Tech Smart: Clouds on the horizon

March 21, 2012
Noah Levine
Issue 7

Keeping your feet on the ground and your head out of the clouds has long been sound business and general advice. However, these days there seems to be endless talk of the numerous benefits of sending things to the clouds.

Keeping your feet on the ground and your head out of the clouds has long been sound business and general advice. However, these days there seems to be endless talk of the numerous benefits of sending things to the clouds.

Cloud computing is a term with a lot of buzz right now, and while it’s not a brand new concept, there is certainly no shortage of companies creating and marketing their cloud services. Whether for work or play, there is a lot of promise in these services, but getting the most out of the clouds requires understanding how cloud computing really works, and both the advantages and drawbacks it brings.

What’s a cloud?

Put simply, a cloud is a remote, Internet-connected data storage system. Using a cloud means your data gets uploaded to the remote “cloud” servers from which you are able to access the information from anywhere you can connect to the Web via either an application or a simple Web browser.

In a way, the entire Internet is a massive cloud, but it’s the smaller, more focused cloud entities that are making headway in the current computing climate. The spread of high-speed Internet connections, faster computers and the ever-decreasing cost of data storage are combining to make the cloud concept accessible on a mass scale. With that in mind, companies large and small are offering individuals and businesses remote data storage with universal access with a wide range of specific applications for the files being sent to their clouds.

At it’s heart, cloud computing is about data backup and redundancy. All cloud services provide a way to keep a copy of your data in a location other than where the computer generating the data lives. This offers a measure of protection from not only local hardware failure, but also from physical damage that could impact both a computer and the external drive to which it’s routinely backed up. But when it comes to cloud computing, the storage of the data is almost a secondary benefit, because the real power of these systems is accessibility.

Silver linings

On the entertainment side are the cloud media storage offerings from online giants Google, Amazon and Apple, all of which allow users to offload their personal music and digital media collections so every song or movie they own can be played from any device from which they can log into to access their cloud, which basically covers every computer and smartphone available.

But the potential uses for a cloud go far beyond the power of having your entire music collection in your pocket. For a business, automatic remote back up of all data can be invaluable, and remote access to those back ups could provide the ability for a lab owner to answer an account’s emergency question, quickly and easily from anywhere.

Data transfer is another powerful way to use a cloud service. Digital images can be huge files that clog e-mail inboxes if they even send at all. However, services such as Dropbox make it possible to upload massive files, or entire folders and then send someone a link to download it.

Dropbox functions so seamlessly that it’s nothing more than a folder on your computer and anything you place in the folder is automatically uploaded. If you have multiple computers linked to the same Dropbox account those files are automatically available in the Dropbox folder on those computers, making interoffice file sharing simple, even if those offices are in different states. The service even allows folders to be shared between users with different accounts, so if a dentist also sets up a Dropbox you can have a private folder connecting your two computers for easy back and forth and simultaneous use of files of any size.

Other cloud services reduce the reliance on local software, by providing Web access to the various applications normally used on a computer. Google Docs is that company’s suite of business applications that are accessible via the Internet to provide word processing, spreadsheets and other computer basics from anywhere and shared by multiple users. This type of service removes the need for local storage of both documents and the software to create and manage them. Working on remote documents makes it easy to share calendars, notes and other information.

Cloud services can be extremely useful tools because most of them provide the advantage of universal access without requiring major changes in the way you already use your computer. These services work by making it easy to essentially store your files everywhere so you can access and interact with them from wherever you happen to be.

The dark sides

There certainly are advantages to taking things to the cloud, but moving everything online does have some drawbacks as well. The biggest of these are the issues of trust and security. Moving your data to a cloud server means you are putting a lot of trust in the owner of that server. You are trusting that the business storing your data will manage its hardware to protect the integrity of your data and won’t simply disappear one day, taking all your files with it.

Then there are the issues of data security. Pretty much every cloud service works with a password protection of some sort, but often a single login name and password is all that is needed to gain access to whatever is on that cloud. But creating, remembering and maintaining a secure password should be basic policy regardless of whether or not that password is protecting a single computer or a data cloud. However, there also is the matter of security during the transfer of the data.

Working with cloud-based files means the data behind those files will be sent back and forth via the Internet more frequently than a locally stored file. Most of the services encrypt the data during transfer and some of them are even able to offer HIPAA compliant clouds, but knowing how your data is being transferred and how secure those transfers are grows in importance as the frequency of those transfers grow.

With all these extra data transfers, cloud computing eats up a lot of bandwidth. This means for someone to really make the most of working in the cloud, they need to have a reliable Internet connection and broadband of some kind is a must. A smartphone’s 3G connection is good enough to access a cloud-based file once in a while, but a real pipe to the Web is a prerequisite to effectively getting those files up there in the first place.

Cloud services are among the many Internet attractions requiring more bandwidth, and just as these services are finding their legs, many Internet service providers are adding caps to the amount of data their customers can use. The ISPs cite a number of reasons for this, with the most common being that they are trying to reduce congestion on their networks so everyone gets the speed they signed up for, but as you begin to send more data back and forth, it’s important to know if you have an Internet service plan with a data cap. As gaming consultant André Vrignaud discovered in his now well-publicized story of being cut off by Comcast, running afoul of these limits when setting up a cloud service can have serious consequences.

The forecast

Cautions duly noted, cloud computing is here to stay and with the correct approach is ready for use today. The advantages of universal access and easier file sharing fit naturally into what dental labs do every day. Communication with a clinician can help avoid frustrations, and with the cloud in play, collaborating with outsource partners, dentists, surgeons and suppliers can be accomplished in a variety of simple ways.