What is cloud computing? Everything you need to know about “the Cloud”

You’ve probably heard companies advertising “cloud computing services” or friends talking about saving photos to their “cloud drive.” But what does that mean exactly? Is our data just floating around out here somewhere?  Why do we need cloud computing? If you aren’t quite sure, you are not alone!

A 2020 survey by our company revealed that only half of respondents thought they could explain what cloud storage is – and only a third could actually do it correctly. Today: Cloud computing explained.

Cityscape with skyscrapers and abstract image of cloud network in sky
Cloud computing means storing and accessing our data remotely from “the cloud.”

Cloud computing: A definition

Cloud computing means that computing and IT services – like storage, databases, software, and analytics – are provided over the internet. Instead of a company or individual purchasing physical servers or data centers, they use the resources of a cloud provider. For example, rather than buying an external hard drive to save all your digital photos, you might store them remotely on a cloud server. And on a much larger scale, a company will pay for computing power, storage or databases on an as-needed basis from a service provider instead of tying up their own resources in owning and maintaining data centers.

Why is it called “cloud” computing?

The name “cloud” paints a picture of data that only exists in the ether rather than an actual physical location. However, in cloud computing all the data and information is physically stored on servers in data centers – it is simply accessed remotely by the users. The use of the word “cloud” in this context evolved from the way we visualize the internet: as a vast network for sharing information and resources. In early diagrams, the internet was often represented by a cloud symbol – showing that the location of the service and the details of the network were irrelevant to the service provided. And this was in turn copied from past public telephone network schematics, which often simply used a cloud symbol rather than trying to illustrate a complex, interconnected structure.

Different types of cloud computing

There are different types and models of cloud computing. Cloud computing architecture can be roughly divided into three types: public, private, and hybrid. A public cloud is owned and operated by a cloud service provider – this includes all hardware, software, and supporting infrastructure. The cloud services are delivered over the internet, and the user accesses these services and manages their account through a web browser. Most individual users utilize a public cloud. A private cloud, as the name suggests, is used exclusively by a single business or organization. A private cloud might be a data center that is physically located on a company’s premises, but many businesses instead hire third-party providers to host their private cloud. A hybrid cloud combines these two models, and is also primarily used by businesses.

Uses and examples of cloud computing

In their “2020 Data Attack Surface Report”, Security Ventures predicted that data stored in the cloud will make up 50 percent of the world’s data by 2025. This goes to show that cloud computing has become an indispensable means of storing and managing complex data.  The wide range of possibilities for its usage can easily explain its exponential growth. Here are some real-life examples of how cloud computing is being used today:
  • Audio and video conferencing platforms like Zoom are recording and storing meetings in the cloud so that users can access them anytime and anywhere.
  • In 2016, Netflix switched all its databases over to the cloud, expanding the streaming giant’s ability to onboard more users, handle increases in usage spikes, and produce more original content.
  • Chatbots like Siri and Alexa use cloud technology to store information about user preferences. This information is then used to provide the customer with a personalized and relevant experience.
  • Most of the communication tools and applications we use today are based on cloud infrastructure. That is how you’re able to answer your WhatsApp messages on the go or read your emails outside the office. Network-based access, made possible by cloud computing, grants users access to their information at all times via the internet.

What is the cost of cloud computing?

One of the first questions that pop into our minds when thinking of buying any service is “How much do I have to pay?” Unfortunately, in this case, the answer is not so straightforward, but we’ll break it down for you as best as we can.

The cost of cloud computing varies depending on your needs. The price can go up or down based on what you intend to use it for. Obviously, if you are just looking to free up some storage on your phone, you’ll be spending a lot less on the cloud than someone looking to store their entire company’s IT infrastructure. Cloud computing for personal use will set you back anywhere from two to 50 US dollars every month depending on the size of the data you want to back up and the cloud service provider you use. On the other hand, if you own a business and require a much more complex cloud infrastructure, the average cost of cloud computing is 400 US dollars monthly per server. As a rough estimation, a small to medium-sized business would require at least 2 to 5 servers. Nonetheless, this is just a general guideline, and the actual cost and number of servers necessary can only be dictated by every business’ specific requirements.

What are the advantages of cloud computing?

For businesses and organizations, cloud computing is all about flexibility and cost savings. It gives them access to IT resources that can be scaled up and down as needed, with no need to invest in physical infrastructure.

Most private individuals use the cloud for data storage – a safe place to save documents, photos, videos, etc. This can make your life easier in several ways:
  1. You can access your files and photos everywhere – all you need is an internet connection.
  2. It is easy to share photos, files, etc. with family and friends.
  3. It saves you the cost of purchasing and taking care of hardware such as external hard drives.
  4. Cloud backup means that the original and the copy are not in the same place, which can prevent loss due to viruses, theft, etc.
  5. Cloud storage is completely scalable – it’s easy to add more if you need it or cut back your plan if you don’t.

What are the disadvantages of cloud computing?

Just like everything else, cloud computing comes not only with pros but cons as well. Now that you are well-versed in its benefits, we also want you to be aware of some of its potential drawbacks.
  1. The main problem with cloud computing is that clouds can be vulnerable to hacking attacks, thus putting your stored data and security at risk.
  2. Because cloud services rely on the internet, downtime could result in them being unavailable or slow at times.
  3. When using cloud services, you are surrendering sensitive and personal information to a third party. This can compromise your privacy. So, choose your cloud service provider wisely.
  4. Your data is not physically backed up to anything. The odds of your data being lost are very low, but on the off chance that something goes wrong, they can’t be retrieved.

How secure is the cloud?

Experts agree that data stored in the cloud is likely more secure than conventionally stored data. One reason is that cloud hosting companies usually use far more robust cybersecurity measures to protect their customers’ data than a non-specialist company – or a private individual – could deploy. And keep in mind that saving your photos to the cloud will always be more secure than keeping them solely on a hard drive that can be fried by a power surge, a smartphone that you can drop into a stream while hiking, or a USB drive you can accidentally leave in your jeans pocket on laundry day. Secure cloud backup is always a great “plan B.”

For those of our readers who use the mail.com Cloud, we’d like to assure you that, like other providers based in Europe and the United States, we adhere to the highest cloud security and data protection standards.

Bonus explainer: Using the mail.com Cloud

If you’d like to get started using mail.com’s 2GB of free cloud storage, check out our explainer: How to use mail.com’s free Cloud. And for some useful pointers for organizing your photos in our online storage tool, see our deep dive: Unlocking the power of Cloud photo storage: benefits, security & tips.

If you found this post interesting, why not leave us some feedback below? And if you have any feedback about your mail.com email account, we’d love to hear from you on Trustpilot!

This article first appeared on Dec 12, 2021, and was updated on April 11, 2024.

Images: 1&1/Shutterstock


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