Working In The Cloud close

Kevin Danaher
20th October 2011
Working In The Cloud

It seems the phrase "in the cloud" is used with great enthusiasm nowadays by just about every technology company around. Obviously the thinking is that people will respond with as much excitement at the idea. However, working in the tech industry it's become clear to me that only others in my line of work fully understand "the cloud" what working in the cloud means and what it can do for you.

So I'm going to take it upon myself this month to give a brief overview of cloud services, what they are, what they can do and what ones might be useful to you at home or work for everyday purposes.

So what is the cloud?

Honestly, it's tough to say exactly what the cloud is as the term is bandied around so much now and with various meanings. Boiling it down to the basic idea, "working in the cloud" is the facility to work online, with the item you're working on never really existing on the local machine but instead safely stored elsewhere. This gives you the useful ability to access your files from any computer as the machine you're working on is irrelevant as long as you're connected to the web.

As a quick aside I just want to point out that true "cloud computing" rather than "working in the cloud" means that a computer elsewhere does the brunt of the work for you, releiving the load on your machine. On an ongoing basis cloud computing like this is continuing to grow and will mean even low-end machines can run CPU and GPU intensive applications because all that power is coming from another machine, somewhere else in the world. Perhaps you'll even be able to get simple and cheap set-top boxes for your HDTV to allow tasks like this, much like the new service onlive does for gaming.

What services are out there and how can they help me? Overall there are loads, so I'm just going to cover a few of the big ones which are hugely popular and have practical everyday uses.

General Office Work

We all know what this means, documents, spreadsheets, the daily neccesities. There are two major cloud services that allow you to do all of this and luckily they're both free!

First off let's start with the market standard for editing your office documents, Microsoft Office, which has a really fantastic cloud based version called Office Live. Now Microsoft weren't the first to offer a cloud based Office alternative, they somehow let Google beat them to it but I'll get to that later. What they do have now though is a truly viable alternative to the full Microsoft Office Suite for desktop systems, which runs right in your browser. How do you get it? Go to www.live.com and sign in, it's likely you already have an account anyway as they have so many other online services. If you've been tolive.com before you may not have even noticed Office Live but hold your mouse over Skydrive and you'll get the option to start a new word, excel or powerpoint document. You can also click on your documents folder and view any documents you already have. I wont go into the specifics of what you can do with Word, Excel and Powerpoint as you probably already know, what you get here is a basic level of functionality which is instantly recognisable and usable.

So how does Office Live work seamlessly in the cloud? Well if you're on any computer at all you can browse to the site and use it. Your document is saved to the skydrive so you can log in somewhere else and carry on later. If you've got office 2010 then you can hook it up to your windows live account and work directly on documents stored on the skydrive too but with full desktop fuctionality. Lastly, if you have a Windows Phone then Office mobile on that also syncs to the skydrive and lets you work on those documents in the cloud too, so however you work and from whatever machine you can use Office Live.

Now onto the biggest competitor and the guys who very much got a head start in this arena, Google, with their offering of Google Docs. Google docs is over 5 years old now and like almost every other Google service is wildly popular. It offers much the same suite of services as Office Live, with a couple of differences.

How do you get it? Simple, go to www.google.com and sign in with your Google account. Then click Documents in the Google menu bar at the top of your browsing area. From here you're taken to a view which allows you to see all the documents you already have and arrange them by last viewed, date, etc. There's a handily big create button which allows you to select a kind of document to create and start from scratch, similar to Office Live you've got Document, Spreadsheet and Presentation types, which have nice basic functionalities much like Microsoft's offering. With Google docs you can also create forms and drawings too, which is a nice addition, they're pretty basic too but very useful, the drawing tool for example allows you to create basic sketches in 2D or 3D environments.

So how does Google Docs work seamlessly in the cloud? Just like Office live you can browse to the site and use it from any computer at all. You're document is saved with basically every edit you make, almost per letter in fact. So you can just close your browser and carry on when logging in elsewhere later. There's not a downloadable app for Google Docs, Google don't try to compete with Microsoft on the desktop Office software front. Google docs is entirely cloud based for home computers, so it's browser only. On your mobile handset it's also easy to access through the browser and works great on Android mobiles and tablets or iOS phones and pads. If you're on and Android device there is of course a docs app, making it even easier.

One final difference between Office Live and Google Docs is Office Live's inclusion of OneNote, Microsoft's handy alternative to opening a full office doc when all you want are a few notes. In the browser you can click to create a new notebook. You can then do this every time or open an existing notebook and just add new pages of notes, Windows Phone syncs this too, in fact it is the note taking app for that smartphone platform, so any notes you take on your phone always exist in the cloud. Finally Office 2010's desktop version sits OneNote in your system tray so you can call it up, jot a note and then hide it again quickly, syncing to the skydrive the whole time of course.

So why did I leave OneNote's cloud feature's last to mention? Because I'm about to talk about another great note taking app which is a good alternative if you don't need full office functionality but rather just cloud based brain dumps. It's simpler than Office Live or Google Docs but that's the point, some people will prefer simplicity, so here it is... Evernote!

Evernote has been around a few years now and there's a version of the app for all the major smart phone platforms as well as Mac and Windows. There's also a browser based "web clipper" as they call it. Evernote isn't comprehensive like the other two offerings, it aims to be a cloud based memory for you basically and it does it very well.

So how do you get it? Go to www.evernote.com and sign up for an account basically. From there you can start using the web clipper straigh away to jot notes that are saved in your account or add a whole webpage you want to read later to a note. Then, when you're out and about download the version for your smart phone too and you can do a lot more stuff like snap a photo which will sync to your Evernote account or add a document like a travel itinerary or map as a note. Best of all, the basic functions of evernote are free, you can get a premium version with more online space, note revision histories and a few more extras but the basic functionality will be enough for most private or business users.

So, onto another type of cloud service...

Basic, (no nonsense) Cloud Storage

The premise of this category is online storage for all your files, of any kind, so not just documents but whatever you want really. Ideally this should happen seamlessly and without your knowledge so you can just rely on it and get your files from anywhere, whenever you like. There are loads of these kind of services out there really but I'm just going to cover two which are widely considered the best.

Firstly Dropbox is probably the best known of the bunch and is just really smooth and simple, even for the novice user. So where do you get it?www.dropbox.com of course. Once you've created your dropbox account then download the client. You can get it for Mac, Windows, Linux, Android, iOS and Blackberry OS and the install process is simple all round. After install sign in using the client and it will ask you to choose a folder on the local machine to be your dropbox folder, from this point on anything you add to this folder will be synced online.

What this fundamentally means is that if you install the client on each computer you use there will be a folder on all your computers which is always the same, all your documents on all your computers, handy right? So what if you're on a computer you shouldn't really be installing things on? Don't worry, you can log into your account on the website too and download any of your synced files and folders directly onto that computer, then when you're done with them upload via the website to update the files again. It's not as seamless but really does give you everywhere access to your stuff. Dropbox gives you 2Gb of online space for files but you can get an extra 250Mb by referring someone, up to a total of 8Gb for free. There's also premium options so you can pay for more space in staggered amounts or a get a huge, business size Dropbox.

Okay, so what's the alternative I mentioned earlier? Well it's another Microsoft product called Windows Live Mesh. Noticing the Windows Live theme among their products? Microsoft have been terrible at unifying their products in the past but in the last few years the Windows Live brand has been pretty well integrated if not marketed. As such this service ties in with the Office Live service I mentioned earlier, using the same account.

So how do you get it? Well there are versions available for Windows and Mac which you can download by logging into your account on www.live.comholding your cursor over the windows live logo and selecting the downloads option. Like hiding stuff don't they! Set up is easy, it's the standard Microsoft Live installer and will appear in your start menu or applications folder after that. The first time you run it you select a folder to sync and after that it does exactly that, syncs whatever you put in that folder to your skydrive and to whatever other computers have Live Mesh installed, Live Mesh can actually sync multiple folders which gives you pretty good felxibility. It's completely seamless like Dropbox, occuring in the background so all your files are always there, whatever computer you're on. If you're on a computer that doesn't have Live Mesh installed then you can also access your files through the www.live.com site in your browser by looking through your Skydrive page and downloading them and uploading files there. This merges well with Office Live as I mentioned before as if any of the files are spreadsheets, documents or presentations you can start editing them right there in the browser.

So there you have it, a few options to get you into the world of working in the cloud. As cloud computing is a huge growth market at the moment there are plenty more options out there but hopefully these productivity options ideal for personal and business use will get you started.