) and not be constrained by one particular device's physical limits.

Usually, you have to pay for cloud storage — think Dropbox or iCloud (Google Drive is also cloud storage). You're paying for that company to store your files and keep them safe, accessible, and secure, no matter where you are or what device you're on.

Similarly, there's cloud streaming. An app like Spotify, for example, has copies of all the songs in its library stored on a network of internet-connected computers (called servers) somewhere. When you decide to stream a song, your phone plays a copy of that music file over Wi-Fi or your cellular connection. While you may have playlists or music libraries in the app, the songs themselves aren't stored there — they're saved remotely.

Where the word "cloud" first got into the mix is a little up for debate. The first reported instance is circa 1996, when Compaq executives said that the internet would give rise to "'cloud-computing' enabled applications" (how prescient). But the first modern example was in 2006, when "the cloud" really started taking off thanks to Google's then-CEO Eric Schmidt. At a Search Engine Strategies conference, Schmidt talked about Google services living "in a cloud somewhere":

"We call it cloud computing — they should be in a 'cloud' somewhere. And that if you have the right kind of browser or the right kind of access, it doesn't matter whether you have a PC or a Mac or a mobile phone or a BlackBerry or what have you...you can get access to the cloud."

The buzzword does make some sense. Like a cloud hanging overhead, your data is accessible, but not right there next to you. (But with that sort of reasoning, it could have just as easily been called the blimp, the moon, sunshine, or air. I kind of like the idea of moon storage, personally.)

Naturally, there are some pros and cons to the cloud. The benefits are that you don't have to worry about running out of storage on your phone or computer. And if you break your phone, but all your data is backed up to the cloud, no biggie — restore it from the most recent back up and software-wise, your new phone will be exactly the same as your old one. And as apps such as Netflix and Spotify show, for a reasonable fee, you can get access to a huge library of movies, TV shows, and music, without having to download them yourself or buy them individually.

The dark side is that you are entrusting your personal data to a third-party company. If you upload a tasteful nude and then delete it from the cloud, you have no way of knowing that every bit of that file was actually erased from existence. And then if the government comes knocking (for whatever reason) and wants to look at your data, as Apple's current battle against the FBI shows, data securely stored on your phone is inaccessible, but data stored remotely can be turned over quite easily with a warrant.

Rule of thumb: If you wouldn't want the whole world to see it, don't upload it to the cloud.

Another downside can be if you end up stranded without an internet connection. With no internet, you've got no access to your cloud-stored files.

Now you know the basics of what the cloud is, where it came from, and how it works. Any other questions? Ask away in the comments and we'll hop in and answer.
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