III.

How do we use the cloud?

Cloud computing underpins a broad quantity of services we use during any normal day. For example, when you send an email using a service like Gmail, Yahoo or Hotmail. Or maybe you use Google Drive or Microsoft 365 to write and save your files online instead of on your computer so your documents will be safe in case it breaks or gets lost. Or what about your photos? Whichever smartphone you use, you may have an automatic cloud back-up option for the photos you take. If you are an Android user, you have an unlimited storage of photos offered by Google – Google Photos. If you are an iPhone user, most probably your photos, notes and documents are stored in iCloud. You might also use Dropbox. Can you access your emails from various devices? Then your emails are also stored in the cloud. If you also watch some series on Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, or Disney+, they all rely on cloud computing for their video streaming services.

These are some of the types of data that, as users, we generate and consume daily:

  • Non-entertainment imaging such as medical imaging and surveillance cameras.

  • Entertainment such as digital TV/radio, streaming movies, and playing online video games.

  • Productivity including PCs, servers, supercomputers, metadata and embedded systems.

  • Voice applications such as mobile phones and voice calls over the internet (VoIP).

Cloud adoption is growing fast as more and more of the virtual services we use are using this model to grow, innovate, reach more users and provide a better service. Driving this technological wave are cloud service providers with a host of services ranging from infrastructure, platform and software services. Some major cloud providers include AWS, Alibaba Cloud, Google, IBM and Microsoft Azure. For example, Netflix is a customer of the cloud services at Amazon, the market leader in global cloud services.

Cloud computing is becoming the default model for lots of apps: software providers now offer their applications "as services” (with a subscription model) over the internet instead of using the more traditional model of selling software to be installed on a local device.

As users, the cloud enables services that allow us to build connections, pay our credit card bills, do grocery shopping from the couch and practice yoga without leaving our house. We can even plant trees while we browse or walk into a store and walk out with whatever we needed without pulling out our credit card.

Various people in a video call

Common cloud web-based apps used for remote work and study

When we talk about home use, the lines between local computing and cloud computing get blurry. Almost everything we do on our computers these days has something to do with the cloud! For instance, Microsoft Office, a common software, offers Microsoft OneDrive cloud storage. Microsoft web-based apps, "Office for the Web”, are web-only versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote that you can access via your web browser without installing anything on your device.

Some other major examples of cloud computing you might be using:

  • Google G Suite Productivity Apps: A pure cloud computing service. All the storage is online and synchronised across devices. They offer cloud productivity apps: Google Docs, Sheets and Slides. Google Drive is available on tablets like the iPad or on smartphones, offering different apps for Docs and Sheets. In fact, most Google services qualify as cloud computing: Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Maps and so on. Another product, Google Classroom, links Google’s online cloud applications (like Calendar or Docs) so it's easier to complete or schedule assignments using a central hub, send messages and upload recorded sessions to the drive.

  • Apple iCloud: Apple's cloud service is mainly used for online storage, backup and synchronisation of email, contacts, calendar and more. All the data is available and synchronised across different devices like iPhone, iPad, Mac and even in Windows devices (via a web browser). Apple also offers cloud-based versions of its word processor (Pages), spreadsheet (Numbers), and presentations (Keynote) as part of iCloud. iCloud is also the place iPhone users go to utilise the Find My iPhone feature when their handset goes missing.

  • Dropbox: A simple and reliable file sync and storage service, now enhanced with (paid) collaboration features. Alternatives are Box, Drive and SugarSync.

  • Slack: Slack is also considered cloud computing since you are part of a group of people using different devices that communicate instantly. Some alternative services are Microsoft Teams or Workplace by Facebook.

  • Zoom: Zoom is one of the most popular group call apps. Certain functionalities require installation on your device. Alternatives include Google Meet, Whereby, Cisco Webex Meetings and GoToMeeting.

  • Coursera: Coursera offers a variety of online courses from established universities and instructors through its cloud platform. You can access lessons on specific skills and even get a university degree.

  • Evernote: With Evernote you can take notes on your phone, tablet or computer, and save everything to the cloud. Notes automatically sync across all devices, so you don’t need multiple notebooks. You can also save audio files, photos, pdfs and hyperlinks, and create different notebooks and tags.

  • Trello: Manage all your projects, studies, work or personal issues using the Kanban methodology. Trello is a visual project management software. Alternatives are Asana and Basecamp.

  • Toggl: With Toggl you can track the time you use for tasks and understand where your time goes. Toggl can be used on desktops, tablets and smartphones.

The advantage of data synchronisation

Synchronisation is a cornerstone of cloud computing advances, even if you do access the file locally.

One of the advantageous uses of cloud services is cloud file syncing. That means that your files will automatically update to the newest version – so for example with a Word document, all the latest changes are in one place, accessible to multiple people (instead of spread out in different document versions across multiple local computers).

Note

Data synchronisation has become one of the most valuable tools for managing data. For example, on Google Drive or Dropbox, when you set up a folder with your friends to share travel ideas, this folder makes the files accessible via a web interface for the selected users, on whatever device they are using. When one of your friends updates a file, the changes are automatically synchronised with the corresponding details on all your friends’ devices.

The popularity of cloud services offering this option has grown due to the number of employees working remotely or travelling who need access to certain files. To meet this need, applications use cloud file syncing services.

There are also backup capabilities with some services; in case the original copy of a file is lost or corrupted, you can retrieve a copy kept in the cloud-based folder. Google Docs offers this option, for example.

The disadvantages of using the cloud

Cloud computing allows us to access applications and documents from anywhere in the world, and from any device, liberating us from the confines of a desktop and empowering real-time team collaboration. We have named many advantages, so in this section we will cover "the price we have to pay” for so much convenience.

  • Since employees can sync up the files on any device, this could result in company data being copied and stored on a personal computer, tablet or smartphone, even on multiple personal devices for each employee. Data leaks or breaches can happen, for example when an employee takes his phone to repair at a local shop, or leaves the company on bad terms and takes vengeful action. To prevent this, many organisations have policies about the storage of corporate data on personal devices.

  • The globally public cloud infrastructure market is concentrated around four large non-European companies. There is a concern over cloud users’ ability to control strategic and sensitive personal and non-personal data. There is also a concern over dubious commercial practices such as a lack of interoperability or migration between cloud providers, with the risk of vendor lock-in.

  • Using the cloud requires a constant and high-speed internet connection. If you don't have a reliable internet connection you can't access anything: your documents, your music, podcasts, apps to tell you how to reach somewhere or photos. Web-based apps demand a lot of bandwidth to download, and with slow internet you can’t listen to Spotify, or watch Netflix or YouTube, because all of their content is on the cloud.

  • Latency. Even with a decent connection, some applications can sometimes be slower if you are far from the location that is prioritised by the service.

  • Security. All our data is stored on the cloud. How secure is the cloud? Cloud service providers claim that their data is secure, but we still see big data leaks on the news. You need to look for the highest standards of data protection and data portability.

  • Data loss. In theory, you store data in the cloud to keep it safe and it's supposed to be automatically replicated across multiple machines. But if your data gets lost, and you have no physical backup, you have no data. In this instance, backing up your data to an external hard drive is best for added security.

  • Additional expenses. Cloud computing is becoming the default model for apps. Most software providers offer their applications "as services” with a subscription model. The potential downside is that as a user you might be paying for quite a few subscriptions every month or year. Also, there are costs related to migrating to the cloud (moving, potentially transforming your data to inject them into the cloud service). We also need to prepare an exit possibility, in case the cloud is no longer an acceptable solution.

How to use the cloud better/smarter

Cloud storage is a big part of our lives and synchronises what happens on your desktop with your mobile and vice versa. It means we're trusting the cloud with our photos, videos, documents, passwords, music and more. That’s why we need to be aware and prepared to avoid any problems. We will cover some tips and scenarios.

Two keys of different length

1) Use strong passwords and two-factor authentication

The most important advice is to use strong passwords and two-factor authentication. Standard security advice applies to your cloud accounts:

  • Choose long (15 characters) unique passwords.

  • Use a password manager.

  • Keep your passwords secret and safe and be cautious of any attempts to get you to share them (e.g. an unexpected call from your bank or an email from a service provider saying your account has been deactivated and asking you to log in again, for example).

  • Choose two-factor authentication if available. Two-factor authentication means nobody will be able to access your cloud storage files even if they managed to get your username and password – for example, a code from your phone will be required as well.

Most web browsers offer at least a basic password generator and a password manager – this is where your passwords are stored when Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox ask if you'd like to save a password.

This is better than reusing the same password everywhere, but browser-based password managers are limited. Popular dedicated password managers are 1Password (paid) and Bitwarden (free).

2) Audit your file and folder shares

Cloud storage services are great for sharing files and collaborating with other people – from family members to work colleagues – but it’s also a door to unauthorised access. Be cautious who you share files and folders with, and when available, add passwords and expiry dates to the links you share.

It’s also advisable to check all programs that are active on your account.

3) Remove "deleted” files

Most cloud storage services keep deleted files for days or weeks in case you want them back. If you have sensitive files, make sure they are completely removed and can’t be recovered. Google has recently changed its policy in this regard. Files in trash are automatically deleted after 30 days; before, they would not be deleted unless you went to the trash and did it manually – which was not as easy to find, so you might have files you thought were deleted still available. In the case of iCloud on the web, for example, click the "Recently Deleted” link to view and permanently remove deleted files. Some unfortunate photos might still be available on your virtual trash can and therefore, accessed. Also check your work email.

Part summary

After completing chapter 5, you should be able to:

  • Explain what "the cloud” is, and what the different types of cloud are.

  • Understand how the cloud works and its primary uses in our daily life, the advantages and disadvantages, and how to use it better/smarter.

  • Express how companies use cloud systems and the skills needed to work with the cloud.

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VI. Big data and beyond