Everyone's talking about computers and "the cloud." So what's this cloud stuff, you ask? It's not so complicated. "The cloud" is simply a computer offsite (not in your home or office) that's specifically set up to store your data. Usually you pay a company a monthly fee to store your data on their computers at their facility—much like you would pay Gotham Super Storage each month to rent a storage unit for boxes or furniture. Why would you want your data elsewhere than in your home or office? Here are the top reasons: backup, sync, and storing and sharing files.
The advantage to cloud backup is that if you have a fire, or theft, in your home or office, your data is not lost because there's a copy somewhere else. Also, if you are away from your home or office, you can log into your cloud server from any computer (using a password) and download any file. The disadvantage is that recovery of your files is slow and backing up is slower. There are several fairly inexpensive online backup services, including Mozy, Carbonite, and CrashPlan. We can't honestly say that one is better than another, and our clients use all of them. Count on your first backup taking a very long time (days, even weeks).
Sync means that you have access to all the same stuff on multiple computers and/or mobile devices. Some of the stuff you might want to sync could include email, calendar, contacts and files.
When you sync email, all of your folders are available on all your computers and mobile devices, when you send mail, it goes into the Sent Mail folder no matter where you sent it from or where you check it; and when you delete a message, it deletes everywhere.
Usually, having your email synchronize with the cloud is just a matter of setting up your email program to get your mail via IMAP rather than POP. However, some email hosts don't provide IMAP, or they provide very limited email storage space (which is a problem for IMAP since mail stays on the server). If one of these is the case and you want to synchronize your mail, you'd need to move to a new email host, but that doesn't necessarily mean having to change your email address. We can help with this sort of transition if you need.
If you want to synchronize calendar and contacts, then you can choose from one of the following three services: Gmail or Google Apps (which is the same as Gmail but using your own domain name), Apple MobileMe, or Microsoft Exchange.
Gmail and Google Apps have the significant virtue of being free (or if you want phone support it costs $50/year per email address). It can synchronize calendar and contacts with Android phones and BlackBerries, and Macs using iCal.
MobileMe is $99/year and has the advantage of being in the "Apple ecosystem"—it's part of your Mac and iOS devices, and also can help you locate or erase your iPhone if you lose it. It's not a good choice if you want to wirelessly synchronize to something other than an iPhone.
Microsoft Exchange is available for small businesses and home users, in what's called a "hosted" format (which means you don't have to run complex Microsoft Exchange server software yourself; a company does it for you.) "Hosted Exchange" is provided by companies such as AppRiver and Intermedia, and typically costs around $10 per month per account, but up to $25 more if you want wireless BlackBerry synchronization. If you have a BlackBerry, it is the best-supported, most solid choice; it can also synchronize with iOS and Android devices. Exchange is also a good choice for businesses who want to be able to share specific contact lists with specific users. (Google lets you do this too, but only if you log into the web, not from within Entourage or Address Book.)
Storing, Syncing, and Sharing Files
If you want to store files on the internet, there are several different approaches. If you simply want an online "disk" which is available from any computer, you get that with MobileMe, and there are many other similar services such as JungleDisk. But if what you want is synchronization of specific files across all of your computers, then you need a service such as DropBox or SugarSync. With these services, you create a folder with the same name on 2 or more computers, and then the contents of those folders stay in sync. So you don't have to remember where you were when you last edited any document.
Of course, these are some of the more day-to-day uses of the cloud. Most likely, you don't even realize that any web site that you log into, such as Facebook, is also a version of the cloud—a pile of your information lives Out There. In coming months and years I think we'll see iPhoto and iTunes completely move to the cloud, so you don't need to think about what's on what computer. Google has already started to move in this direction with Google Apps, which lets you do word processing or create spreadsheets which live entirely online and allow for easy collaboration.
If you would like to know more about synchronizing to the cloud, or anything else, please let us know!