What the hell is cloud computing?

Welcome to "What the hell is?" where we at Pocket-lint simply and briefly dejargonise technology talk into what people would normally say if they weren't trying to sound clever. Now naturally, most of you out there are going to know some of these terms as if they were the backs of your hands, but rest assured that there's one or two reading now that aren't exactly certain what everyone's been banging on about. So, let us enlighten you as to what the hell is cloud computing? Minus the uninteresting parts that you don't need to know.

The idea of "The Cloud" - and we're writing it in inverted commas to stress the slightly tiresome way which the terms is bandied about - has actually been around since the 1960s when American computer scientist John McCarthy fantasised that "computation may someday be organised as a public utility", and, essentially, that's what's at the heart of it. It's about accessing applications, software, platforms, services and data that do not actually exist on the device you're using.

The simplest and most obvious example is the one we've all been using for years - webmail. Hotmail, Gmail and all the others you go to your browser to look at are all cloud services. All your e-mails and folders exists somewhere on some server elsewhere in the world, not on your computer, and you know this because a) you can't get to them when you're disconnected from the Internet and because you don't have to worry about deleting them to make room on your hard drive.

Of course, recently, the idea of applications and also storage being kept in "The Cloud" has become much sexier since our connections to the Internet have got faster and the playgrounds on the Web more rich and interactive. Microsoft has had a stranglehold on computers for years by selling us software that we have to install on our machines so we can write documents and spreadsheets and such. However, since the Google Applications have appeared online, we've suddenly seen the advantage to life with cloud computing.

Granted, Google Docs isn't quite as sophisticated as Word but it's good enough and, most importantly and crucially, it's a) free and b) accessible from anywhere. So, you open your browser - which is the only piece of software cloud computing requires you to have sitting on your machine - navigate to the cloud web app that is Google Docs - a program that sits elsewhere on Google's servers - type up your document and save it onto your particular allocated space on Google's server. So, that letter, CV, piece of prose or whatever it was, is sitting elsewhere other than on your computer. It's somewhere on the Internet. It's up in "The Cloud".

And it's not limited to office applications. There are services up in "The Cloud" like storage. Companies, like Dropbox, offer chunks of cloud space on servers so that you can put your files and folders up there, rather than clogging up your own computer hard drive. The other advantage, again, is that you can access these files from any device which has an internet connection rather than having to deal with the tedium of copying them over to USB sticks or e-mailing them to all sorts of different accounts. In fact, you're probably already using cloud computing a lot more than you realise.

Facebook and Flickr are cloud platforms where you upload all sorts of media - videos, photos and the written word. Twitter is a cloud messaging service of sorts but, of course, you can download a desktop application for access to it, indeed as you can with both Flickr and Facebook onto mobile phones. But cloud computing doesn't just have to be for consumer use. It's a potential problem solver for businesses as well.

The idea of a centrally controlled system is potentially very appealing. It's easier for companies to maintain and service, rather than having to send engineers round to load software onto each and every terminal of every drone in the company, it's cheaper to set up, it's more agile and easy to change and implement new ideas and it's an excellent way to keep all the data the business will ever need in one place. That way, everyone has access to everything from everywhere.

Of course, these are downsides for the very same reasons. If all your data is in one place, then it's a bigger treasure trove to be hacked. If it happens to be on an internal network, that may not be so bad but many people might be reticent to leave all their valuable personal data and information on servers. To combat this, cloud applications and services encrypt all their data, but every few months you'll read a story about big company databases being compromised. Certainly enough to scare off large corporations who fear industrial espionage or would simply rather not risk their runnings getting a public airing.

The other disadvantage of living life in "The Cloud" is that if you happen to lose your connection to the Internet, or if that particular service or application goes down, then you can't access your files, folders and much of your life until it all comes back online. You only have to look back to the beginning of last year to see the chaos caused when Gmail went down twice in the same week.

Largely, though, it seems that our trust in "The Cloud" is growing and the sheer convenience of that way of life means people are heading towards that very option. More people have more devices for personal computing and online use. We can create and consume data from anywhere and we've a growing need to access digital content when we want it with the minimal fuss, and it's that that's really driving us to keep content online. Even cloud apps themselves are overcoming cloud computing's short-comings with some even offering offline access.

That in a nutshell is cloud computing. It's the buzz word of today and very likely to be the modus operandi of tomorrow. Expect the big push to come as Google's Chrome OS sweeps across laptops the world over.

So, now that you're fully up to speed, please feel free to chat like a pro to tech pals and impress others at cocktail parties but, whatever you do, make sure you take some time to investigate what it's all about for yourself and enjoy your time up in "The Cloud".