A Series of Tubes: Your Guide to the Interwebs

Series of Tubes: Cloud Computing

It has happened to every single one of us.

Your hard drive takes a crap. Or maybe your fan died, and your computer over-heated. Your house took a lightning strike, and it fried the laptop because it was plugged in, charging. The motherboard wears out. The processor dies. Whatever the reason, your computer is now a dead hunk of plastic and metal, and you just lost everything. All your files, all your music, all your movies, all your family photos, everything. It can be devastating.

My faithful laptop died this summer. Know how much I lost? Not a thing. Want to know why? I live in the cloud, my friends.

I’m not spouting some hippie polemic at you, there. “Living in the cloud” or “cloud computing” is an actual thing. Not only is it an actual thing, it’s the hot new thing, and it’s a thing you might want to look into. Very basically, it means doing all your computery business over the Internet instead of on your own machine.

Pictured: the "Cloud"

Image from Wikipedia. Click to view source.

The term “cloud” actually comes from a visualization that was used for the telephone network back in the day. It was carried over to computer networks when they were invented, and eventually applied to the Internet.

Cloud computing means that instead of running programs you installed on your computer, like Microsoft Office or Adobe Photoshop (called “legacy programs”), you use services provided online, like Google Docs or Aviary. Cloud computing means that instead of storing all your files on your hard drive, you store them through various online services like DropBox. Cloud computing means that when your computer rolls over, coughs out its death rattle, and shuffles off this mortal coil forever, instead of losing your fool mind because you just lost everything, you buy a new computer, log in to your various services like Google Docs, Aviary, or Dropbox, and get right back to work.

Most of us geeks use a kind of hybrid method of cloud computing because it’s early days yet, and even though the cloud potential is amazing, the actual application still needs a bit of work in some areas. For example, I don’t use Aviary or Pixlr very often, but I will edit photos or build graphics in GIMP or Photoshop, and store the finished files at DropBox or Flickr. That’s because for now, the legacy program is better than the online alternative. That’s not going to be the case for very much longer, though.

So, let’s talk about some of these services, and how they can save you from losing everything in a terrible computer tragedy.

Word Processing

The gold standard in cloud word processing is Google Docs. It’s a full office suite, including spreadsheets, an MSPaint-like graphics program, and a basic Power Point clone. If you couldn’t get your hands on Microsoft Office or LibreOffice, you could do just about everything you need at Google Docs. It’s not quite as fully-featured as the legacy programs, but it’s really close. Google Docs has two main competitors — Zoho and ThinkFree. ComputerWorld has a contrast and compare of the best available services.

Photo Editing

Every photo storage site — Flickr, Picasa, Snapfish, etc — will offer some kind of very basic photo editing application. It’ll let you resize a photo, add some cute effects, fix red-eye, and so forth, but if you’re looking for something as rich and fully-featured as, say, Photoshop, there are a few online options. Lifehacker has a quick rundown of the top five. I personally haven’t been much impressed with online Photoshop clones, but a lot of people swear by some of these options, so they’re worth checking out.

Storage

When it comes to storing your files online, there are so many great options that I could spend an entire article just telling you about those. Honestly, I couldn’t begin to tell you about all your choices, but I can tell you which things I use and what I use them for. Because I’m stingy and mostly use free things, I store different kinds of files in different places.

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Using a combination of these services, I’m able to store all of my files online, in safe, secure locations where I can easily control the privacy settings, for free. So, when my laptop went belly-up this summer, I didn’t lose a single file. Nor is my new laptop’s hard drive crammed full of personal files.

Another bonus to cloud storage and computing is that you can access your files and work on them from anywhere, with any computer, tablet, phone, or other device. If I’m on the go and have nothing but my Chrome machine with me, I can still get work done, thanks to cloud computing. If I’m on a friend’s computer, borrowing a public computer, working at the Commuter’s office, or even working on my Android phone, I can access all my files and use them. (Yes, most of these services offer some way to sync with your smartphone.)

Cloud computing is easy, and at least as secure as storing things on your computer. Possibly more so, in the case of some services. It’s free in most cases and pretty cheap in the rest. Most importantly, it’ll save you on dignity, because the next time you suffer a catastrophic computer failure, you won’t be clutching your laptop to your chest and weeping like a baby when your spouse gets home.

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By Marci Sischo

After watching her parents murdered by a mugger in a back alley, Marci Sischo grew up vowing to become the world's greatest detec -- wait, that's Batman. Theorizing that one could time travel within her own lifetime, Marci Sischo stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator and vanished -- no, no. That's Dr. Sam Beckett. Drat. Marci Sischo grew up in northern Michigan, and moved to Oregon in 2009. Yes! She's the Commuter's webmaster, pursuing a journalism degree at LBCC, and in her dwindling spare time, she's co-authoring an urban fantasy novel. Stalk Marci at MarciSischo.com.

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