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What is cloud computing and is it safe to use?

Answered January 20, 2013

Whether you realize it or not, if you're active online, you're almost certainly doing some cloud computing.

If you use a webmail service like Gmail, you're using a form of cloud computing. If you're using Amazon to deliver music to your phone, you're using cloud computing. If you're using your Facebook account to feed contact information to your phone, you're using cloud computing.

So, why the mysterious name, and why don't more people understand what cloud computing is? Well, it's nebulous in part by design. The idea behind cloud computing is that you don't have to have a lot of power inside your computer (and that computer could be anything from a smartphone to a tablet to a desktop machine), as long as you can access the Internet and have large servers do the work for you.

In theory, cloud computing gives you a lot of utility at a very low cost. Things should happen faster, your devices should use less energy, and the whole user experience should be better when everything is firing on all cylinders.

But there are at least two major vulnerabilities to cloud computing that could make your life a little less pleasant. First is network reliability -- if your connection to the Internet isn't working right, then you're not really able to take advantage of the cloud. On one hand, you probably have a very reliable connection at home or at work. But when you're on the move -- which is when cloud computing is probably the most valuable -- is when you're also most likely to have connection hassles.

The second possible hassle is security. In theory, you should be able to rely on professionals running data centers to keep their networks up to date and intrusion-proof much better than you can protect your own computers at home. But in practice, much of the security value hinges on things like your habits of keeping up secure passwords and only using secured networks. All the IT guys in the world can't protect you if your password is the word "password".

In the end, can you depend upon cloud computing services for the things you really care about? Well, with a good connection and some good password habits, you should be able to trust cloud computing with things like hosting your media and other tools. But because cloud computing hinges on the concept of selling you services rather than products, cloud computing must also be viewed with just a little bit of skepticism. Trust these services with too many things -- without keeping a backup on your own -- and you could be setting yourself up for a bad experience when a price hike comes around.